There are two islands of activity surrounding bride and groom before the ceremony: kabbalat panim and hakhnassat kallah.

The Groom's Table (Kabbalat Panim)

The guests are customarily instructed to rejoice with the groom, although this is not equivalent to the mitzvah of honoring the bride. The Talmud established a bride's throne, where she is surrounded by the women, and the tradition of subsequent centuries established a groom's table (in Yiddish, chosen's tish). Before the celebration, the men gather at this table to sing and to toast the groom and one another. It is here that the minchah service is usually recited. Custom has it that at this time the groom, if he is able, delivers a brief lesson from Torah. But custom could not bear to impose upon an already burdened groom the responsibility of preparing a lecture before his peers, and therefore the groom is interrupted by community singing, after one or two sentences of the "lecture." Primarily, however, the groom's table is the place where the ketubah is written and signed.

Attending the Bride (Hakhnassat kallah)

The bride is a queen and deserves all the attention and respect due her station. It is a positive commandment, of rabbinic origin, to accord her honor, praise her, provide for her, and make her happy. The Talmud assigns her a kisei ha-kallah (bridal throne) and instructs all who can attend to act as her retinue.

The concept of hakhnassat kallah is three-fold. First, it signifies providing the bride, especially an orphaned and poor bride, with dowry, trousseau, and every-thing she might need for the wedding. It is subsumed under the general mitzvah of "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and is included by the author of the prayer book as among those things of which "the fruit is eaten in this world, but the principal remains in store for the world to come." Maharil notes that there is no greater charity than hakhnassat kallah for a poor girl. The Rabbis go so far as to say that the community must sell a synagogue item, even one that has a donor's name on it, and even a scroll of the Torah, in order to raise money for an orphaned bride. The Talmud also stipulates that all of this be done discreetly.

Second, hakhnassat kallah means to make the bride happy. That is done by helping her arrange her hair and jewelry, dancing before her, and complimenting her. The Talmud could not precisely define "complimenting" her—Keitzad me'rakdin? (How does one praise a bride?) The school of Shammai held that one must tell the truth under all circumstances, with no exaggeration. Thus if she is beautiful, say so; if not, say nothing. Or find a good quality to compliment, such as beautiful eyes or hands, for there is no one who does not have one good quality. But the school of Hillel held otherwise. They recommended, under all circumstances, calling her kallah na'ah ve'chasudah (a beautiful and gracious bride) and saying of her that "a thread of kindness is drawn around her," even if she does not happen to be pretty or kind. One should not even specify her virtues, because that would imply that her other qualities are less than praise-worthy. Hillel does not consider this a falsification, because one is permitted a slight, harmless compliment "for the sake of good will." Then again, even if it may be certain that the bride is not beautiful, is it so certain that she does not have a shred of kindness or graciousness? The law decided in favor of Hillel.

The third meaning of hakhnassat kallah is the most precise historically. It is le'hakhnsah Ie'chuppah (to lead her to the bridal canopy), to be part of her retinue. The Talmud declares that one is permitted even to sacrifice time from the study of Torah when helping with the burial of the dead or leading the bride to the canopy. The bride takes precedence over the funeral cortege in any conflict of time. The law also advises that when a funeral cortege and bridal procession are both to proceed on one street, the funeral is detoured because the honor of the living bride takes precedence over the deceased.

The purpose of this elaborate demonstration is to honor one who is performing so great a mitzvah, and also to impress her groom with her popularity. In line with these reasons, Me'iri says, Be'rov am hadrat chatan ve kallah—"The greater the number of people, the greater the glory of groom and bride." As we say, "the more the merrier."

It is sad that the custom of joyously accompanying the bride to the chuppah is not observed today. In the past, the most important officials of the community often came to greet the bride. One of the reasons for the decline in this aspect of hakhnassat kallah, which surfaces in a review of rabbinic opinion, is the concern for the public mixing of the sexes and the ribaldry that might result. This must be the reason for the strange reversal in Jewish custom: the groom is now accompanied during his procession to the bride's throne to perform the veiling ceremony. That is now called, by some, hakhnassat kallah; but there is no doubt that it is far more in keeping with the sense of the tradition that the women form a jubilant entourage as they lead the bride to the processional. Indeed, Maharil performed both traditions: first he led the procession of the groom, who is supposed to appear under the chuppah first, and then he returned to lead the bride's procession. This does appear to be a custom that should be accepted by modern Jewry.