Biblical Background of Weddings
Weddings have been part of Jewish and other cultures for millennia, both to celebrate and to make official the marriage relationship. While the intimate relations between a man and a woman can be found as early as the story of Adam and Eve, the origin of the wedding as a celebratory event cannot easily be pinned down.
However, elements of wedding ceremonies are found throughout the Tanakh. For instance, we have this description of a bride and groom in the prophet Isaiah, using the Hebrew terms still in use today:
…as a bridegroom (chatan) decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride (kallah) adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
In Psalm 45:14 (Hebrew Bible, verse 15), the royal bride is followed by “her virgin companions,” an equivalent of bridesmaids, while Judges 14:20 remarks that “Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man [literally, friend].” Laban prepares a wedding feast at the bride’s home in Genesis 29:22: “So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.”
In the Book of Ruth, the wedding of Boaz and Ruth includes public witnesses as well as a public blessing:
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem… (Ruth 4:11)
The second- or third-century BCE book of Tobit, reflecting Jewish culture of that time or earlier, mentions a marriage contract, known today as a ketubah:
Then he called her mother and told her to bring writing material; and he wrote out a copy of a marriage contract, to the effect that he gave her to him as wife according to the decree of the law of Moses.
Essentially whatever the ceremonies were in biblical times, they reflected the joy of marriage, publicly demonstrated.
Significance of Weddings for Jewish People
A wedding marks a significant life event. How many remember their Jewish grandmothers saying, “I should only live to see your wedding!” In particular, a Jewish wedding (as opposed to a civil ceremony) is performed by a rabbi and involves a number of traditions, described below, which help affirm not only the marriage relationship but its Jewish context as well.
Traditional Customs and Folklore of Weddings
Jewish people often speak of looking for their bashert, a Yiddish term meaning destiny, the perfect soulmate, the intended one.
Of course, marriage is not easy, not even when one has found one’s bashert. A midrash tells us the following story:
Once a Roman woman sought to challenge R. Yose ben Halafta and his belief in one God, the Creator of the Universe. She asked him, “How long did it take your God to create the world?”
Rabbi Yose answered, “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.”
“And what,” the Roman woman inquired mockingly, “has your God been doing ever since?”
The rabbi goes on to explain that God has been busy arranging marriages in heaven! “Feh!” essentially says the Roman woman, probably in Latin rather than Yiddish. “Easy! I could do a thousand of those in a day!” Thereupon the rabbi advises her to find matches for all of her servants.
What did she do? She took a thousand men-servants and a thousand maidservants, lined them up row upon row facing one another, and said, “This man shall marry that woman, and this woman shall be married to that man,” and so she matched them all up in a single night. Then she made a large wedding for all one thousand couples….
But the next morning the servants came to plead with their mistress. They had quarreled all night. One had a bruised head, another a bruised hand. One woman said, “I do not want this man,” while one man said, “I do not want this woman.” And so it continued all through the day, one complaint after another. With one voice, they pleaded, “Please unmarry us!”
The noblewoman promptly asked that R. Yose ben Halafta be brought to her so that she could apologize to him. She said to him, “Master, your Torah is completely right, excellent and worthy of praise. All you have said about matchmaking is exactly so. Clearly matchmaking is a delicate task that requires great wisdom. There is no god like your God. Your Torah is beautiful and worthy of praise,” she exclaimed.
And from that day on, she left matchmaking to the heavens.1
In modern times, of course, arranged marriages are no longer the norm among Jewish people. But perhaps the modern Jewish wedding with its many traditions can help sustain the bonds of matrimony.
On the Shabbat prior to the wedding, some Jewish congregations have the custom of the aufruf (“calling up”) at which the groom, or both bride and groom, recite the blessing over the Torah, after which the congregation showers the couple with candy. A reminder both that marriage is sweet but that it needs to be undertaken with the meaning of the Torah in mind!
Another tradition is the ketubah, the marriage contract. This document, often beautifully designed and a piece of art in and of itself, outlines the duty of a husband to provide his wife with food, clothing and marital satisfaction. Should there be a divorce, he is obligated to provide financially. Originally crafted to protect the woman, in modern times the ketubah reminds the couple of their mutual responsibilities.
Also on the wedding day, two witnesses sign the ketubah, and some participate in the bedeken ceremony, in which the groom covers his bride’s face with a veil. Among the traditions giving an explanation for this, we find that;
- It is done to imitate the matriarchs of Israel (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah) who covered themselves with veils;
- It maintains the modesty of the bride; and
- It allows the groom to fulfill his obligation to clothe his wife, albeit only symbolically.
Next, the couple gathers under the chuppah, or marriage canopy. Some follow a tradition whereby the bride walks around the groom under the chuppah before the rabbi begins the wedding ceremony. This tradition has ties to Jeremiah 31:22, where the prophet says that “a woman encircles a man.”
Some brides will circle three times, based on Hosea 2:19-20 (Hebrew Bible, verse 21-22) where God says to the Jewish people: “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.” Other brides circle seven times. This reminds us how Joshua and the Israelites circled the wall of Jericho seven times before the walls fell down. The idea is that any walls between bride and groom will likewise fall.
The ceremony then proceeds. It consists of the erusin or kiddushin (the betrothal) and the nissuin (the marriage itself). This is a bit of a cultural leftover, from the days when the betrothal and the marriage were rather different than today. In former times, the betrothal was as binding as marriage is today, while what was then called “marriage” took place a year after the betrothal and functioned more as the consummation.
The ketubah is read during the ceremony, between the erusin and nissuin portions; blessings are recited over wine; a ring is given by the groom, or rings are mutually exchanged, and the groom says, “By this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” Afterwards, the sheva berakhot—“seven blessings”—are recited. Finally, a glass wrapped in a cloth is placed under the groom’s heel; he raises his foot and brings it down, smashing the glass (safely) into pieces. This is done in memory of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; and, some say, this is because it is important to remember that life has its sorrows as well as its joys. For the same reason, some grooms wear a kittel, a white robe that is also used to clothe a deceased person upon death. This also underscores the solemnity (alongside the joy) of marriage—but certainly does not imply any other comparison between marriage and death!
In the week following the wedding, some follow a tradition of hosting a dinner party each night. After each meal, the sheva berakhot are again recited, and sometimes, the meals themselves are given the name of Sheva Berakhot.
In the “old days,” there would be separate receptions on the wedding day for the bride and for the groom. The groom’s tish (“table”), as it was known, included singing, toast-making, and a speech by the groom.
Weddings in the New Testament
Weddings appear several times in the New Testament, mostly in stories or metaphorically, while marriage itself is mentioned in a number of contexts. First, we get to glimpse an authentic Jewish wedding and Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John:
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
In the first century, a wedding feast lasted for a week, and running out of wine would subject the host to ridicule. The women’s accommodations were near the storage area for the wine, and so it comes about that Jesus’ mother finds out about the depletion of the wine before the men do. Since guests helped pay for the wedding expenses, it seems that Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) wanted Jesus to do something. She likely expected some payment for new supplies of wine rather than a miracle. Jesus’ reply, harsh to modern ears, was far more polite in that culture. Jesus’ answer is rather cryptic: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” John’s Gospel often speaks of Jesus’ “hour” as his time to be crucified as an atoning sacrifice, and here his reply means that if he starts to do miracles, he will in effect be announcing that he is en route to the cross.
Nevertheless, Jesus acts out of compassion for the “master of the feast,” who among other things “tended bar” and had to ensure that the wine would last the full week. By a miracle, Jesus turns water into wine—and most excellent wine at that! John goes on to note this was “the first of his signs” that Jesus performed, thus leading his followers to deeper faith in him and in fact marking the beginning of his ministry which would lead him to crucifixion.
The institution of marriage comes up as well in Jesus’ teaching. One of the more vivid accounts is this one:
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’” (Matthew 22:23-24)
Among the various sects at the time of Jesus, the two most prominent were the Pharisees, the populist group, who were supernaturalists and believed in updating the interpretation of the Torah to meet the demands of changing times. The Sadducees were the elite and comprised the majority of the priests; they controlled the Temple bureaucracy and were widely considered to be partial to Rome. They were also anti-supernaturalists and did not believe in interpreting the Torah for new times, at least not to the extent that the Pharisees did. In this account, it is noted that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection from the dead, according to which all people will be raised from death at the end of time to face God’s judgment or mercy.
The Sadducees then refer to a law found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” In other words, a widow’s brother-in-law was required to sustain the deceased husband’s family line; this arrangement also benefitted the woman in ancient society.
The group then poses a situation to Jesus:
Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” (Matthew 22:25-28)
There can be no right answer, for if Jesus picks any one of the seven, it would pose an insoluble conundrum, whereas if he denies the premise, that there is in fact a resurrection, he would violate his own beliefs.
But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matthew 22:29-33)
Jesus’ response is that marriage is only a temporary arrangement here in this life. But in the life to come, the resurrection, there will be no marriage. Moreover, Jesus argues that God would not say that he is the God of people who don’t even exist anymore; rather, God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob implies that they will one day be raised from death. All in all, a noteworthy story that incidentally gives us Jesus’ teaching about marriage in the life to come.
Finally, we should note that the New Testament advances the marriage relationship beyond that found in the pagan cultures of the day. It is worth quoting the Apostle Paul in full:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Messiah is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Messiah, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Messiah loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Messiah does the church, because we are members of his body.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh [a quote from Genesis 2:24].” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Messiah and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
As one commentator elaborates:
Although it was assumed that husbands should love their wives, ancient household codes never list love as a husband’s duty; such codes told husbands only to make their wives submit. Although Paul upholds the ancient ideal of wifely submission for his culture, he qualifies it by placing it in the context of mutual submission: husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, by willingly laying down their lives for them. At the same time that he relates Christianity to the standards of his culture, he subverts his culture’s values by going far beyond them. Both husbands and wives must submit and love ([Ephesians] 5:2, 21).2
Spiritual Application of Wedding
Jesus uses the wedding as a metaphor for entering God’s kingdom, in which great joy is found in the company of others who participate in what God offers. He also urged his followers to watch and be ready for His coming in the parable of the ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom (see Matthew 25:1–13). The Church (those who believe in Jesus as their Messiah) is described as the bride of Christ and Jesus as her bridegroom – “though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy…” (Ephesians 5:25–32; I Peter 1:8).
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1. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Peninnah Schram, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage: Folktales, Legends, and Letters (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), pp. 57-58.