Some say the future is bleak. But couples are still falling in love, marrying and planning new lives. Still inviting family and friends to share their joy.
So, how can we help make their weddings beautiful? And by “we,” I mean Jewish wedding officiants. Here are a few of my own favourite practices.
Appreciate the wedding couple
Meet with the couple before the wedding. More than once! Let them show you they are articulate, self-aware, sure of their values. Encourage them to tell you what brings them together. Ask how they support each other in stressful times. Help them reflect on their families of origin. What would they like to bring into their new family of choice?
Maybe they will write a beautiful statement. Like this one: May we learn from the compassion of all animals that surround us and spread that positive energy to others. Let us learn from our elders and keep their spirits close to our hearts. For in the end, what really matters in life are our good deeds.
Help them understand wedding traditions
Help the couple understand wedding traditions. Such as the Jewish marriage document, for example. The ketubah, now and then. Two thousand years ago, a purely financial agreement. A prenup. Now, an inspiration for personalized vows, artistically embellished.
But how, you may ask, can a financial document inspire a couple to talk about love? By reminding them that love is not abstract. Love involves doing, giving, risking, and sharing. As shown in this (my) interpretive translation of a traditional Aramaic-language ketubah (chanted in a rap-style rhythm).
Many years ago the world was created. // Today is the day that we are mated. // Be my spouse oh please oh won’t you? // I will worship love feed and support you. // Jewish adults must do no less. // I’d even pay you to love this mess.//
I say yes!
Let’s share the future we’re going towards. // And blend my household into yours. // I’ll give you my clothes, my spoons, my rings. // I don’t have much; take everything.
Let’s get a license, make it official. // We’ll ask our best friends to initial. // Thanks to our sages who understood love. // All is binding as vowed above!
Listen to the Ketubah Rap performed by Sulam:
A good ritual draws a group together. Invites them into altered awareness. Then, leads them to a peak moment. Focuses their attention on a new reality. And finally, helps them return to ordinary consciousness.
An example of such a ritual? Why, the traditional Jewish wedding outline, of course! Words of welcome draw the group together. A spiritual invocation invites altered awareness. Then, the couple lingers on a peak moment. Commitment blessing, exchange of rings, and affirmation of written vows. Seven marriage blessings highlight the couple’s new reality. Finally, a loud pop of glass breaks the tension! Then the couple enjoys a private moment — where they affirm their new status in whatever way they choose.
If you’re a more traditional officiant, you’ll enact this exact ritual. You won’t add or subtract a word. But if you’re more creative, you might beautify it. With songs, translations, or original blessings. But whatever you add or subtract, keep the overall outline in mind. It’s a powerful ritual!
Remind close friends to support the wedding couple
Before the ceremony, the couple’s chosen witnesses will sign the ketubah. Remind them to take their role seriously. Perhaps say to them: Make sure you understand your responsibilities. You’re not just witnessing a wedding, but you’re witnessing a marriage. So your job doesn’t end today. It’s your job to check in with the couple periodically. To encourage them support them as they fulfill the vows written in this ketubah. To ask them, “Is there anything you need?” And then to do what’s needed. Are you willing to fulfill these responsibilities?
The witnesses will say “Yes!”and sign.
Then, invite them to sit with the couple. To whisper some blessings, advice, or words of love.
Let the couple focus before the wedding ceremony
Yes, the ceremony is shared with friends, family, and witnesses. But, primarily, the marriage is for the couple. Help them remember as much. Frame a quiet moment. Seat the couple together. Ask them to turn towards one another. Say to them:
Traditionally, a Jewish wedding began as a groom helped the bride put on her veil. This was opportunity for partners to see one another. To make sure they were marrying the right person. But today, we have no doubt about that. So, today we’ll give the couple a moment to look at each other without veils. Partners, please close your eyes. Put out your hands. Let your partner’s hands rest in yours. Then, open your eyes. Tell each other, in whatever way works for you: “I really want to do this.”
Engage guests in the wedding ceremony
Welcome the couple under the chuppah. Then, welcome the guests. Remind them:
You are the community of blessing that holds this couple. Please know that they have asked all of you to serve as witnesses. So, from time to time, we will need to hear from you. Smile, shout “Amen!” and — I’ll let you know when — sing along. Now, help me welcome the couple. Again, I will sing the traditional Hebrew words of welcome. But this time, as I sing each line, you repeat it after me.
Follow the wedding ritual, of course. But weave the couple’s personality into it. Help guests understand the couple’s sense of the day’s meaning. Did the couple bring ritual objects that hold special memories? A grandparent’s talit (prayer shawl), a wine cup from a bat mitzvah, a glass-wrapping napkin sewn by a dear friend? Let the group know. Do you offer creative translations, or authoritative words of wisdom? Draw on inspirational words you’ve heard from the couple.
Did the couple invite guests to read the seven blessings? Or to prepare original poetry on the themes: joy, creation, spirituality, peace, home, children, happiness? Or did the couple ask you alone to chant the Hebrew, adding a bit of explanation? Perhaps, then, you can spice up the translation. Here’s the final blessing, for example. It’s a ladder of happiness. Shout it out!
May you be blessed with happiness, pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joviality, jollity, glee, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, well-being, enjoyment; exuberance, exhilaration, elation, ecstasy, jubilation, rapture, bliss, blissfulness, euphoria, transports of delight!
Honour family during the wedding ceremony
Is the couple part of a close family-of-origin? Or a loving family-of-choice, made of cousins or friends? Will they live within that family’s embrace? If so, weave the embrace into the ceremony. Use it to help the couple move from spiritual to social space. Perhaps invite the closest few under the chuppah to wrap the couple in a talit. Help them recite the priestly blessing. Or the shehecheyanu — thank you God, for bringing us to this time. Then, invite them to greet one another. In their family’s own style, of course, whether it is hug, handshake, or smiles.
Be a non-anxious presence on this wedding day
Finally, no matter how you handle the ritual, be a mentsch – a humane human being! Do you plan to add a last-minute creative idea? Let the couple know! Did helpers set up the chuppah space wrong? Fix it quietly. Has a self-appointed wedding manager given ridiculous instructions? Gently give correct ones. Is the ketubah-signing space littered dangerously with children’s toys? Pick them up, or find another space. Did a close family member forget that weather exists? So, give them your jacket.
Do what you can. Help the couple have a beautiful day!
Thanks to my teachers, Rabbi Marcia Prager, Rabbi Hillel Goelman, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. And thanks to Sulam for the “Ketubah Rap” recording! That was just us messing around in rehearsal!
Featured photo credit: Charles Kaplan