Monday, May 11, 2009

Types of Jewish Weddings

Today's post, which provides
an overview of the types of Jewish weddings, comes from the book Photographing Jewish Weddings by Stan Turkel. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Jewish weddings are rich with traditions, rituals, and religious requirements. Much is dependent on the families’ affiliation (bride and groom), as well as the community and rabbi(s) officiating the wedding.

Jewish wedding
s can be classified as either Orthodox or non-Orthodox. This distinction is very well defined, as there are many rituals and customs that only appear in the Orthodox wedding. As you will discover in the following sections on Reform, Conservative, and Othodox Judaism, there has been a blending of some of the traditions and customs, creating even newer classifications, such as the Modern Orthodox and Conservadox weddings.

All Jewish weddings have several common features, which most of us are familiar with as a result of everyday media. The chup
pah (the canopy the couple stands under during the ceremony, usually made of four poles with fabric covering the top only), ketubah (marriage contract), and badeken (veiling of the bride) are all common elements in Jewish weddings. The most recognized feature is the breaking of the glass after the wedding ceremony and the shouting of mazel tov and l’chaim (to life).

There are many traditions that are common
among each group, each with a unique twist. Look at the two images of the couples in the chairs during the dancing (below). Can you tell which one is Orthodox and which is Conservative?

As you can see, one of the most visible distinctions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox weddings is the separation of the men and women during the wedding. This includes the ceremony seating, the dinner seating and, of course, the dancing.

As a photographer venturing out to photograph Jewish weddings, it is critical to know what will be happening next and what is expected of you with respect to the images to be captured. This reminds me of a photographer who ended up photographing an entire evening prayer service the men were holding prior to the actual wedding ceremony. Not a single photograph had any significance, and the images were actually intrusive.

Judaism in the United States has three major denominations:

Reform Judaism.
This movement started in Germany in the nineteenth century as a reaction to traditional Judaism, and it is based on a more liberal and personal interpretation of the
Torah. For example, it is not mandatory for men to wear a head covering while in the temple during services. Many Reform rabbis are willing to perform weddings of mixed faith and allow weddings to take place throughout the entire year, which is not the case with the other denominations.

Reform weddings have the key elements of a Jewish wedding—the ketubah (contract), chuppah (canopy), badeken (veiling), and the breaking of the glass at the end of the ceremony. All
of these traditions are easy to identify and take place in quick succession, even together in some cases. Most of the wedding couples of the Reform movement are comfortable with seeing each other prior to the wedding service itself. For the photographer, this is more manageable in terms of photographing the wedding couple and families.

With regard to special traditions or customs, there is very little in addition to the already mentioned key elements as compared to weddings of all faiths. During the dancing, there may be a hora (circle dance) in which the bride and groom are lifted in chairs and danced around.

Conservative (Ma
sorti) Judaism. This sect of Judaism also originated in Germany but became formalized in the United States as an alternative to the liberal Reform movement through following more of the traditional practices of the Orthodox Jewish sector. A major difference between Orthodox and Conservative practices is the involvement of women in religious activities, which is encouraged within the Conservative synagogues.

Many of the traditional prayers and practices are adopted from the Orthodox movement to the Conservative sector, but with the addition of women. For example, wo
men are allowed to read from the Torah in a Conservative synagogue, but not in an Orthodox synagogue.

Again, the key elements are found—the ketubah, badeken, chuppah, and the breaking of the glass. In addition, you are likely to find other components such as the aufruf (couple being called to the Torah a week before the wedding for a blessing before the congregation). This, of course, is not part of the actual wedding, nor are you permitted to photograph it.

Notice that the bride is signing the ketubah with the groom. This is not done in an Orthodox wedding.

There is a trend among Conservative families to follow some of the more Orthodox customs, such as the tish (men coming together at a table to witness the groom committing to the terms of the marriage contact). These Conservadox families align themselves with Conservative Judaism but follow many of the Orthodox customs. It is still common practice for the groom and bride to see each other prior to the ceremony for photographs, which is rarely the case at an Orthodox wedding.

Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews see themselves as follow
ers of original Jewish law rather than belonging to a particular movement. Within Orthodox Judaism, there are communities that follow specific practices and customs. The most common distinctions areModern Orthodox Jews, Hasidic (pious) Jews, and Ultra Orthodox Jews. The major difference is how these communities interact with the overall community in general.

For example, Modern Orthodox Jews follow the same religious laws as all Ortho
dox Jews but dress in modern clothing and take on jobs within the general public. From their outward appearance, the only sign of their religious beliefs may be a kippa (head covering for men) or the modest style of dress worn by Orthodox women.

On the other hand, the black fur-trimmed hats and long black coats worn by Hasidic Jews is a sure sign of their affiliation. By the way, all of this black clothing makes it challenging for the photographer to get photographs with good detail and contrast.

German tradition of covering the couple in a tallit (prayer shawl) during the ceremony.

What is apparent in all Orthodox gatherings is the separation of men and women for the most part. You will find separate seating in all areas, even during the sit-down meal. More modern Orthodox communities allow mixed seating at the meal but maintain separate dancing, with women on one side of a divider and men on the other side.

The Orthodox wedding has many customs and
rituals that take place throughout the day. Many of these are influenced by ethnic and cultural backgrounds that have carried over through the years from their previous origins.

Jewish communities also have cultural distinctions, which have created different customs and traditions within each denomination. These are: Ashkenazi (42 percent of the Jewish population), Sephardic (37 percent), and Mizrahi (16 percent). These ethnic divisions are mostly based on geographic areas where Jewish c
ommunities flourished over the centuries, which influenced their daily routines, such as language, dress, crafts, and foods.

Ashkenazi Je
ws are descendents from Eastern and Central Europe, and many of their customs are derived from the area. Yiddish, a popular language from this region, is a combination of several languages that is still very much in use among many Hasidic Jews. Much of the Jewish population in the United States (5 million) is of Ashkenazi descent, which is mostly due to the immigration following World War I and II. Sephardic Jews generally originated from Spain and Portugal between 1492 and 1497, before they were deported. Many of these Jews ended up in the Middle East, and today the term “Sephardic Jew” applies to most Jews of Arab and Persian background. Ladino is a language that was carried over from the Spanish/Portuguese influence, just as Yiddish was derived from the European languages.

Mizrahi Je
ws descend from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, including many of the Arab countries. For the most part, they all follow Sephardic traditions.

As one can see, not all Jewish weddings will be the same, nor will they have the same customs and traditions, even though they do follow the same Jewish laws.

In general terms, Reform weddings have the most relaxed observances of Jewish law, while still following many customs and traditions, and Ultra Orthodox ceremonies have the strictest observance of Jewish law. This is important
for the photographer to keep in mind as timetables, schedules, and practices are very much dependent upon how observant the family is. For example, Orthodox couples will fast on the day of the wedding, not drinking or eating the entire day until after they have been married. Knowing this beforehand, a photographer can be considerate of the couple’s fast and take this into account when interacting with the couple throughout the course of the day.

As you venture out in your role as a wedding photographer, offering your services to the Jewish communities you wish to serve, keep in mind that there are many different degrees of Judaism in both religious and cultural aspects. The greater your understanding of these differences, the easier it will be for you to present your services in a meaningful, respectful, and successful manner.

Sephardic bride after the chuppah. The ribbon tied around her hand was part of the henna ritual.

A good example of this is that when meeting with an Orthodox famil
y, it is customary for a man not to shake hands with any woman out of respect to her gender. Knowing this beforehand gives a male photographer credibility as someone who has an understanding and respect for Jewish Orthodox customs and practices.


  1. Nice post! There is generally a difference in the types of Jewish wedding music being played at the various Jewish weddings as well. The conservative will often have only AMerican music with a splash of "tradtional" Jewish music. Modern Weddings may have some American and some popular Jewish wedding music. Yeshiva orthodox will not have any American music and niether will Hasidic but at the Hasidic they tend to like to listen to the yiddish tunes from the various sects of Hassidus i.e. bobov, stolin, vishnitz etc.

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  3. Excellent and useful information and summary about Jewish Weddings. Thanks very much.