In Judaism, marriage is celebrated both as a joyous event and a sacred act. The Hebrew word used for the wedding is kiddushin, which comes from the verb le-kadesh, "to make holy." Furthermore, in traditional ceremonies, as the groom places the ring on the bride's finger he states, "Behold you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel." While today it is common for the couple to exchange rings, it was traditional only for the groom to give the bride a ring. Some unusual examples from Italy of gold with filigree and enamel work are fashioned with a small structure on top, which may symbolize the home the couple will share or perhaps the Temple.

A myriad of diverse customs are observed in different communities for all of the events surrounding the engagement and wedding. In communities like Yemen and Morocco, the brides wore highly elaborate gowns and jewelry and the ritual of dressing of the bride was taken very seriously. Other localized customs have to do with the gifts given to the bride and groom and the couple to one another, such as marriage belts and silver book covers. Despite these differences, however, there are certain integral elements which are common to all Jewish weddings. The wedding takes place under a huppah, a canopy, which represents the home that the couple will share. The huppah may be a tallit, or it may be a specially made textile. During the course of the ceremony, after the appropriate blessings are recited, the bride and groom each take a sip of wine from the same cup.

Since two blessings are recited, sometimes double cups fitted together in a barrel shape were used. A special wedding goblet made in Breslau in 1752 is engraved with an inscription, "The voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride" (Jeremiah 33 : 11). Each couple has a ketubbah (marriage contract), which is in fact a legal document originating in talmudic times as a financial guarantee for the bride and stipulates the groom's other obligations to his wife as well. As when it was first instituted, the text of the ketubbah is still written in Aramaic. The standard text as we know it today was established in the Middle Ages in the Ashkenazi communities of central and western Europe. The minor variations found in the contracts give insight into some of the differences in customs among communities. Only in recent years has there been some attempt to modernize the text and make the ketubbah more egalitarian.

The tradition of illustrating ketubbot is known from fragments in the Cairo genizah to have existed in Eretz Yisrael and Egypt as early as the tenth to twelfth centuries. From medieval Europe there is only one extant illuminated ketubbah from the Austrian city of Krems. The groom presents the bride with a symbolically large ring. Originating in Spain before the expulsion in 1492, the illumination of ketubbot reached its apogee among the Sephardim in Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Much about societal differences can be learned from these contracts because each has the date and place of the wedding and the names of the bride and groom. Furthermore, because each ketubbah is individually commissioned, the design and special conditions, including the size of the dowry, provide insight into both the patron's status and artistic sensibilities. Illuminated on parchment, many of the Italian ketubbah include decorative programs with such components as biblical scenes, representations of Jerusalem and symbols of the Temple, family emblems, zodiac signs, and a variety of flora and fauna. A ketubbah from Padua dated 1732 is a rich compendium incorporating all of these elements. Architectural references, mythological figures, and elaborately interlaced knots are borrowed from non-Jewish art; indeed, it seems that many of the artisans who illustrated the ketubbot were not Jewish but were working with the specifications of the commissioning family. A characteristic of ketubbah decoration in Rome in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the use of such allegorical personifications as peace, fortune, goodness, and marital harmony. These reflect the contemporary ideals of marriage; the images are borrowed from Christian tradition. An 1816 ketubbah from Rome also represents the practice of including illustrations which refer to the names of the couple. In this instance, the groom's name was Elijah and the scene of the prophet ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot is depicted on the cusped edge of the parchment.

The practice of illustrating ketubbot was also popular in the Sephardi communities of western Europe, the western Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. A very elaborate ketubbah from Hamburg dated 1690 portrays the actual wedding scene. The bride and groom, flanked by their parents, stand under the huppah, which is not free-standing but attached canopy-like to the wall. The officiating rabbis stand in front of them. In attendance is a large group of guests, all quite fashionably dressed, the men wearing elaborate wigs. An Istanbul ketubbah dated 1853 includes a lovely cityscape scene along the shore within an elaborate framework of rhythmic floral patterns. Jews living in the Islamic world also made ketubbot. One from San'a, Yemen, dated 1794, is unusual for the region in that it includes the figures of the bridal party, albeit very primitively rendered. There are ketubbot from India and the Far East with interesting motifs, emphasizing exotic birds and animals and local flowers. Unfortunately, as printed contracts became the norm in the late nineteenth century, the art of ketubbah illumination declined. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a renaissance of hand-illuminated ketubbot.

The wedding culminates with the breaking of a glass by the groom. In medieval Ashkenazi synagogues , there was a special stone, called a traustein, embedded in the north wall of the synagogue at which the glass was hurled. While the custom likely originated from folk beliefs that the glass-shattering would ward off evil spirits, it was interpreted by the rabbis as a reminder that even in times of greatest joy, we recall the destruction of Jerusalem. The ceremony is followed by a wedding feast, including music and dancing and often the reciting of special poems dedicated to the bride and groom.


From: Jewish Art, by: Grace Cohen Grossman. 1995, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, inc. (p. 128-129).

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