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Ukrainian-Jewish Wedding – Byzantine and Jewish Symbolism

Orysia and Mike in front of the Tetrapod and under the HuppahYou already are familiar with the different aspects of the Ukrainian and Jewish culture and traditions mentioned in the Ukrainian-Jewish wedding post, which  I shared with you previously.

Today, I will quote from the Wedding Ceremony Program booklet, prepared by the Bride and Groom, especially for their wedding, to give you a better understanding of the similarities between the Byzantine and the Jewish wedding ceremony traditions.

Expression of Free Will

In Byzantine Rite, a couple seeking to wed must proclaim their free entrance into the sacrament of matrimony prior to reaching the tetrapod, the small table at the front of the church upon which the Gospel and the Cross rest.  After affirming their free will, the couple then proceeds to the tetrapod together, symbolizing their shared desire to be united as husband and wife.

Similarly in the Jewish tradition, the wedding couple proceeds down the aisle together side by side as their expression of free will.

In the Jewish tradition, after the wedding couple meets at The Huppah, they circle each other three or seven times.  The number seven represents the number of days in which the world was created and the number of blessings that are recited during the ceremony.  The circling represents the walls of protection the wedding couple is building around each other and symbolizes the intertwined nature of their lives from this day forward.

In Byzantine tradition circling is done later on during the ceremony, and it takes place around the tetrapod.

Prayer of Betrothal/Kiddushin

The Prayer of Betrothal, the Prayer of Engagement, or Kiddushin, derives from an earlier time in which the engagement ceremony was a separate ceremony from the wedding.  This occurred with both the traditional Byzantine and Jewish weddings.

Today, the two parts are joined together in a single service with The Betrothal immediately preceding The Wedding. The Prayers of Betrothal ask God to bless the engagement of the Groom and Bride and the sanctification of a man and a woman to each other.

First Cup of Wine

During the traditional Jewish wedding, two cups of wine are drunk. The first is during the Kiddushin stemming from the word holiness, and symbolizing joy. The second is drunk later during the wedding ceremony, and after the Seven Blessings are recited.  This second cup symbolizes uniqueness and the sanctity of marriage.  The Kiddush cup used at this wedding belongs to the Groom’s father, and has been used many times over the years during Passover Sedars and dinners. Included in the blessing of this cup of wine is The Betrothal Blessing and Bircat Erusin.

The Exchange of Rings

In the  Byzantine Rite, the exchange of rings takes place during the Betrothal, as followed at  this wedding. The rings symbolize God’s union with the marrying couple, an unbroken circle representing a pure and eternal union.  The Priest is the one to first place the rings on the hands of the Groom and Bride.  The Priest only slides the ring halfway down the hand, so the Groom and Bride may affirm their commitment to each other by completing the placement of the ring.  Once exchanged, the rings serve as a visible symbol of the endless love and union that exists between husband and wife, and God.  The rings further remind the couple that in married life, the weakness of one partner will be compensated by the strength of the other, that by themselves the newly betrothed are incomplete, but together, and with the blessing of God, they compliment each other, and are complete.

In the Jewish tradition, this is the central act of the Kiddushin, where the husband “gives” the ring to the Bride who “accepts” it.  The husband would place the ring on the bride’s right index finger.  By taking the ring on her most active finger, the bride demonstrates that she accepts it not as a gift but as a binding transaction.  The bride would then reposition the ring on the finger and location of her choosing.

The Prayer of Union/Nissuin

Both the Byzantine and Jewish weddings have two distinct parts.  The first part is known as The Betrothal. In Byzantine weddings , The Prayer of Union, distinguishes this first part from the upcoming second part called The Wedding.  This Prayer recalls the origins and meaning of marriage.

This second half of the ceremony in Hebrew is called Nissuin, which literally translates as “marriage”

The Exchange of Vows

Prior to exchanging their vows, the Groom will place his hand on a prayer book used by his father, and the Bride will place her hand on the Gospel.  By doing this, they emphasize that their wedding is not strictly between them but also it is a promise to God.

In a traditional Jewish wedding, a Ketubah, or marriage contract, is signed.  The Ketubah outlines the rights, privileges, and obligations that the Groom and Bride assume toward each other as husband and wife.  An interfaith Ketubah will be signed today as symbol of the Groom and Bride’s commitment to each other.

The Crowning

The crowning in the Byzantine Rite is the pinnacle of The Wedding.  The wreaths symbolize an eternal circle, eternal life, unity, and oneness.  The wreaths are made of or myrtle.  Since myrtle is always green, it symbolizes that the marriage is eternally alive.  The wreaths are woven together symbolizing the lives of the Groom and Bride are now woven together, starting at the marriage, into something new.

During crowning, the Priest places the wreaths upon the heads of the Groom and Bride, to signify that they are the King and Queen of their new kingdom – their new life together.  Accepting the crowns, the couple promises to live a life of honor and love in God.

In the  Jewish tradition, the Bride is considered to be the Queen, and the Groom to be a King, as written in Psalms(45:10): “The queen stand on your right hand in fine gold of Ophir.” The “fine gold” refers to a wedding band which was traditionally made out of gold.  And like this Psalm, the Groom and Bride will leave the church with the Bride on Groom’s right side.

Bestowal of Candles

The Priest hands the Groom and Bride each a candle to hold.  The candles symbolize God’s light in the world.  The Priest will punctuate this by blessing Groom and Bride with the signing of the cross.

Sharing the Common Cup

In remembrance of Christ’s first miracle a the wedding at Cana, Groom and Bride share a wine from a common cup.  The wine symbolizes the sweetness of God’s love.  By drinking the wine, Groom and Bride acknowledge their intention to share everything in life, and bear one another’s burdens.  “Their joys will be doubled, and their sorrows halved, because they will be shared.”  This cup of wine will be drunk after The Seven Blessings are recited.

The Seven Blessings (Sheva Brachot)

The Seven Blessings celebrate the creation of the world, Israel and the Jewish people, and Groom and Bride’s happiness together.  After the blessings, Groom and Bride will drink the second cup of wine in celebration of the blessings of The Common Cup, and for the Seven Blessings.

These Seven Blessings locate the Groom and Bride under the Huppah within the whole flow of Jewish history and theology including creation, Eden, Zion, redemption, and Jerusalem. The wedding becomes a fulcrum of time defining the center point between creation and redemption. All three of these “moments” -the beginning, the wedding, and the end, all share the same wholeness, sweetness, and the unambiguous presence of  God.  Judaism has no concept of individual redemption; we will each find Eden only when all human beings find Eden.  The Sheva Brachot beneath The Huppah provides a glimpse into that redeemed, peace-filled, love-blessed place and time.

The Ceremonial Walk

The ceremonial walk, also called the “Dance of Isaiah”, celebrates the first steps of the young couple as husband and wife. The Priest binds the right hands of the Groom and Bride with a ceremonial towel, known as “rushnyk”. Led by God in the person of the Priest, Groom and Bride then walk around the tetrapod three times.  These three circles symbolize the unending journey of husband and wife guided by  God.  This also symbolizes the circling that is traditionally done in the Jewish wedding when the Groom and Bride first enter the Huppah.

The Removal of The Crowns

The Priest removes the crowns/wreaths, blessing the newlywed couple.

Blessing of the Newlywed Couple

The Priest bestows a culminatory blessing upon Groom and Bride.

Churching of The Newlyweded Bride and Ave Maria

As Ave Maria is sung, the Bride walks over to the icon of the Virgin Mary. The Bride offers The Mother Of God a gift of flowers, thanking her for the Bride’s husband.  Then the Priest says a special prayer just for the Bride.

Breaking of the Glass

At the end of the ceremony, the Groom will step on a glass, breaking it.  This Jewish custom dates back to the writing of the Talmud, a holy Jewish text, and there are many different meanings and symbolism regarding it.

A bittersweet explanation is that even on this joyous occasion, we cannot forget the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and must be mindful that there is still destruction, war, and hatred in our world. It’ s our responsibility to help bring healing, and the breaking of the glass is at this time an expression of hope for a future free of all violence.

A more personal explanation is that the breaking of the glass reminds us that like the glass, human relationships are fragile, maintaining marriage requires great care, and the hope for a marriage that will never break.

A more whimsical interpretation is that this is the last time the Groom gets to “put his foot down”.

The meaning that we like the most is that this marriage can only be dissolved when all the pieces of glass are glued back together, meaning never!

When the Groom breaks the glass, everyone shouts “Mazel Tov”, which means Congratulations!!

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