A Wedding in the Desert

Jewish weddings even today follow traditions thousands of years old. Still, a modern wedding, no matter how strictly observant, will not be the same as one from Biblical times. So let’s take a look at what we know about ancient Jewish weddings.

Jewish wedding in a Russian shtetl, featuring a Klezmer band. Painting by Isaak Asknaziy, 1893.

Traditions of Jewish Weddings

The typical order of a traditional (but relatively modern) Jewish Wedding (which includes both the betrothal and marriage ceremonies) is as follows:

  • Gathering in a separate room or other space (or two rooms, for those who separate men and women) and signing the Ketubah.
  • Badeken (veiling the bride).
  • Procession to the Chuppah, usually the groom first, then the bride.  Each with their parents.
  • Circling the bride (or each other). Only in Ashkenazi communities.
  • Betrothal Blessings (first of 2 cups of wine).
  • Giving of the Ring, using the words, “by this ring you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel”. This is the central part of the marriage ceremony. 
  • The Reading of the Ketubah out loud.
  • The Seven Blessings (Sheva Brachot) (done over second of 2 cups of wine). The first is the blessing over the wine, then there are 6 blessings for God and for the bridal couple. Then the couple drinks the wine.
  • Breaking of the Glass
  • Yichud (seclusion). Ashkenazi couples go just after the ceremony.  Sephardic couples wait until after the reception.
  • The wedding reception

Betrothal and Marriage: Kiddushin and Nissuin

Before the giving of the Torah, it would be that if a man happened upon a woman in the marketplace and they wanted to marry each other, he would bring her into his house and consummate the marriage between them privately, and she would be his wife. Once the Torah was given, Israel was commanded that if a man wanted to marry a woman, he would acquire her first through witnesses, and afterwards she would be his wife, as it says, “When a man takes a woman and comes (sleeps with) to her…” (Deuteronomy 22:13).

Mishneh Torah, Marriage.  Chapter 1:1.  Rambam.  

So the Biblical marketplace (in a time from before the first year of the Exodus from Egypt) is a bit of an odd duck, but the basic idea is that two people who agreed to get married simply moved in together and had sex and then they were considered married. For the time period afterwards, the marriage needed to be a bit more formal.


DOWRY (Heb. נְדֻנְיָה), the property a wife brings to her husband at marriage; the Yiddish equivalent, nadn, is from the same root. The custom of nedunyah became clearly defined and institutionalized only in the talmudic period. In biblical times, mohar (מֹהַר), whereby the groom bought his wife from her father (Gen. 24:53; Ex. 22:15–16; Hos. 3:2), was the accepted practice. It was then customary that the groom give the bride gifts, and that she bring certain property to her husband’s home upon marriage: slaves, cattle, real estate, etc. (cf. Gen. 24:59–61; 29; Judg. 1:14ff.; I Kings 9:16). Evidence of the custom of nedunyah is to be found in Tobit (7:14; 8:21) and in the Assuan papyri (Cowley, Aramaic, nos. 15, 18). Gradually, mohar was superseded by the ketubbah custom according to which the husband merely assumed the responsibility of compensation to his wife in case he divorced her: he had to pay her 200 zuzim if she had been a virgin at the time of marriage, and 100 zuzim if a widow or divorcée.

Dowry.  Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008. Jewish Virtual Library.

Although the idea of a groom buying a bride is an outdated notion (as in modern scholars do not believe that is how the ancient Jews thought of it), it seems pretty clear that there was a tradition of the groom (or his parents) giving substantial gifts to his in-laws, to compensate them in some way for the loss of their daughter (since women typically moved in with their husbands). As well as property the bride brought with her to her new home.

The Ceremony

Jewish Wedding Rituals. Wedding Ceremony.  Kun, Aleksandr L., 1840-1888.  This photograph is from the ethnographical part of Turkestan Album, a comprehensive visual survey of Central Asia undertaken after imperial Russia assumed control of the region in the 1860s.  Brides; Ethnographic photographs; Grooms (Weddings); Jews; Photographic surveys; Rites and ceremonies; Weddings.
Illustration in Turkestan Album, Ethnographic Part, 1872, part 2, volume 1, plate 80, no. 255

The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) are in the Talmud (Ketubot 7b-8a) and may have come from earlier prayers, but there is no sign they come from Biblical times, let alone Exodus times.

Wedding rings come from Ancient Egypt, from well before Exodus times. They used the fourth finger on the left hand (same as the ring finger of today) and placed a circular ring (often made from hemp or other non-metalic materials) on the bride’s hand. Many sites share this much, but there is little on how this tradition evolved into the Ancient Greek and Roman traditions of doing much the same thing, only with metal (usually iron). It’s not clear that the tradition stayed the same for these thousands of years. Nor do we know what the Jews did.

The Egyptian rings represented the Sun God Ra, so it seems unlikely the Exodus-era Jews would have accepted the tradition, but we can imagine this and other traditions moving into secular life. Jewish wedding rings are important now and there are good records showing them as far back as the 10th century C.E. What we don’t know is what happened before that.

Breaking the Glass

The tradition (not required by Jewish law, but commonly done) of breaking a glass at the end of the ceremony is quite old, from Talmudic times (70–640 CE), but even that is well over a thousand years after the Exodus.

Standing Under the Chuppah

The canopy held aloft on poles seems to be a Middle-Ages Ashkenazi innovation. Traditions in other communities, as well as older ones everywhere, seem to include a chuppah signified by a bride’s veil, a tent, a canopy of tree branches, or even a room in a building.

A Jewish wedding, Jozef Israëls, 1903

The Bible mentions the Chuppah (חֻפֶּה) three times. Once in the Prophet Joel (or Yoel), where the translation can be “canopied couch” as written here, but also refer a canopy, chamber, or divine protection:

Gather the people, Bid the congregation purify themselves. Bring together the old, Gather the babes And the sucklings at the breast; Let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, The bride from her canopied couch.

Joel 2:16

In Psalms we also see a reference to a groom inside a chuppah.

He placed in them a tent for the sun,
who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course.

Psalm 19:5-6

Here, the chuppah is not for the wedding, but the place where the bride and groom spend the night (though it may be the same room where the wedding took place).

In the morning as he comes out in his brightness and beauty he is like a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber, for all rejoice before him; so of the sun, all rejoice at his light. And my revered father – may his memory be blessed ! – has interpreted that the Psalmist compares him to a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber because the latter is longing to return to his bride, and so the sun returns each day to the place of his brightness.

Radak on Psalms 19:6:1

Then we have the use of the word chuppah to mean coverings in a sense not related at all to marriage.

When my Lord has washed away The filth of the daughters of Zion, And from Jerusalem’s midst Has rinsed out her infamy— In a spirit of judgment And in a spirit of purging—

the LORD will create over the whole shrine and meeting place of Mount Zion cloud by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy,

which shall serve as a pavilion for shade from heat by day and as a shelter for protection against drenching rain.

Isaiah 4:4-6

Though the Exodus text does not mention the word Chuppah, the idea of the Revelation being like a wedding comes from a variety of commentators.

There was one event in Jewish history which was considered the paradigm of all weddings: the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the biblical account of the marriage between God and the people of Israel our sages also discovered allusions to the presence of a huppah, whether in the enveloping cloud of darkness that hovered over the people, or in the fact that the Israelites, about to enter into their marriage with God, were made to stand “beneath the mountain“–just as the bride stands beneath the sheltering huppah on her wedding day.

The Huppah: From Eden to Today.  Eliezer Segal.  From the Source.

So what exactly did bridal couples use in Exodus times? We don’t know. But it’s reasonable to imagine there is some sort of covering during the marriage ceremony itself, but one open on all sides, like the modern chuppah which reflects the openness of Abraham’s tent.

Chuppah Painting (Huppah in Jerusalem).  Alex Levin (GeneNY).  2012.

Entering the Yichud

The Yichud is a private space (a room or a tent) where the newly married bridal couple go to legitimize the wedding. This is not the wedding night but, rather, the few moments of sacred space that Jewish law requires for the wedding to be valid.

The modern approach is to hold the ceremony under a canopy then send the couple off to a private room. But older traditions overlap more and the chuppah and the yichud may have been combined in a single practice.

Ketubah: The Marriage Contract

In references to marriage throughout the Bible, the mohar was paid and gifts presented, but a written contract was never mentioned. However, the Book of Deuteronomy specifically states that if a man dislikes his wife, “he writes her a bill of divorcement and gives it in her hand” (24: 3). Modern critics of the Bible have agreed that on the whole, the Deuteronomic law is a product of the century preceding the Babylonian exile. If a written document was employed at that period in dissolving a marriage, we have to assume that it was also employed in contracting a marriage.

Ancient Jewish Marriage. By Hayyim Schauss.

There is no reason for us to think that Hebrew slaves in Egypt would have marriage contracts to tell them about spousal rights and obligations to each other. Nor even in the first year of the Exodus, when freedom was new (and they did not yet have a permanent home). Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah and takes the form of Moses’ final speech to the community, just before the 40 years of living in the desert were up. Even if you believe that Moses wrote the Torah, this book came 40 years after they left Egypt.


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