The bride and bridegroom had written a booklet for their wedding day which was partly to explain the Jewish marriage ceremony to the non-Jews attending it. Their explanations did much more than that, for they revealed their love for each other and the depth and wisdom of their understanding of what they were committing themselves to.
This is part of what they wrote about the bedeken, the part before the start of the ceremony where the veiling of the bride takes place.
Then, [bridegroom] covers [bride's] face with a veil. This intimate custom can be seen as symbolising that the marriage is not being entered into on the basis of physical attraction alone. It also suggests [bridegroom's] commitment to clothe and protect [bride]
And this is what they wrote about the mysterious circling of the bridegroom by the bride, as she arrives under the chupah (marriage canopy)
[Bride] circles [Bridegroom] seven times, reminding us of the seven days of Creation, and therefore that our union has the power to create whole worlds. This custom also represents the removal of any obstacles between us, and suggests the bride's creation of a protective shield around the groom.
There was more than just the explanations, too. They had decided to hold their wedding in the garden of her parents. Outdoor weddings are of course very common in Israel, but they aren't in England. The garden theme permeated the way they set up the celebration after the marriage. All the guests' tables were labelled with often puzzling names (Drink Me, Letchworth, Graeme, Mr McGregor, Maud) which all turned out to have garden references, but only if your mind, like mine, is littered with the detritus of years of listening to BBC Radio 4's esoteric and cerebral Round Britain Quiz plus a long history of voracious reading.
Both families have expertise in the law and relish the strangenesses of English law as well as those of halacha. There were some delightful notes on why, thanks to an Act of Parliament of 1836, Jews and Quakers can get married in a garden-- or more or less anywhere--but nobody else can, otherwise they will be committing a Felony, unless they have obtained a Special Licence. For halachic strangeness, there was a passing reference to the bridegroom's raising a handkerchief being a halachically recognised demonstration of agreement to the terms of the Jewish kesuboh [marriage contract]. And they mentioned a Talmudic source that said that the Almighty had braided Eve's hair before acting as Adam's best man in the very first wedding of all, in the Garden of Eden.
Quite uniquely, they'd made their two family trees, going back to their sixteen great grandparents, the centre of their booklet, beautifully laid out with their own names at the centre. They invited the guests at the wedding to draw the connecting lines that finally bound the two families together through the marriage. With my own passion for my family history, I was totally charmed. Poignantly, I could see that so many of their great grandparents and grandparents shared my own experience of growing up in the East End of London, albeit up to sixty years earlier. Two great grandparents had been done to death in Belzec, where so many of my own family had shared that fate in the same calamitous year of 1942.
I wasn't at the ceremony. But the words in the booklet and the sight of the pride, joy and love on the faces of bride and groom in the photo already displayed in the Sheva Brochos room were enough. They made me feel that I too shared the spirit and joy, the presence of the ruach hakodesh [the spirit of divine inspiration] of that wonderful day, as surely as if I had been there in person, in a way that no video and no album of wedding photos ever does.
At that Sheva Brochos, I was seated as if it were with the angels. For a bride and her groom take precedence over royalty in the week of their marriage, and in the Jewish tradition, the next step up is.... And for no reason I deserved, I was seated opposite them, with our hostess, the bridegroom's mother, at my right hand. At my left was seated one of the gentlest, kindest, most humane men I know, who I've known for years. His love of learning and his ability to make a whole shul full of people feel he opens the gates of heaven for them are exceeded only by his modesty. I don't often see him, but whenever I do, I always make a point of asking about all his children and his grandchildren. Of course, I am really interested to know how they are. But I also love to see how his face is transfigured with the unselfconscious heartfelt love and joy with which he speaks of them.
He had just got A Tale of Love and Darkness and had not yet started it, so I could enjoy sharing with him my memories of the wonderful experience of reading it. How much it is saturated with Amos Oz' religious education, which he is usually silent about, and what delights awaited him (and if you haven't read it yet, you really should).
With my hostess, I talked about politics, and people thinking you're insane and/or wildly bigoted because you're religious, my experiences of blogging, and the ways of the BBC, and whether what you believe is really what you believe. All of which I too rarely have a chance to talk with her about in real time.
But this was after all the Sheva Brochos for the young bride and bridegroom at our table. And in their charm, their quiet delight, their togetherness and their sweet deference to each other, I saw what was there in the words they had chosen for each other as they had come to the chupah the previous day.
For him, the words that were sung were
My beloved is red-cheeked and radiant, remarkable amongst men.
His head shines like the finest gold and is crowned with black locks.
(Song of Songs 5:10-11)
For her, the words included
Who is this woman that comes out of the wilderness? You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride.
(Song of Songs 3:6, 4:9)
Towards the end of the Sheva Brochos, the bridegroom's mother spoke. She spoke of the wonderful experience of becoming the mother in law of such a young woman as the bride, and of becoming part of her extended family. In our conversations, we had spoken of the deep significance of the difference between the traditional English/Christian term "mother in law" and the Hebrew/Yiddish word for the in law family, which is "mechutanim", which means the married-to or married-into ones. For our tradition sees that as a relationship truly ties two families and their histories into as strong a bond as the marriage itself. It is so much more than just "in law". There are no traditional Jewish jokes about mothers-in-law, which are the stock-in-trade of traditional English male comedians. But there is a huge corpus of mechutanista jokes, which are about the relationship between the two mothers, a relationship concept unknown to the English/Christian tradition.
But I will finish, as I should with the bride and the groom. My heart was touched as I saw the bridegroom brushing away the tears that almost slipped out of his eyes as his mother spoke, and she wept as she read her closing joyful words. His face shone, indeed like gold, as he spoke of his pride and delight at having got to the stage of having been married for thirty hours. And the bride smiled with quiet pleasure. She did not feel the need to speak, for the words she had chosen for her own special moment in the ceremony spoke so clearly for her.
I said in my previous post that I am down the line Orthodox in matters of Jewish marriage, and do not agree with altering the rites for this group or that sensibility. But these young people had something to teach me about what can be acceptably added. This is how they explained what the bride added when she placed a ring on the finger of the bridegroom in the moments after he had said the declaration with the ring which married them in Jewish law:
The Talmud makes it clear that the bride needs only to show her assent to the betrothal by willingly accepting the groom's ring. However as a lawyer, [Bride] knows that silence may not be taken as indicating consent! This modern addition to the ceremony takes place, therefore, "for the avoidance of doubt".
And these are the magnificent and powerful words which the bride spoke, which are from the Book of Hosea, which stand as the truest and most beautiful statement I have seen of what a pledge to a lifetime love partnership should be:
I will betroth you to me for ever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion.
i will betroth you to me in faithfulness.
Dear loved companions, all of you, thank you for inviting me and honouring me in sharing your Sheva Brochos with me. Dear bride and bridegroom, may this first Shabbos be the first of a lifetime of joyful ones for you. And may every day bring the proof of the truth of your vows.