Moroccan nuptials combine ancient rituals, festivities

"Harei at li, betabat ze, kedat Moshe ve Israel" ("Behold, you are consecrated to me, with this ring according to the religion of Moses and Israel").

For thousands of years these words have been repeated at weddings that embraced Jewish rituals, customs and traditions handed down from generation to generation throughout the diaspora.

Some of the richest ceremonial customs from traditional Sephardi weddings are still practiced in Israel. The Moroccans, in particular, are known for their lively, spirited wedding celebrations, where 500 to 600 guests are not unusual. Says Na'ama Azoulai, a first-generation Israeli, "We don't do everything our parents did in Morocco, but we have not compromised on some of the traditions which make our cultural background so special."

Danny Vaknin, also a first-generation Israeli says, "Although the Moroccan community is a strong one, there are customs which have been lost in coming to Israel. As the community becomes more integrated into Israeli society our customs become more diluted."

However, Moroccan weddings still maintain a distinct cultural flavor. After the engagement is announced, relatives and friends visit the families of the bride and groom, blessing the couple with a multitude of ceremonies.

In his book "A Treasury of Sephardi Laws and Customs," Rabbi Herbert C. Dobrinsky writes, "All the pre-marriage ceremonies have basic components in common…providing demonstrative symbols to convey good wishes and prayers for fertility, prosperity and a happy marriage."

Sweets are brought to the bride, presents are given for adornment on her wedding day and symbolic foods are served amid an atmosphere of festivity and joy.

The evening in which the bride sanctifies herself for her wedding night is a very special one in Judaism.

Writes Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his Jewish wedding guide "Made in Heaven," "In many ways immersion in a mikveh is even more important than the wedding ceremony itself."

On the "night of the bath," as it is called by Moroccan Jews, the bride-to-be is escorted to the mikveh by a party of women. A special bridal room is set aside for her and exquisite care is taken in preparing her for immersion in the mikveh. After the bride emerges, the women hold a lively party, singing and eating in celebration of the bride's purity. The songs, traditional Moroccan tunes, wish her a joyous union and happiness.

Another special Moroccan ceremony is the henna, a large party arranged by the bride's family. During the celebration held a few nights before the wedding, henna, a red dye, is put on the palms of the bride's hand (and sometimes the soles of her feet) as well as those of her family and friends, to protect the bride from "the evil eye." Special songs are sung for the bride and a hamsa (five-fingered hand) on a chain is placed around the bride's neck, also for protection against "the evil eye."

Food is plentiful at the henna celebration, and Dobrinsky writes, "The women sing and make the ululations [wailing noises] to express their happiness about the bride's imminent marriage." Both men and women dance, sing and eat into the early hours of the morning.

The groom goes to the synagogue with his father and father-in-law on the Sabbath before the wedding. Here he is given a special seat of honor and is called to read from the Torah. The congregants throw sugar-coated almonds after he finishes reading, and special songs are sung in his honor. A similar ceremony takes place in the synagogue on the Sabbath following the wedding ceremony.

When the wedding day finally arrives, the bride, befitting her role as queen of the day, is ornately dressed in a wedding gown often belonging to a grandmother or great-grandmother. With Moroccan-style music playing in the background, the bride is led to the chuppah accompanied by her mother and mother-in-law, and the groom by his father and father-in-law. The ceremony proceeds according to Jewish religious law, and culminates in the groom breaking the glass in memory of the destruction of the Temple while the hall resounds with the joyful ululations of the female guests.