Pearls, henna and challah: Sephardic nuptial customs

If you think the aufruf feting a groom-to-be always takes place the Shabbat before the wedding and that all Jewish brides and grooms fast on their wedding day, think again.

There are some notable differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic weddings.

And even among Sephardic Jews, says Rabbi Michael Azose of the Sephardic Congregation in Evanston, Ill., there are as many rituals as there are communities.

“It’s impossible to pigeonhole Sephardim,” Azose said. “I’ve learned through my congregants that Persians are very different from Syrians, who are very different than Judeo-Spanish Jews.”

Many Sephardic Jews, particularly North Africans, begin weddings several days before the actual ceremony with an elaborate party to which the bride wears an embroidered velvet dress adorned with pearls and other jewels. Often, this dress is a family heirloom.

After guests share a meal, henna dye is painted on each woman’s palm, symbolizing both fertility and protection against the evil eye.

In Ashkenazic circles, a bride-to-be visits the mikveh (ritual bath) with a close female relative, usually in private. But in Sephardic tradition, all the women of the community accompany the bride-to-be and her mother and sisters to the mikveh. Afterward they enjoy a lavish feast of sweets, then dance in the mikveh’s foyer.

In Spanish-speaking communities, this custom is called noche de novia, literally, “night of the sweetheart.”

Although prenuptial immersion in the mikveh is a universal Jewish practice, Azose says it is followed more strictly by Sephardic women — a “must,” passed from mother to daughter regardless of observance level.

A wedding day is considered a yom tov, a festive event, and the Sephardic bride and groom do not fast. They are expected to savor a meal honoring the occasion. Also, Sephardic Jews have no tradition of bedeken, or veiling of the bride.

And Sephardic Jews consider the custom of yichud — in which the couple slips away for a private moment right after the ceremony — a davar mechuar, a “repugnant thing,” in that it compromises modesty.

Among Sephardic Jews the ketubah (marriage contract) is a binding contract: The two families negotiate a sum to be paid in the event of a divorce.

During the ceremony, the Sephardic bride does not circle her groom seven times, as is the Ashkenazic custom. The Sephardic couple generally faces the audience with a tallit draped over their heads, and the officiating rabbi has his back to the guests.

The Sephardic groom’s aufruf is held on the Shabbat following the wedding rather than the one preceding it. Called an Avram Siz, this rite demands the reading of a passage in Genesis in which Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a suitable mate for his son, Isaac. The name Avram Siz is Aramaic for “Avram was old,” the words that introduce this passage, which is read in Aramaic.

At the Sephardic weeklong celebratory feasts called Shevah Brachot, guests arrive at the couple’s new home bearing food and drink. The bride and groom are treated as a king and queen; seven wedding blessings are recited over them, and their home is likened to a royal court.

Although these customs have been practiced in one manner or another for centuries, in many parts of the world they face the threat of extinction. Of the United States’ estimated 6 million Jews, only about 10 percent claim Sephardic origin.

“There’s no question that the loss of Sephardic traditions is a tragedy,” said Azose. “The symbolism behind Sephardic rituals has much significance. We who see the beauty behind it also see the loss, and our only hope is to revive it.”