Modern wedding customs date back to biblical times

NEWTON, Mass. — According to Jewish law, getting married is an exceedingly simple affair: The bride accepts something worth more than a dime (in today's currency) from the groom, the groom utters words of acquisition and consecration, these two actions are witnessed, and voila, the happy couple is married. All the rest — the white gown, the veil, the portable chuppah (wedding canopy), etc. — are but customs that have grown up around Jewish weddings through the ages. This is not to diminish their importance, for customs add measureless beauty and meaning to lifecycle milestones. Today, in fact, some of the most ancient practices are being rediscovered and "renovated" by couples seeking to blend tradition with a modern outlook on marriage.

One of the most enduring wedding customs, the wearing of the veil, has its origins in the Bible. Upon seeing her husband-to-be, Isaac, for the first time, Rebecca "took her veil and covered herself." (Genesis 25:65) Another veiling custom, bedecken (the veiling of the bride by the groom just before the wedding), also has biblical roots.

Those familiar with the story of Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, will remember how Jacob's father-in-law, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel by veiling Leah heavily before the wedding. By placing the veil over the bride's face, a Jewish groom makes sure he doesn't repeat Jacob's mistake.

A lawful Jewish marriage requires an act of kinyan (that the bride be given — and that she accept — something of nominal value from the groom). In ancient times, coins were typically given. (They are still used by many Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews). Since the seventh century, rings replaced coins in most of Europe as the "gift of choice." According to Jewish law, the ring must belong to the groom, be of solid metal, and be free of gems. (The inclusion of precious stones produces significant variations in ring values, which, presumed the rabbis, could cause a bride to reconsider.)

Another ancient custom that has lately been transformed is the ketubah (marriage contract).

Spelling out a husband's obligations to his wife, the ketubah was a radical document in its day because it provided women with legal status and rights in marriage. Many couples who consider the traditional ketubah as out of touch with contemporary views on relationships are creating new ones. Many ketubot now include parallel declarations of commitment made by both bride and groom with a joint declaration of faith in God and a connection to the Jewish people.

The chuppah (canopy) under which the bride and groom stand during the ceremony symbolizes a marriage chamber. The bride leaves her father's house and enters her husband's home as a married woman.

Although wedding customs may be cherished simply because of the history and tradition they represent, ultimately what keeps them alive is their relevance in a changing world. Ancient wedding customs imbued with a modern spirit provide couples with both a link to the past and a hand in shaping the future they will be sharing.