Sheva brachot: Newlyweds play king and queen for a week

The week before she got married, Rabbi Sarah Graff rented the classic film “Father of the Bride,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy, in which a father’s mixed feelings about his daughter’s marriage makes the wedding a torturous occasion for him.

“It’s really the American model of a wedding,” Graff, who is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, explains about the movie. “They get married and then just disappear into some hotel room. The Jewish model is not at all like this. You don’t disappear at all.”

Instead, you have a sheva brachot, when the bride and groom rejoice together for seven days after their wedding.

During this time, the new couple is treated like a king and queen. Every night for a week, the couple is invited to celebratory dinners at the homes of friends or family, they do not go to work, and they are supposed to be escorted everywhere by an honor-guard. As part of the festive meals, the special blessings (sheva brachot or brachos) are repeated, a different one each night. Among the minimum of 10 guests at each of these gatherings, at least one must be a new face, someone who was not at the wedding.

Rooted in the rules of the Talmud, the sheva brachot tradition is also connected to the bride’s menstrual cycle, which might play havoc with a conventional honeymoon. So instead, parties are held.

According to Blu Greenberg in her book “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household,” “Given the fact that an Orthodox woman is likely to be a virgin at marriage, the rupture of the hymen will make her niddah,” unable to have sex again for 11 days.

“Thus, a young couple will try to time their marriage toward the end of her monthly cycle, just before the onset of menstruation; otherwise, she will be niddah twice consecutively in one month, which isn’t the most pleasant way to start one’s married life.”

Biology aside, seven days of partying sounds fun and joyful. But in the San Francisco Bay Area’s fast-paced culture, how many Jews actually plan a wedding around the bride’s menstrual cycle, take a week off work, have seven dinner gatherings in a row and find escorts when they go out in public?

Graff and her husband, Scott Roy — who got married on March 14 in Chicago — had their own version of sheva brachot. Kol Emeth hosted a one-day, 280-person dinner party for the newlyweds.

“The members from our congregation here desperately wanted to share in this event,” says Maureen Sullivan, executive director of Kol Emeth. “That’s how this sheva brachot came about. … I don’t know anyone who is doing all seven days.”

“This was not the traditional way of doing a sheva brachot,” adds Graff, “although I do see the value in doing it all seven days.”

Still, Graff and Roy did not vanish after saying their vows. “Instead, we chose to say the seven blessings together every day, without an actual gathering every day.”

“We were in different places that week — we got married in Chicago, then we came back to Palo Alto and then we went on our honeymoon to Hawaii,” explains Graff. “We always said our blessings at the end of grace after our meals, even though this was not a traditional sheva brachot.”

When asked if she went into public with an escort, Graff retorts, “I’ve never heard of that!”

Seven is a special number in Judaism. According to the Talmud, the seven blessings correspond to seven symbols: guests gathered to bring joy to the new couple, God, creation of woman and man, Jerusalem, the young couple, the intimate bond between the young couple and the blessing on the cup of wine.

This final blessing stands out as one of Graff’s favorite parts: “There were two different colored wines and they got mixed in a third glass. The bride and groom drink the intermingled wine; it’s about bringing two lives together.”

In the Talmud, it states that the bride and groom should dress in their better clothing; that others should make them happy and praise them throughout the entire seven festive days; and that they may not walk unaccompanied outside if they are not doing so as a couple. However, according to most rabbinical authorities, a bride and groom are allowed to get a haircut during this time.

Two years ago, Sarah Gershman-Silverberg, a teacher of Bible at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, had a four-day sheva brachot. “I don’t know anyone who has done the full seven days,” she says. “I think most traditional Jews do sheva brachot, but very few people do it every single night.”

Because her wedding was in Maryland, Gershman-Silverberg says it was great to come back to California “to continue the celebration after the wedding.”

Graff agrees: “It’s a way of continuing the celebration, and continuing the sanctity of it.”

“What stands out for me about our sheva brachot is the tremendous sense of community I felt from my congregation,” Graff adds. “We turned our synagogue upside down for this. All the chairs were taken out of the shul and replaced by tables. Some teenagers got together and formed a klezmer band.”

Graff also explains that, as is true with any monumental change “in our Jewish lives, like getting married or burying a loved one, you don’t just go back to work the next day. You acknowledge this change in your life, and you extend the day.”