The typical Conservative Jewish wedding is very closely modeled on the traditional ceremony, and incorporates almost all of the elements of that ceremony, with some modifications along the way. Most of the differences between Conservative and Orthodox weddings have to do with the role of the bride: in keeping with Conservative Judaism in general, egalitarian considerations have prompted some changes to traditional practices.
In planning a Jewish wedding, couples often find it easiest to begin with the traditional wedding as a guideline, and then consider what changes they, and their officiant, would prefer to make at each step of the ceremony. A list of of the most common modifications follows to help get you started. It is crucial that you work with your officiant in planning your ceremony: please consult with your officiant in considering the matters listed below!
The aufruf takes place prior to the wedding, most often on the Shabbat beforehand. During Shabbat services there are blessings which are recited upon the reading of the Torah; those who are soon to be married traditionally receive this honour. According to Orthodox authorities only men are allowed to recite these blessings, and thus only the groom takes part in the aufruf. Many (although not all) Conservative rabbis permit both men and women to recite these blessings, and thus brides may have the option of partaking in this ceremony along with their grooms. It is also customary for the groom and his family to sponsor kiddush after services on this day.
Orthodox law requires that brides visit the mikvah prior to their weddings. Many, but not all, Conservative rabbis require this as well. While it is not halachically required for a groom to visit the mikvah, many choose to do so.
The bedeken is the traditional veiling ceremony, during which a groom places a veil over the bride’s face just prior to the wedding. Many couples now choose to make this ceremony more egalitarian by introducing a parallel act that the bride performs with the groom: cloaking him with a tallit, or placing a kippah on his head, are the most commonly employed ones.
Hakafot: Circling the Groom
In traditional wedding ceremonies, when the bride and her entourage arrive at the chuppah they circle the groom, who has already arrived and is waiting for them. Conservative couples sometimes reinterpret this custom for egalitarian reasons: some choose to circle each other in turn, some to join together in circling the chuppah, and some omit this portion of the ceremony altogether.
Ketubah - Aramaic
The ketubah, the traditional Jewish wedding contract, is an integral part of the wedding ceremony. The Conservative Rabbinical Authority has agreed upon a standard ketubah text. This consists of the historical Aramaic ketubah, with the inclusion of one additional clause, referred to as the ‘Lieberman Clause’. Named after the reknowned Talmudic scholar ?? Lieberman, this clause was introduced in order to provide additional security for a woman upon her marriage.
According to traditional law, a man is the one who initiates divorce proceedings. (A religious divorce is called a get.) There have been, tragically, cases of men refusing to cooperate with women who wanted divorces, and thus women who have been unable to extricate themselves from marriages when they wished to do so. These women are called agunot. In ancient times a man was ostracised if he denied his wife a divorce; when communities were small and close-knit, and the religious court (Beit Din) had substantial authority, this proved an effective deterrent and agunot were extremely rare. As communities have become more diffuse and the power of religious courts has waned, however, a men can refuse to issue a get without suffering substantial consequences. The Lieberman clause, in which a man legally commits himself to agreeing to a divorce should his wife request one, was introduced to forestall this tragic circumstance, and prevent any woman from becoming an agunah.
Most Conservative rabbis will require that you use a ketubah with a Conservative text, i.e. one that includes the Lieberman clause. It is always essential that you consult with your officiant about the selection of a ketubah text.
Ketubah - English
While the Aramaic ketubah text is all that is required to satisfy Jewish law, most couple prefer to use a ketubah which includes an English section as well. It is crucial to recognize that the English portion of a ketubah is not a translation of the Aramaic: the Aramaic text is the historical, legal document which outlines a man’s financial and conjugal obligations to his wife as mandated by the Talmud, while the English text is more akin to a set of wedding vows that the couple choose to express their love and commitment to one another. There is thus no official or required Conservative English ketubah text - this is entirely up to you. Most ketubot have a preprinted English text: so long as your officiant has approved the Aramic section, feel free to select a ketubah with whichever English wording that most appeals to you. Alternately, you may have a custom ketubah created for you, consisting of the approved Conservative Aramaic ketubah text and an English section you compose yourselves.
A ketubah must be signed by two witnesses in order for the document to be valid. Traditional law holds that only adult Jewish males, not related to the bride or groom by either blood or marriage, may serve as witnesses.
Asking someone to sign your ketubah is a great sign of honor and respect. Many couples may wish to include at least one woman in their wedding in this way; there are several ways in which you may be able to do this. Some Conservative rabbis permit women to serve as witnesses without complication. Another option is to increase the number of witnesses on your ketubah: while two is the halakic minimum, officiants will often permit more. In these cases, there may be two male Jewish witnesses, which ensures that the traditional requirements are met, and one or two additional female witnesses, which ensures that a couple is able to honour and include a broader range of people in this special part of the wedding.
One of the centerpieces of the traditional Jewish wedding is the bestowal of a ring by the groom on his bride. This is accompanied by a repetition of the verse Harei aht mekudeshet li betaba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Israel. (Thou art sanctified unto me with this ring, in the tradition of Moses and Israel.)
In keeping with egalitarian considerations, many couples prefer to consider a double ring ceremony, during which each partner gives the other a ring. Most (although not all) Conservative authorities allow this modification. However, because the giving of a ring in the traditional ceremony is meant specifically to indicate that the groom has provided for certain guarantees of his wife’s well-being in the event of the dissolution of their marriage, some rabbis believe that the double ring ceremony cannot consist of simply having the bride mirror the groom’s actions in giving a ring and reciting Hari aht..., as this would change the original meaning and intent of this portion of the ceremony.
There are two commonly employed modifications to the ring ceremony to allow for egalitarian concerns. One is to have the bride give the groom a ring immediately after he gives one to her, but to use a different verse for the recitation. The most frequently used verse is Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which means ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’. Another option is to perform the traditional ring ceremony, and then have the bride give the groom a ring at a later point in the ceremony, or during yichud.
It is highly recommended (though most authorities believe not strictly required), to have a quorum of ten adults, a minyan present to witness a Jewish wedding. Orthodox law holds that only men can be counted towards a minyan. Conservative views on this matter vary, but many authorities will count women as well as men in determining whether a minyan is present.
The feast which follows a wedding is a time of great joy and fun. If you are holding your meal at a Conservative synagogue you will be given a list of caterers which meet the synagogue’s requirements of kashrut. Should you be holding your meal elsewhere, it is strongly recommended that you consult with your officiant about which caterers can provide food that meets appropriate standards. It is also adviseable to consider your guests - if many are more tranditional than you in their beliefs about keeping kosher, it may be convenient to select a caterer accordingly.
The Jewish wedding meal concludes with the recitation of Grace (Birkat Hamazon) and the Sheva B’rachot, the seven blessings which are part of the wedding ceremony. As with the witnesses for your ketubah, asking someone to participate in the recitation of these blessings is a way of showing them particular honor and respect. Traditional authorities hold that only men are allowed to do this, while Conservative practices differ widely: some rabbis retain this restriction, some permit women to recite the Sheva B’rachot but not Birkat Hamazon, and some permit women to recite both sets of blessings.
Another way of including women in this aspect of your wedding is by asking one or more to recite a set of seven blessings before the festive meal, a custom which is gaining in popularity. Referred to as the Sheva Shevahot (Seven Praises), this practice was developed to parallel the Seven Blessings recited at the end of the meal. There is no set formula for this recitation: in contrast to the Sheva B’rachot,, which have a fixed text, which wording to use for the Sheva Shevahot is up to you. Verses from Psalms, and the Song of Songs, are most often used.
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