A friend of mine is getting married this fall and came to me with some questions about the wedding ceremony. She and her fiancé are pretty secular, but she is still oriented toward tradition. She needs some help understanding one of the rituals in particular, the ceremony performed before the chuppah called “the badecken.” She wants to better understand this tradition, and how she should put it into practice in this day and age.
Let’s start with a basic core understanding of ritual and symbol as a lead-in to this larger conversation. Lifecycle events are rich in symbolic and ritualized behavior. These rites help us navigate the liminal moments in our lives. It is generally accepted and often the case that transitions are pregnant with a precarious potential for peril. To move from one state to another is fraught with tension and uncertainty. The rituals that have grown around celebrations of birth, puberty, marriage and death address these natural tensions either by diverting attention, comforting or addressing head-on the transition at hand. These rituals contribute to a massaging, so to speak, of the transition and perhaps even as a navigational tool to assist the intense changes that are underway.
Symbols go hand in hand with ritual. A symbol is a physical object that transcends its basic physicality by assuming a meaning far beyond its utilitarian nature. A wedding ring is not just a piece of jewelry by virtue of it being given at a ceremony of commitment and devotion. It becomes that physical symbol of those ideals and values. The ring triggers the memory and takes on the very meaning and significance of the commitment and devotion it represents. Its symbolic value transcends its actual value.
Jewish wedding rituals and symbols are a persnickety mélange of tradition, halachah (Jewish law), family heritage and regional variations. Weddings are a lifecycle ritual perhaps most fraught with the intense and highly charged negotiations, given the merging of two previously distinct individuals and their families. And of course, the communal union of these two people must offer authentic meaning to its two central figures — this being the moment of their newly birthed connection; their marriage. Hence the planning is complicated and worthy of careful deliberation. This is a big deal.
The badecken, the veiling of the bride, most prevalent in Ashkenazic communities takes place immediately before the chuppah and right after the signing of the ketubah. The groom, who has been ensconced with the men, and the bride, who has been fêted by the women, will see each other here for the first time. The groom will often be escorted by an entourage — his close family members, his friends, and the rabbi — toward the bride, who is seated. She will be surrounded in turn by her close family members and friends. This part of the ceremony might have loud festive music in the background or, depending on the custom, more somber and plaintive singing of the groom’s party. As the groom approaches the bride, flanked on one side by his father and the other side by the bride’s father, the emotions in the room tend to soar — this is often the most emotional moment of the traditional wedding. There is close proximity and intimacy — it is the first time the couple sees each other at their wedding.
The groom draws close to the bride, lifts the veil resting on her head, then gently lowers it over her face. The bride is veiled. A flurry of blessings are bestowed upon her by the fathers, the uncles, grandfathers and perhaps the rabbis. The blessings include the blessing enunciated by the family of the biblical Rebecca, as she prepared to leave her home, to travel with the servant of Abraham to meet her groom-to-be Isaac. Her brothers declared, “Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them.”
The priestly blessing is often pronounced as well: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
The groom and his entourage depart, guests make their way to the area where the chuppah and marriage ceremony will take place, and the bride, newly veiled, prepares to walk down that aisle.
This delicate veiling is heavy with symbolism. It is at once evocative of a nascent status of exclusivity, a subtle intensified modesty and an implied sense of privacy. All of which are indeed integral to marriage and about be the new reality for said bride. The word for veil in Hebrew, tzeif, appears twice in the Torah, both in reference to women who veiled themselves at uncertain moments ahead of intimacy.
Rebecca, upon seeing Isaac, her intended, for the very first time, at the end of the long camel trip from her birthplace in Mesopotamia to Canaan where Isaac was living, veils herself as she alights from her camel. Tamar, the disguised widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, veils herself before presenting herself to him. The Midrash links these women and their
veilings by matter-of-factly observing that they both veiled themselves and they both gave birth to twins.
Are their particular coverings connected to modesty or concealment? What is this wispy covering of a veil? It is a distancing but yet not a total hiddenness. This very quality of tacit separation is evoked when Moshe places a veil over his face to serve as a boundary between himself, who saw the Holy One face to face, and those who had not. His beaming face was to be set off from others.
On a mystical note, it is reminiscent of the veil that distinguishes between the Holy and the Holy of Holies in the Temple and of the thin divide between the upper and lower worlds. It is a hint of extraordinariness, of an intimacy borne of being set apart — of commitment and years of devotion yet to come.