Weddings are one of the most meaningful events in the Jewish faith as they signify the beauty of having a relationship between a husband and a wife. It also symbolizes the obligations of a husband and wife to each other as well as the Jewish people. As the Talmud states, “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessings and without goodness. Whoever has no wife is without atonement, without peace, without life, and is not a complete person. A man is considered excommunicated from heaven if he does not have a wife.” Given this, whenever a bride and a groom get married, it is considered a mitzvah to rejoice for them as all of their past sins are forgiven as they embark on a joint future together. However, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities have different wedding customs.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, it is considered customary for a bride and a groom to not see each other for a period of time before the wedding. In some Ashkenazi circles, the bride and the groom do not see each other for a day prior to the wedding. In other circles, it is one week. The reason for this tradition is that it is believed that the evil inclination is very active during this period of time trying to spoil the wedding party. Others claim that a bride and a groom should miss each other for a period of time before the wedding so that they will be yearning for each other on their wedding day. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the bride and the groom will only meet at the "bedeken" ceremony, where in the Ashkenazi tradition the groom places the veil on the bride himself in order so that the groom can make sure that he is marrying the right woman and is not being fooled into marrying someone else like Jacob was in the Torah.
However, Mizrahi Jews take the opposite approach. They are not concerned about satanic influence and they assume that the bride and the groom will yearn for each other the more they see each other prior to the wedding. Some Sephardic sources even claim that it will cause the bride and groom unnecessary pain if they are separated from one another. In fact, either a week or two or a couple of days prior to the wedding, depending on the family, it is customary for the bride and the groom to celebrate their wedding at a special henna celebration, where the bride and the groom dance and dine together with their families and closest friends.
At henna ceremonies, it is traditional for a bride to wear two traditional oriental looking dresses, one for the beginning of the celebration and one for the ceremony where henna is placed on her hands. The groom also has two Oriental customs to wear with matching fez hats, one for the beginning of the celebration and one for the henna ceremony. At the henna ceremony, the bride and groom are paraded around together in an Oriental looking carriage as Arabic music blasts in the background. Both the bride and groom are also tossed around in the air on chairs. It is also the custom for the groom to present his bride with a set of fine gold jewelry during this special and unique ceremony. Henna guests will don the couple with presents that will assist them in starting out their lives together.
Also, the night before the wedding ceremony, the bride traditionally immerses herself in a "mikvah" bath. In the Ashkenazi tradition, this is considered a private affair for the bride. However, the opposite is the case in the Mizrahi tradition. All of the women of the family accompany the bride to and from the "mikvah", where they play drums and tambourines as they sing while the bride is on her journey to and from the "mikvah" bath. Some of the women even accompany the bride inside the "mikvah" bath itself and sing for her there while she bathes. Afterwards, sweets are served at the "mivkah" during a special celebration. Once the bride returns home, there is an additional celebration, where not only the women but also the men of the family participate. At this ceremony, the bride and the groom dine together the night before their wedding.
On the wedding day, in the Ashkenazi tradition, the couple is supposed to fast. In some Chabad circles, also the father of the bride fasts. As Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson wrote, “Whoever increases and intensifies his tears during the fast day, a day likened to Yom Kippur, is to be praised.” The sense that ones’ wedding day is akin to Yom Kippur in the Ashkenazi tradition is amplified by the tradition of not wearing jewelry under the wedding canopy, the recitation of the Al Het penitential prayers and the "viduy" confessional prayers, and the groom wearing a kittel, which is a white robe without pockets that is reminiscent of what one is buried in.
However, the Mizrahi approach to wedding days is different. They view doing anything sad to be a bad omen for such an occasion. Therefore, they do not fast on wedding days as the Sephardic legal scholars have taken issue with such customs. Instead of a groom wearing a kittel, a Mizrahi groom will wear a brand new tallit. Instead of reciting the Al Het penitential prayers and the "viduy" confessional prayers, a Mizrahi groom recites the "Lehitatef beZizit" and the "Shehecheiyanu", which are considered to be joyful prayers.
In the Mizrahi custom, the bride and the groom sign the "ketuba" or wedding contract in a special ceremony that begins before they walk together under the wedding canopy. At the "ketuba" ceremony, only the bride and the groom are present together with their parents and the rabbi. From this special ceremony, the bride and the groom in the Mizrahi tradition proceed to the wedding canopy, where the groom unveils the bride. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the signing of the wedding contract takes place later on in the evening and instead of having this ceremony at the beginning, they proceed straight to the "badeken" ceremony where the groom also veils the bride and then to the wedding canopy.
Underneath the wedding canopy, it is traditional in the Ashkenazi culture for a groom to circle around his bride seven times for just as "Hashem" created the world in seven days, the couple are now building their new lives together. In the Mizrahi tradition, a "tallit" is placed over the heads of both the bride and the groom as the wedding blessings are recited. From this point, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi wedding traditions become very similar to one another. A betrothal blessing is recited over a cup of wine. Afterwards, the groom presents the bride with a wedding ring and declares: “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”
At this point, Ashkenazi couples hold the marriage contract ceremony that the Mizrahi couples held earlier in the evening and a glass is broken prior to the reading of the "Ketuba". Mizrahi couples will read and display the "ketuba" that was already signed but won’t break the glass until the end of the entire ceremony. Following this, seven blessings are then recited over a second cup of wine and then Mizrahi couples will break a glass in order to conclude the wedding ceremony. After the wedding ceremony, a festive meal with dancing will be held. In the Mizrahi tradition, the Shabbat after the wedding, a "Shabbat hatan" will be held at the groom’s synagogue, where it is traditional to throw candies on the groom. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the "Shabbat hatan" is held the Shabbat prior to the wedding and it is not part of their culture to throw candies on the groom.
One might ponder, what is the root of all of these cultural differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews during the wedding ceremony? According to Rabbi Yamin Levy, the differences in the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi approach towards the wedding celebration find their roots in differing attitudes towards sexuality that existed in the Middle East compared to in Europe: “In Muslim and Middle Eastern countries in the Middle Ages, sexuality while scrutinized was actually celebrated in literature, poetry, and art.” This is why in the period leading up to the wedding, Mizrahi couples are encouraged to be close to each other while Ashkenazi couples are discouraged from doing so. This is also why attributes of mourning are incorporated into Ashkenazi weddings but not Mizrahi weddings.
According to Rabbi Yamin Levy, a good example of the differing attitudes can be found in the "Iggeret Hakodesh", which has a very positive view on sexual intimacy and goes as far as saying that it is part of the divine process: “The attitude towards sexuality in Sepharad is not an innovation but rather a continuation of an attitude that finds expression in Talmudic literature. For example, note this very graphic advice Rav Hisda gave to his daughters: When your husband caresses you to arouse the desire for intercourse and holds the breast with one hand and that place with the other hand, give him the breast first to increase his passion and do not give him the place of intercourse too soon until his passion increases and he is in pain with desire. Then give him.”
“One does not find this kind of comfort with sexuality in Europe,” Rabbi Yamin Levy noted. “As a result, Ashkenaz had a very different attitude toward sexual intimacy and eroticism. The church’s more suppressed views on marriage and sexuality carried the day in Europe and influenced Jewish attitudes on the subject. It is therefore no surprise that the Ashkenazi wedding ceremony tips towards the opposite direction.”