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The Sephardic Wedding: Different Than What You May Be Used To

Many couples are unaware of the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish religious practice, especially when it comes to weddings. Our synagogue membership consists of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, and many couples who get married at our synagogue are not from a Sephardic background.

This has resulted in some puzzlement for couples getting married, since on the whole our congregation observes Western Sephardic customs (i.e. from The Netherlands), which most people are not familiar with. So, I thought it would be a good idea to describe some of the differences, for them and for anyone else.

First, a bit of context is in order here. Sephardic Jews are a sub-group of the Jewish community. They are those Jews whose families come from the area around the Mediterranean and whose lineage dates back to the expulsion of the Jewish community from Middle Ages Spain.

Many times, Jews whose ancestry is from other countries of the Middle East, including Persia, Yemen or Syria, are grouped in with the Sephardic group, although technically they are part of another group, the Mizrachi (meaning "Eastern") Jews, and are NOT Sephardic at all. Mizrachi Jews are actually much closer to Arabs or the Iranians in terms of their liturgy, music, language and culture than to that of the Sephardic Jews.

Ashkenazi Jewish families come from the northern European area, including Germany, Poland, Eastern Europe, and Russia. The main exceptions are Jews from The Netherlands and Belgium, where most Jews are from the Sephardic group.

The religious customs of the Sephardic community are not as uniform as they are for the Ashkenazic community, which despite its coming from over a dozen countries, celebrate lifecycle events and holidays in a very similar way.

This is not the case within the Sephardic community. The customs of a Mizrachi community, let's say, a Persian (Iranian) congregation, can be very different from a Chaldean congregation (Syrian), which can both be very different than those of a Spanish & Portuguese community from The Netherlands (FYI: the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardic tradition is also known as the Western Sephardic tradition).

Click here to view an entertaining video which showcases some of the more apparent differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.

To borrow a phrase from the movie My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, Ashkenazim and Sephardim are like apples and oranges, different, but in the end, they're both fruit. They actually share much more than they differ.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that most Spanish & Portuguese Sephardic communities no longer speak either Spanish or Portuguese, but the vernacular of the country they are living in, such as Dutch, English or Hebrew. In addition, only a very few prayers in the Spanish & Portuguese tradition are written in the liturgical language of the Sephardim, Ladino; most of our prayers are written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the traditional Jewish liturgical languages, or English, Dutch or another vernacular language.

Many Sephardic Jews, especially Jews from Morocco, begin their wedding celebrations several days before the actual ceremony, starting with an elaborate party for the friends of the bride. The bride wears a fancy, embroidered velvet dress, frequently a family heirloom, adorned with pearls, jewels and metal threads.

Similar to a bridal shower, at this celebration the wedding guests share a party meal. Afterwards, some families paint designs and symbols on the palms and hands of the bride, using henna dye, a brown-colored liquid that has been used for centuries in this way by Middle Eastern and South Asian brides. The symbols symbolize fertility and protection from evil.

In Ashkenazic Orthodox Jewish practice, on the evening before the wedding ceremony, a bride-to-be visits the mikve (the ritual bath) for a ritual immersion. Typically performed with the bride's mother or aunt, or another close female relative, it's usually done in private.

Although prenuptial immersion in the mikve is an Orthodox Jewish practice in the Ashkenazic community, it's not that way for the Sephardic community. It is adhered to much more strictly by Sephardic women regardless of their level of observance.

In the Sephardic tradition, the bride's pre-wedding ceremony ritual immersion is a community affair. Called the "Noche de Novia" (night of the sweetheart), it includes all the bride's relatives, friends and other women from her community, who accompany her to the mikve and stand outside the mikveh room while she immerses with the help of her attendants. After the immersion, a lavish party follows accompanied by candy and other sweets.

Different than the Ashkenazic tradition, which considers a wedding day just another day, the Sephardic community considers a wedding day a community-wide Jewish holiday. As such, a Sephardic bride and groom are not allowed to fast (the same rule against fasting would apply in the Ashkenazic community if that day were a community-wide holiday).

As with any other community holiday, the bride and groom are expected to enjoy a festive meal honoring the occasion. Held just prior to the wedding it ensures that the groom and bride don't come to their wedding ceremony famished with hunger.

We Sephardic Jews have no tradition of "bedeken," what Askenazic practice calls "the veiling of the bride." Some brides coming from an Ashkenazic community, want a bedeken ceremony, so I allow it at their weddings.

In Ashkenazic Orthodox Jewish practice, the custom of "yichud," in which the couple slips away for a private moment right after the ceremony for some refreshment (hard-boiled eggs is a traditonal "break the fast" treat) is frequently practiced. In some circles, the bride and groom consummate the marriage during this period.

Sephardic practice does not include a yichud period. To Sephardic Jews, consummation of the marriage during a yichud period is considered a "davar mechuar," a repugnant act and is considered an affront to personal modesty. Since a Sephardic couple has already eaten a big meal before their weddings, they don't need a yichud period to grab a little food and drink to break a wedding fast.

Among Sephardic Jews the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) is considered a legally binding contract. Nothing sentimental or for "kicks" with a Sephardic ketubah, as it is frequently viewed by Ashkenazic Jews.

The ketubah is a real document, with enforceable terms, and not something for entertainment. The two families negotiate a sum (what is called the "ketubah," and hence the name of the contractual document itself) to be set aside and paid in the event of a divorce or the untimely death of the groom. Some Sephardic ketubah agreements are actually recorded with the town or city clerk by some families.

I've participated in contractual negotiations in these situations and take my obligations very seriously in regard to the ketubah contract. In the weddings I'm asked to bless, I review the ketubah document very closely and correct any errors in the Aramaic, Hebrew or Ladino text I find, as well as mediating between families in their negotiations with each other.

In traditional circles, to create the ketubah, Sephardic grooms would look forward to setting aside at least one year's salary at current rate in an interest-bearing account or trust fund or 50% of that amount in the event the groom was marrying a divorcee. Modern-day practice realizes that many grooms (and their parents) do not have that amount of cash in hand prior to their weddings (and they certainly won't afterwards!).

So, as a result many families agree that the ketubah will consist of a savings account which will be incrementally paid into over the life of the marriage. I know many couples where both the groom AND the bride pay into this account, which, rather than being for the bride alone as is traditional practice, acts as a type of rainy-day emergency fund for the entire family.

An aside about ketubah documents. Usually ketubahs are very large and contain substantial illumination and artwork. Many families display their beautifully decorated ketubahs on their family or living room walls.

The text of a traditional ketubah contractual document, whether Sephardic or Ashkenazic, is the same and has been set by Talmudic statute for nearly 1800 years. Traditionally written in Aramaic, it lays out standard terms and conditions for Jewish marriage, and includes the agreements that have been negotiated about the ketubah amount.

A slight difference in some Sephardic ketubahs is that not only are the parents' names included in the document, but also several generations of forebears are also included, as well as a defined section for corrolaries to the standard contractual agreement.

Also, some ketubahs have translations of the traditional text and the corrolaries, written in Ladino, the business and religious vernacular of the Sephardic community, or another language. I can help you with that, if you need to have some part of your ketubah written in Ladino or another language, besides Aramaic or Hebrew.

Some vendors recently have begun offering so-called "Sephardic" ketubahs to the public, claiming that they are somehow different than normal ketubah documents, and thus, command a much higher price. This is patently false and is just a marketing ploy. Don't fall for it.

Unlike many traditional Ashkenazic Jewish wedding ceremonies, the Sephardic bride does not circle her groom seven times. Some Ashkenazic brides want this, so I allow it, even though it's not a Sephardic custom.

Instead of a four-pole chuppah over them, a Sephardic couple has a tallit (a Jewish ritual prayer shawl) draped over their heads. I have an article about chuppahs in this blog, where I talk about this form of chuppah, the Sephardic wrap-around chuppah, and show some pictures of them. Click this link to get there.

Also, much different than in Ashkenzic weddings, a Sephardic couple generally faces their guests during the wedding ceremony and the officiating rabbi has his back to the guests. At our synagogue, the couple's and the rabbi's positions have been turned around, so that the rabbi faces the guests and the couple faces the rabbi, just like most American weddings. But, if a couple wants to be married in the traditional Sephardic way, it's no problem for me - I'll gladly do it.

In Ashkenazic custom the "aufruf," a party for the groom-to-be (think modern-day stag party), always takes place the Shabbat before the wedding. In Sephardic custom, an equivalent party, called the "Avram Siz," is held on the Shabbat following the wedding rather than the one preceding it.

Different than an aufruf, the Avram Siz includes the reading of a passage in Genesis in which Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a suitable mate for his son, Isaac. This is why it's called the "Avram Siz," which is Aramaic for "Avram was old," which are the words that introduce this Torah passage, which is read not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic, the language of the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Torah.

Rather than celebrating for one night like Ashkenazic Jews do, Sephardic Jews stretch out their wedding celebrations. A typical Sephardic wedding celebration lasts at least a week and includes seven celebratory feasts, each called a "Sheva Brachot" (the same name as the group of seven wedding blessings chanted at their wedding). Held at the couple's new home, the seven wedding blessings are recited over them again and again.

Guests are required to bring all the food and drink needed at each of these parties where the bride and groom are treated as a king and queen and their home is likened to a royal court.

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Click here to view The Practical Sephardi - Tips From The Talmud, a Facebook group containing uniquely practical viewpoints of Sephardi Jews offered on a variety of subjects over the past several centuries

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