Mazel Tov! If you or someone close to you is planning a Jewish wedding, you are in the midst of an exciting — and at times stress-inducing — experience. Besides the many wedding details that all couples need to plan, Jewish brides and grooms have several other important factors connected to their ceremony to consider. Whether you are Jewishly knowledgeable or relatively new to Judaism, you may want to review the list below before you make your plans to create a meaningful Jewish wedding.
According to Jewish law, the requirements for a kosher (proper/legitimate) wedding can be summed up in a few words: a bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from a groom; the groom recites a ritual formula to consecrate the transaction; these actions must be witnessed by two people who are not related to either bride or groom. That’s it.
Engaged to be married? Mazal tov! As you begin to plan your Jewish (or Jewish-ish) wedding ceremony, whether you are Jewishly knowledgeable or relatively new to Judaism, you may want to review the list below before you make your plans to create a meaningful Jewish wedding.
Heading to your first Jewish wedding? Whether it’s Reform or strictly Orthodox, there are some Jewish wedding traditions that you will definitely see. Some may sound familiar, but knowing what to expect (and being versed in the meaning behind what you’re watching) will make you even more prepared to celebrate.
“A Jewish wedding ceremony is a little bit fluid, but there is a basic outline,” says Rabbi Stacy Bergman. “The ceremony can also be personalized by having the officiant really speak to the couple and tell their story.”
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The traditions associated with Jewish weddings — the canopy, the breaking of a glass, the presence of a rabbi, even the seven wedding blessings — are customs. Custom — in Hebrew, minhag — changes over time and differs among cultures, nations and generations; customs can vary wildly from one synagogue or neighborhood to the next.
Customs are not trivial; they are the heart and soul of rituals, and while some have been discarded and forgotten, others persist and carry even more symbolic and emotional weight than some religious requirements. Customs are not set in stone. Over the centuries Jewish weddings have been celebrated with variations in ritual and custom that reflected the needs and values of different times and places.
The nostalgic fallacy that there was once a standard, universal and correct way to do a Jewish wedding ignores differences in everything from clothes to the fact that for centuries some Jews practiced polygamy. Throughout history, Judaism has been a living tradition, examined, debated and reinvented, generation after generation. Jewish weddings are grounded in the past, but they have always been the stuff of the irrepressible present.
Are you planning a Jewish wedding? Here are the things to consider:
Table of Contents
- 1 Choosing a Date
- 2 Designing the Jewish Wedding: The Rabbi
- 3 Planning the Ceremony
- 4 Choosing a Ketubah
- 5 Selecting a Chuppah
- 6 Including Ritual Objects
- 7 Making Pre-wedding Choices
Choosing a Date
Jewish weddings are traditionally prohibited on Shabbat and most holidays — including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot — and the fast days Tisha B’Av, the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the Fast of Esther. Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not held during the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot, although customs differ as to whether that entire seven-week stretch or just part of it is a problem. Marrying during the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av is also prohibited in traditional Jewish practice. Because many of these dates fall during the prime wedding season (spring-summer), it’s important to check a Jewish calendar before you select a date.
Wondering what else you need to know before attending a Jewish wedding? Here are some frequently asked questions, according to a rabbi:
What should I wear to a Jewish wedding? For the ceremony, women traditionally wear attire that covers their shoulders and men wear Kippahs or Yarmulkas to cover their heads.
Do men and women sit separately? At Orthodox Jewish weddings, it is customary for men and women to sit on either side of the ceremony. At an ultra-Orthodox wedding, men and women will also celebrate separately with a partition in between.
How long is a Jewish wedding ceremony? A Jewish wedding ceremony typically ranges from 25-45 minutes depending on how much the couple seeks to embellish it with readings, rituals, and music.
Are Jewish weddings performed on Shabbat? Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not performed on Shabbat or the High Holy Days.
Should I bring a gift? It is customary to give a gift in the form of a Jewish ritual object or money in increments of $18, symbolizing the Hebrew word Chai, which means “life.”
And although Shabbat weddings are out, many couples choose to wed on Saturday at sundown, so that they can begin their ceremony with Havdalah, marking both the end of Shabbat and the end of the time that came before their public commitment to one another. Some couples choose to wed on Tuesdays, believing it to be an especially blessed day since in the Biblical story of creation, the phrase “God saw that it was good” appears twice on the third day.
In the past, certain dates were considered auspicious for marriage. For example, some proposed that marriages be held only during the first half of the lunar Hebrew month because love and good fortune should increase as the moon increases. The last word on the numerous “good days” and signs, however, was an endorsement of all days except those the law banned because they would violate the spirit of either mourning or joy.
Judaism protects the integrity of our two most extreme emotions, love and death. It does not permit a wedding, which the Halakhah considers the epitome of joy, to interfere with mourning, the paradigm of sadness. Conversely, it does not permit two joyous experiences to take place simultaneously—we must be able to separate them and handle these experiences with uncompromised concentration. Thus there are specific times when no marriage may take place.
Today, communities are scattered, culturally diverse and even virtual. We don’t share a common ritual language, and many of us have never been to a Jewish wedding. Our celebrations are mounted by professionals, whose main focus is on the reception, not what goes on under the huppah (also spelled chuppah ). There is a lot of hand-wringing and breast-beating about how this represents a terrible loss. But the truth is, Jews of the 21st century cannot marry the same way their parents did, much less their great-grandparents. The world has changed too much; our expectations of marriage are not the same. To be emotionally and spiritually authentic, our weddings need to synthesize the sum total of our experience, which includes the reality of our daily lives.
To make a wedding that is both authentically Jewish and personally meaningful requires a level of conscious decision making that would have mystified previous generations: Should we use Hebrew words in the wedding invitation? How do we arrange the processional with two sets of divorced parents in the mix? What do we want our ketubah (wedding contract) to say?
How are we going to make our wedding Jewish? How Jewish are we going to make our wedding?
The more numerous the choices, the greater the likelihood of disagreements. The Yiddish proverb “No ketubah was ever signed without an argument” was addressed to family squabbles (still a reality), but it also applies to the friction between tradition and personal style, between a 4,000-year-old system of laws and contemporary values about, among other things, women’s roles. Tran
Never on the Sabbath
The Sabbath, a day of joy and rest, is not a day for weddings. The Talmud states that no formal agreement, written or verbal, is permitted on the Sabbath. In the early Middle Ages, although the betrothal and nuptials were regularly fused into one ceremony, the Jews sometimes separated them by one day, celebrating the betrothal on Friday afternoon and the nuptials on Saturday night, after the close of the Sabbath.
Maimonides, however, prohibited weddings on Friday afternoons and Sundays because he found that preparations were so time-consuming and demanding of effort that they caused the unwitting violation of the Sabbath. The restriction was ultimately set aside by later authorities who assumed that, by the time the day of the wedding arrived, the extensive preparations had been completed and the Sabbath would be fully observed.
Saturday night weddings are western innovation. On late summer days, the food is often prepared, and the wedding families and musicians often arrive, before the Sabbath is over. To enter the Jewish covenant of marriage by violating the Jewish covenant of Sabbath, even by those who are generally not observant of the Sabbath, is both ludicrous and sacrilegious. In such instances, Saturday night weddings are to be discouraged. However, if meticulous care is taken not to violate the holiness of the Sabbath, there is no reason to avoid scheduling weddings on this night.
Not on Days of Joy
No weddings may be scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, or on the Intermediate days. According to the Talmud, there are two similar reasons: the first is (Deuteronomy 16:14) “And thou shalt rejoice in thy holy days,” implying “but not with thy wife”; the second is ein me’ arvin simchah be’ simchah; “one should not intermix rejoicing with rejoicing.” In this way, the integrity of the occasion remains intact. Because of the specific halakhic criteria for the concept of “joy,” weddings may be held on Purim and Hanukkah.
Private joyous occasions must also be unsullied. Thus two brothers or two sisters should not celebrate their weddings on the same day; in fact, some authorities require waiting a whole week.
Not on Days of Sadness
A wedding may not hinder a day of public mourning or sadness. Therefore, it should not be held on fast days such as the Tishah be-Av, the fast of Gedaliah, the tenth of Tevet, the fast of Esther, and the seventeenth of Tammuz. In urgent circumstances, the wedding itself may be held on fast days (other than Tishah be-Av), but the meal and celebration should begin after nightfall.
Likewise, the period of semi-mourning for the Temple’s destruction—the three weeks from the seventeenth of Tammuz through the Tishah be-Av—are days of public sadness on which a Jew should not celebrate personal happiness. The law held it forbidden from Rosh Chodesh until after Tishah be-Av, but custom has extended the ban from the seventeenth day of Tammuz until Tishah be-Av. Therefore, engagement announcements and gatherings are permitted, but without music, dancing, and elaborate foods. Weddings are legally permissible, under similar restrictions, especially for those who have no children but only for urgent reasons. In all cases, a rabbinic authority should be consulted.
The same principles apply to the thirty-three day period from Passover to before Shavuot, a time for mourning the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and followers. There is a division of custom regarding the counting of these thirty-three days. Sephardim hold these days of semi-mourning from the second day of Passover through Lag ba-Omer. Many Ashkenazim, according to the decision of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, may hold weddings until after Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, and on Lag ba-Omer, evening and day, and from Rosh Chodesh Sivan and forward. The most common usage among American Jews seems to have been the prohibition of marriage until Lag ba-Omer, following the decision of the Bach, a seventeenth-century authority. This custom has the additional advantage of having specific, easy-to-determine parameters for the Jewish public. As there are many local customs and some leniency in cases of difficulty, the local competent rabbinic authority should be consulted before the planning proceeds too far.
The Mourner And Marriage
When Marriages May Take Place.
(a.) Mourners should not be married during shloshim [the thirty days following burial], and certainly not during shivah [the seven days of mourning following the burial of certain relatives], even without pomp and music and sumptuous reception. Engagements may be contracted or announced during this period.
(b.) After the sheloshim, the wedding may proceed with all the adornments, the music and the food, and the bride and groom and their parents may dress for the occasion, without showing any evident signs of mourning.
(c.) During shloshim (after shivah), there are exceptional circumstances when marriage may be contracted:
—If the groom is the mourner:
If he is childless, and preparations had been made, such as the date set, the arrangements contracted for, and the food bought, so that postponing the wedding would incur a severe financial loss, or cause a large group of people to be absent.
If the date had not been set, but for some compelling reason such as military draft, it must be held during sheloshim, the couple may marry, but not live as man and wife until after sheloshim.
—If the bride is the mourner:
The marriage may take place during shloshim only if she had already been engaged, the preparations made, and the groom is childless.
When Remarriages May Take Place
(a.) If the wife died:
The husband must wait for the passing of the three major festivals (Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot) before he remarries. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not count as festivals for this purpose. Shemini Atzeret may be counted as a festival in certain cases involving the family’s urgent personal circumstances. The ostensible reason for this delay is the hope that the duration of three separate holidays and the cycle of seasons would temper his despair, and he would not enter a second marriage with the first love still fresh in mind. This time span might be as long as a year if death occurred soon after Sukkot, or only a few months if death occurred immediately prior to Passover.
There are notable exceptions to this general rule:
—If the husband did not sire children, marriage might be held after shiva, and they may live as husband and wife.
—If he has small children who need to be cared for, marriage may be held after shiva, but marital relations must be postponed until after sheloshim.
—If he cannot bear to live alone, for whatever reason (this is not an infrequent occurrence), he may be married but may have no marital relations until after sheloshim.
(b.) If the husband died:
The wife may remarry after three months, a considerably shorter time than the three-festival duration for a man. The wife was considered better able to control her emotions, having to be more concerned with the rearing of her children than with her feelings. The reason for the three-month delay is that it must be evident that she is not bearing a child from a deceased mate. Under exceptional circumstances to be judged by competent rabbinic authority, if it is known medically that she could not possibly be pregnant, and if her fiancé is childless, she may be granted permission to remarry after shiva.
Becoming a Mourner after the Ceremony
(a.) If one of the seven close relatives of the bride or groom died after the ceremony, but before the marriage was consummated, the couple must live apart until after shiva, [when they formally begin their seven days of rejoicing].
(b.) If the relative died after the consummation of the marriage, the mourning is postponed until after the full week of a wedding celebration. During this time, the mourner may care for personal hygiene and grooming and may experience all the joys of living. When the week is over, however, the garment of the mourner is rented and shiva begins in full, as noted above.
Read on for the most common traditions you’ll see at a Jewish wedding.
Aufruf is a Yiddish term that means “to call up.” Prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are called to the Torah for a blessing called an aliyah. After the aliyah, the rabbi will offer a blessing called misheberach, and at that time it is customary for members of the congregation to throw candies at the couple to wish them a sweet life together.
The wedding day is considered a day of forgiveness, and as such, some couples choose to fast the day of their wedding, just as they would on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The couple’s fast will last until their first meal together after the wedding ceremony.
The ketubah is a symbolic Jewish marriage contract that outlines the groom’s responsibilities to his bride. It dictates the conditions he will provide in the marriage, the bride’s protections and rights, and the framework should the couple choose to divorce. Ketubahs aren’t actually religious documents, but are part of Jewish civil law—so there’s no mention of God blessing the union. The ketubah is signed by the couple and two witnesses before the ceremony takes place, then is read to the guests during the ceremony.
During the ketubah signing, the groom approaches the bride for the bedeken, or veiling. He looks at her and then veils her face. This signifies that his love for her is for her inner beauty, and also that the two are distinct individuals even after marriage. It also is a tradition stemming from the Bible wherein Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved because the sister was veiled. If the groom does the veiling himself, such trickery can never happen.
The Walk to the Chuppah
In Jewish ceremonies, the processional and recessional order is slightly different than traditional non-Jewish ceremonies. In the Jewish tradition, both of the groom’s parents walk him down the aisle to the chuppah, the altar beneath which the couple exchanges vows. Then the bride and her parents follow. Traditionally, both sets of parents stand under the chuppah during the ceremony, alongside the bride, groom, and rabbi.
Vows Under the Chuppah
A chuppah has four corners and a covered roof to symbolize the new home the bride and groom are building together. In some ceremonies, the four posts of the chuppah are held up by friends or family members throughout the ceremony, supporting the life the couple is building together, while in other instances it may be a freestanding structure decorated with flowers. The canopy is often made of a tallit, or prayer shawl, belonging to a member of the couple or their families.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, the bride traditionally circles around her groom either three or seven times under the chuppah. Some people believe this is to create a magical wall of protection from evil spirits, temptation, and the glances of other women. Others believe the bride is symbolically creating a new family circle.
Traditionally, Jewish brides get married in a wedding band that is made of metal (gold, silver, or platinum) with no stones. In ancient times, the ring was considered the object of value or “purchase price” of the bride. The only way they could determine the value of the ring was through weight, which would be altered should there be stones in the ring. In some traditions, the rings are placed on the left forefinger because the vein from your forefinger goes right to your heart.
Sheva B’rachot: Seven Blessings
The seven blessings, called the Sheva B’rachot, come from ancient teachings. They are often read in both Hebrew and English, and shared by a variety of family members or friends, just as friends and family are invited to perform readings in other types of ceremonies. The blessings focus on joy, celebration, and the power of love. They begin with the blessing over a cup wine, then progress to more grand and celebratory statements, ending with a blessing of joy, peace, companionship, and the opportunity for the bride and groom to rejoice together.
Everything You Need to Know About the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings)
Breaking of the Glass
As the ceremony comes to an end, the groom (or in some instances the bride and groom) is invited to step on a glass inside a cloth bag to shatter it. The breaking of the glass holds multiple meanings. Some say it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say it demonstrates that marriage holds sorrow as well as joy and is a representation of the commitment to stand by one another even in hard times. The cloth holding the shards of glass is collected after the ceremony, and many couples choose to have it incorporated into some sort of memento of their wedding day.
Shouting “Mazel tov!” is one of the most well-known Jewish wedding rituals. Once the ceremony is over and the glass is broken, you will hear guests cheer “Mazel tov!” Mazel tov has a similar meaning “good luck” or “congratulations.” The direct translation is actually closer to wishing the best for the future, a great destiny, or a pronouncement that the person or people have just experienced great fortune. There’s no better time to say “mazel tov” than at a wedding!
Following the ceremony, tradition dictates that couples spend at least eight minutes in yichud (or seclusion). This wedding custom allows the newly married couple to reflect privately on their new relationship and allows them precious time alone to bond and rejoice. It’s also customary for the bride and groom to share their first meal together as husband and wife during the yichud. Customary meals differ from community to community and can range from the “golden soup” of the Ashkenazim (said to indicate prosperity and build strength) to chocolate-chip cookies from grandma.
Hora and Mezinke
The celebratory dance at the reception is called the hora where guests dance in a circle. Oftentimes, you will see women dancing with women and men dancing with men. The bride and groom are seated on chairs and lifted into the air while holding onto a handkerchief or cloth napkin. There is also a dance called the mezinke, which is a special dance for the parents of the bride or groom when their last child is wed.
Designing the Jewish Wedding: The Rabbi
The wedding, as we have seen, is not simply a beautiful ceremony—it is an intricate web of laws and customs that the Torah has ordained. Society has developed for the protection of the family and social morality. These traditions are far too complicated to be implemented by a novice. Countless legal difficulties can beset this otherwise magnificent event if it is not overseen by a rabbi who is a scholar of the law.
The Talmud insisted that Kol she-eino yodeia be’ tiv gittin ve’ kiddushin, to ye’ hei to esek imahem—whoever does not know the niceties of the divorce and betrothal procedures should not engage in supervising them. Maimonides instructed the Egyptian Jewish community that no marriage may be arranged without the supervision of an ordained rabbi. The presence of the rabbi gives the wedding the character of an official act. This was part of the historic Jewish effort to transform marriage from an unstructured, casual arrangement to a formal, officially approved, legal transaction, which carefully spelled out the responsibilities attendant upon the new status.
The rabbi has no part in effecting the marriage itself. He ascertains only that the partners are legitimately permitted to marry one another and that the marriage process is executed according to the laws of Moses and Israel. His primary value is not as a public speaker or a master of ceremonies, but as a scholar, able to assure that all the actions meet the centuries-old halakhic standards of the Jewish people.
Cantors who are not ordained as Rabbis should not perform marriages (though they perform at marriages.) The fact that the state may authorize them is irrelevant; the Jewish religion does not. A wedding should be postponed if there is no ordained rabbi available on the date selected.
Marriage is too important, the law too complex, and the Jewish family too essential to be left in the hands of those who, however well-intentioned or talented, have no knowledge of the intricacies of the marriage laws.
For some couples, this step is an easy one. They may be active members of a congregation or have a childhood or Hillel (college) rabbi that they are still close to. But for many engaged couples who are not formally affiliated with a Jewish community, finding a rabbi or cantor to lead their wedding ceremony is a daunting task. Parents may suggest using the rabbi from their congregation, whether or not the couple knows them.
First off, it’s important to know that a rabbi is not the only person who can lead a Jewish wedding. A cantor can officiate, as can another educated professional serving the Jewish community. Increasingly, couples are asking friends to officiate by becoming ordained as a Universal Life Minister. To meet most states’ requirements, the officiant does need to be a recognized member of the clergy; be sure to ask this question of any clergy you speak with.
You may want to begin the search for your rabbi by visiting local congregations and observing how different rabbis lead services. You can also contact rabbinical schools to connect with a student rabbi, whose work will be supervised by an experienced faculty member. Students are eager to gain experience and may even give you more time than a busy congregational rabbi could.
Rabbis’ schedules fill up quickly, so if you have a particular rabbi in mind, be sure to clear the date with him or her as soon as possible. Interfaith couples who encounter difficulties finding a rabbi can contact Interfaithfamily.com (Officiation Request Form), or the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, which work with interfaith couples and can help them to find a rabbi.
When you meet with rabbis you are considering, be sure to ask them their philosophy about leading weddings, if they are open to adapting rituals, and what kind of ketubah [marriage contract] text they prefer that couples use. You want to make sure that you are on the same page about major issues from the start.
Planning the Ceremony
Even couples who grew up in a Jewish home with years of Jewish education may find themselves surprised when it comes to examining traditional Jewish wedding rituals. For example, in a traditional ceremony, only the groom gives the bride a ring, an act which is thought to symbolize kinyan (acquisition).
Many contemporary egalitarian couples find this ritual to be not in keeping with their values and choose to do a double-ring ceremony; some Orthodox rabbis will allow a modified form of this. While working with a rabbi can help you learn about the wedding rituals, you will probably get more out of the experience by doing a bit of research so that you can bring ideas to your meetings with the rabbi.
Choosing a Ketubah
Just as our government issues a marriage license, Jewish law has historically used a ketubah to sanction marriage. Ketubah means “writing” or “written” and refers to the document that is signed by witnesses before and often read during a Jewish wedding. Traditionally, a ketubah served as a kind of premarital contract, outlining a bride’s ongoing rights: food, clothing, and even sex should be provided during the marriage. The ketubah also specified her rights in the case of her husband’s death or their divorce.
Many contemporary couples choose to veer away from the traditional ketubah text and its implications and instead choose a text that expresses their hopes and commitments for their marriage. Some couples write their own text, while others search for a text that speaks to their vision.
Historically, the ketubah is not only a legal document but also an artistic one. Ketubot [plural of ketubah] have long been–and continue to be–an expression of Jewish creativity. So couples not only have decisions to make about the text, but also the kind of art they want for their ketubah. Some couples shop together for a lithograph; others hire an artist to create an original design.
Couples should also think about who they want to invite to sign their ketubah. Traditionally, a witness must be a religiously observant Jewish male, unrelated to the bride or groom. Reform and Reconstructionist and some Conservative rabbis accept women as witnesses, though most still prefer that the witness be Jewish.
Selecting a Chuppah
The chuppah is the canopy that covers the bride and groom during the wedding ceremony, creating a sacred space that is both open for all to see and private and intimate for the couple beneath it. It symbolizes their new home together and is said to be open as was the tent of Abraham and Sarah, who were always ready to receive visitors.
In planning your wedding, think about what kind of chuppah would be special for you. Some are covered in flowers, and others are made of fabric squares that friends and family decorate for the couple. The chuppah is attached to four poles, which can be free-standing or held by four people. It is considered a great honour to hold a chuppah pole, so this job should be given to people very close to the bride or groom.
Including Ritual Objects
Jewish weddings call for some objects that, with a little thought, can be enhanced to create special meaning for your wedding. For example, at most Jewish weddings, kippot (yarmulkes) are provided for guests. Many couples have them imprinted with their name and wedding date; others knit original kippot or paint or decorate satin or felt ones to match wedding decor. Couples also need a kiddush cup for under the huppah, and some couples are creating a new tradition by using one heirloom cup from each family. And no Jewish wedding is complete without the glass for breaking at the end of the ceremony. Today’s couples are sometimes saving the pieces of their broken glass to be transformed into a new piece of Judaica, such as a mezuzah or candlesticks.
Making Pre-wedding Choices
One of the greatest things about Jewish weddings is that the celebration is spread out over time, giving you maximum time to honour the bride and groom. The celebration may begin with an aufruf when the bride and groom (in traditional circles, only the groom) are called to the Torah for an aliyah. They receive a mi shebeirakh blessing, which invokes God’s blessing for the bride and groom, and then they are showered with candy, a symbol of sweetness to come in their life together. Many couples host a kiddush lunch following services. This can be an ideal time to include the entire community in your wedding joy.
You and your partner should also discuss whether you want to include various traditional pre-wedding rituals such as going to the mikvah (ritual bath), separating from one another during the week before your wedding, and fasting on your wedding day. These rituals can help the couple prepare spiritually for the seriousness of the day to come. While a Jewish wedding is full of joy, it is also like a personal Yom Kippur for the bride and groom, who want to enter their marriage with a pure heart. Many couples choose to follow an altered version of some of these traditions, such as eating something light before the ceremony to protect against fainting.
You and your partner should give yourselves ample time to talk through each of these seven steps and to use the process of planning your wedding as an opportunity to learn more about Jewish tradition and the way each of you envisions your life together once you step out from under the chuppah, hand in hand.
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