Weddings in Israel touch many parts of our society, from politics to partying. Let me break it down. First, let me teach you a word: Rabbinate. “The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is recognized by law as the supreme rabbinic authority for Judaism in Israel” (Wikipedia). In addition to other things, they control Jewish marriages. For Arabs, they have their own Muslim and Christian authorities to oversee their marriages.
The Chief Rabbinate is very controversial because they have a monopoly over wedding ceremonies. There is no such thing as two people just going to a courthouse and having a simple ceremony by the justice of the peace. With Messianic Jewish weddings, there are two options. One is to bring in an Orthodox rabbi to do the ceremony (and then you release him for the rest of the celebration) or have that ceremony privately with the rabbi, and then afterward a more Messianic ceremony, performed by a Messianic leader.
But what if you’re not Jewish?
The rabbis will not perform wedding ceremonies for non-Jews. We have received over 1 million Russian-speaking Jews since 1990. Many of them are not officially Jewish; for this, your mother must be Jewish. So even if you were raised Jewish, if your mother was not Jewish, they will not marry you unless they go through a formal conversion to Judaism.
This system is opposed by the vast majority of Israelis, who see this system as needlessly discriminatory. While we are very democratic in most things, there are certain areas that were ceded to the rabbis in 1948. You cannot have a kosher restaurant unless the rabbis give you a kosher certificate. (A Messianic Jewish baker took the Rabbinate to the Supreme Court of Israel and won when they denied her a kosher certificate because of her faith.)
They also control who can get divorced. In religious circles, the husband has virtually all of the rights. It’s archaic and disgusting, and again the average Israeli is against it, and hopefully, it will change. While Israel is a liberal democracy in most areas, it is more like Iran or Pakistan when it comes to marriage. There are nightmares stories of Orthodox (or former Orthodox) women being pressured to stay in abusive relationships or having to choose between their freedom and their children.
Many non-Jewish Israelis (and many of these are people who live as Jews and identify as Jews, but the rabbis simply don’t recognize them as Jews) will go to Cypress and have a private ceremony. Then they will return to Israel for another ceremony and a celebration. Cypress has become our Las Vegas.
Gifts? Or a parking ticket??
So far, in 20 years of living here, I have never seen any type of gift registry. Everyone is simply expected to bring about $100 (330 shekels) or so. That’s about what it costs for them to host you at a wedding. Therefore, anyone can have a very nice wedding, because they know that the money that comes in will cover it. The downside of that is that you don’t come away from your wedding with a toaster or a blender or a nest egg for the future. But you do get a great celebration.
Moti Cohen, who oversees Feed Tel Aviv, an outreach to drug addicts in the homeless, once told me that he got another speeding ticket—doch in Hebrew. What he meant is that he got another wedding invitation. Of course, he was joking, as he’s one of the sweetest pastors I know. But when you are in ministry here, you do get a lot of dochim (plural).
So, what’s a Jewish wedding like?
The wedding is broken up into several sections. First, there are the hors d’oeuvres at the reception. They typically last about an hour, and you can show up at any time during that hour. Then, there is the ceremony. I’ve noticed in recent years that people pay more attention during the ceremony, but when I first moved here, I was amazed at how distracted people were during the exchange of the vows.
During the couple’s ceremony, there’s something called the seven blessings—Sheva Barchot. These are sung by the rabbi or somebody else chosen (who can sing well). The wedding we attended on Thursday night brought a twist to these seven blessings. Instead of having the traditional seven blessings song, they invited seven of their closest friends to speak a blessing over them. Each one had a topic. The first one was love. The second was wisdom. The last one, which was written by my daughter Danielle, was about community.
I just happened to have another wedding to attend the next day. The person performing the marriage ceremony was my dear friend Eitan Shishkoff. And he sang the traditional seven blessings beautifully. But he said to me afterward that he was so moved by the way they did it at the other wedding that he’d like to see something like that, more personal, in weddings. I’m sure the rabbis would not agree!
After the ceremony, there’s a meal. And that is followed by dancing. That can be traditional Jewish dancing or to modern music. Then, after the calories from dinner are burned off, there can often be a second meal, followed by dessert.
Gossip and Yeshua’s mom
Of course, there is that strange story in John chapter two. Miriam, the mother of the Messiah, is very troubled. The hosts, the parents of the bride and the groom, are responsible for making an amazing evening for the guests. (After all, they brought their 330 shekels!) To run out of wine early in the evening would be what we call in Hebrew a busha! (a great embarrassment.) The families would’ve been the subject of gossip for some time. Yeshua saves the day.
It is the same at modern Israeli weddings. Even as the wedding is going on, the main topic, beyond the obvious—the beautiful ceremony and the beautiful new couple—focuses on food and wine. And if I’m honest, the brisket that was served a few nights ago at the first of the two weddings I went to this week might even give my mother’s brisket a run for her money. (My mother is a professional caterer and has a stellar reputation.) And, yes, people notice if it is cheap wine being served or bad food.
After the wedding
Let’s talk about what happens after the wedding.
In Orthodox circles,
“The yichud is a ritual performed during a Jewish wedding immediately after the couple is married. The couple spends a few minutes in a room by themselves away from their family and friends. In biblical times this is when the marriage would be consummated. Now it’s a chance for the couple to have a moment of reflection and intimacy during the wedding proceedings.”
I’m grateful that this tradition has changed. I cannot imagine being intimate for the first time while your wedding guests are waiting.
The Israel divorce rate is much lower than in the United States. Only 27% of Israeli marriages end in divorce as opposed to nearly 50% in the United States. I don’t think it is because we have better marriages. It is because we place more value on the importance of the family unit. For instance, I know many marriages that are absolutely horrible, where one is cheating on the other, but the mother and father, who have virtually no relationship, will not end the marriage because of the value placed on family.
For instance, last night, we celebrated Shabbat. The vast majority of Israeli families gather every single Friday night for Shabbat meal. It’s the highlight of the week. We laugh, we eat, and sometimes we fight, but we always end up enjoying each other. That is in addition to all the other holidays throughout the year that bring the family together. Many Israelis will simply endure a bad marriage to protect the family.
I have also noticed a trend where more and more young people seem to be intent on being prepared for marriage. I’m speaking about the secular world here in Israel. They’re understanding more and more that it is less about falling in love and more about walking in love.
I’ll leave you with these words. At the last wedding that I participated in, I looked at the bride and groom and said: if we do everything right here today, there will not only be one wedding but two funerals. A successful marriage is based on dying to yourself and living for your spouse and vice versa. If you start with that foundation, you can’t lose.