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Rethinking the traditions of tish and bedeken for a progressive, egalitarian wedding

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(Photocollage: Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)

“It’s so you,” my future mother-in-law exclaimed when my fiancé, Daniel, and I showed her pictures of the performance space we’d chosen for our upcoming wedding, set for October.

We were delighted. We’ve been aiming for that “so us” spirit in our choice of food (a smorgasbord of dishes from our favorite restaurants), music (a mix of bluegrass and jazz standards), and, most important, with the ceremony itself. We’ve worked hard to strike the right balance between our love of tradition and our progressive values. And so we’ve opted for a Conservative egalitarian ketubah, a double-ring ceremony, and to include the sheva berakhot, or seven blessings recited over the groom and bride, in Hebrew and English, read by friends and family, Jews and non-Jews. The process has been challenging but productive, pushing us to clarify our Jewish identity as a couple—figuring out what is “so us” when it comes to belief and practice.

But of all the issues we’ve managed to traverse, we’ve run into a bit of trouble on an odd set: how, or even if, to incorporate the traditional pre-ceremony rituals of the tish and bedeken.

Having attended very few traditional Jewish weddings, I first heard about these customs early in my relationship with Daniel, when he told me with glee about the tish he’d attended at the wedding of a family friend. His eyes glowed as he described how the male guests had gathered for the pre-ceremony celebration in which the hatan, or groom, delivers a d’var Torah while his friends do their best in a schnapps-fueled revelry to throw him off course. With a couple of klezmer musicians to back them, Daniel and the other men had sung, whistled, and heckled the groom in a kind of Torah-tinged roast. After 20 minutes, the men danced over to where the female guests waited with the bride, and the bedeken got underway, with the groom tenderly “checking” (that is, after all, what “bedeken” means) to make sure that this woman was, in fact, his beloved, before lowering a veil over her face to indicate to the world that she was his bride. He wouldn’t want to be caught in the pickle in which Jacob found himself, having mistakenly been tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, his intended.

It was a raucous good time followed by a loving moment, said Daniel, and best of all, it was grounded in centuries of tradition, giving the wedding an appealing “old-world feel.”

“I’d love to have something like that when I get married,” he’d said, a huge grin spreading across his face. We were far from marriage at the time, but there was something thrilling about hearing him talk so excitedly about his hypothetical wedding.

“It sounds great,” I said, swept up by his enthusiasm. “By the way, what do the women do during the tish?”

“Oh, I’m not sure,” he said, shrugging.

Seven years later, this is one of the main questions that we’re seeking to answer in our wedding planning.

Traditionally, while the groom engages in what one rabbi I spoke with described as a “rabbinic bachelor party,” the kallah, or bride, also receives a send-off, hers from the women in the community. She is seated in a thronelike chair (drawing on the imagery of the groom and bride as king and queen) that has been draped in a white sheet to represent her purity, as her female guests greet her to offer their blessings.

The groom is then brought over to his seated beloved, whom he has not seen in many days, where he then checks her identity. Having avoided the pitfalls of Jacob’s cautionary tale, the groom then lowers the bride’s veil, preserving her modesty and indicating that she is taken.

The more I learned about these rituals, the more inclined I felt to nix them. At the most superficial level, I wouldn’t be wearing a traditional wedding dress and so aesthetically a veil felt out of place, but, more significant, I didn’t want to be hidden or protected behind one. And anyway, the thought that after eight years, Daniel would mistake me for someone else felt, if not offensive, then at least implausible.

My feelings about the tish were more ambivalent. I was uncomfortable with the notion that our male guests would have an alcohol-fueled good time, heckling Daniel and dancing to music, while the women stood decorous, greeting me in my not-so-pure splendor. As an alternative, I learned that in some Modern Orthodox circles, there are two tishen, one for the men and one for the women, but having never delivered a d’var Torah in my premarital life, it seemed disingenuous to do so at my wedding. There was, of course, the possibility that Daniel could have a tish, and I could do nothing. But then what would the women do while the men celebrated? The absence of an activity for female guests felt just as unequal as the traditional set-up.

The feminist magazine Lilith recently published an eloquent d’var Torah delivered by editor Ilana Kurshan at the egalitarian tish she and her husband shared last winter. In an email from Jerusalem, Kurshan told me that the decision to do so was a natural extension of the studying she and her fiancé had been doing together. “Many of our dates involved learning,” she wrote to me. Though the couple composed their d’vrei Torah separately, they helped each other along—Kurshan’s portion focusing on creating a beit chatanot, or wedding house.

Lev Meirowitz Nelson, a student in the pluralistic rabbinical program at Hebrew College outside Boston, says he’s seen an increase in both tishen and bedeken among his friends, much to the surprise of his parents’ generation, who shed many traditions that they saw as too religious. “There’s been a movement to claim and update and egalitarianize traditions that had been written off as too Orthodox or unequal,” he said. When he and his wife were married in November, they knew they wanted to include one. “The tishen we’d been to at friends’ weddings had been tons of fun—why wouldn’t we do it if it was fun?”

“I’m always thinking about, how do you engage people who didn’t grow up with this ritual or who are turned off by it?” said Lev Baesh, rabbi at B’nai Or Boston and the director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at Baesh has adapted rituals to make them more accessible, leading tishen at which the guests engage in group art projects or move back and forth between the bride and groom, offering premarital advice. At one tish, the guests made batik Buddhist prayer flags, which they then used to decorate the chuppah. “Anything we can do from a religious or spiritual standpoint to help the couple and the people around them focus on the beauty of the event—and to do it as a community—is a really important thing.”

In learning about these solutions, I’ve been particularly inspired by how unique they are to each of the couples, and I’ve surprised myself by reconsidering the bedeken, which I’d been so quick to excise early on.

Baesh told me about a bedeken ritual he’s developed in which the couple is brought together back to back, before being turned around to face one another. Baesh then has the couple take several deep breaths before asking each, “Is the person in front of you the one you’re going to marry today?”

When he described this moment to me over the phone, I got goose bumps, similar to that mythic moment when a bride tries on a wedding dress and knows that she’s found the one that is hers. When Baesh told me about this bedeken, I knew it was mine—and when I told Daniel about it, he agreed.

We’re still figuring out the tish. We’ve got some ideas, and I feel confident that we’ll find something that works. But what I’m most looking forward to now is that moment right before we publicly make a lifetime commitment, when we turn around and look at one another. I’ll say easily, “Yep, he is so mine.” And he’ll say, “Yes, she’s so mine.” It’ll be so us.

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer who splits her time between California and New York. She last wrote for Tablet Magazine about herring.

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Sara Averick says:

“Badeken” derives from the Yiddish for “covering,” and not from the Hebrew root of bet,daled,kuf, for “to check.” The veiling derives from Rebecca covering her face when she saw Isaac for the first time (before she fell off the camel), not from the switch between Rachel and Leah – although it’s a common misconception.

Sara Averick says:

Pressed “submit” too soon – meant to add, Mazal tov!

Love the idea of your bedeken.

Re: your tisch, a friend of mine had all her female friends and relatives take turns giving her a piece of advice or well-wishes. Another had her female friends and relatives sign the soles of her shoes, after seeing mention of this in an old Martha Stewart magazine.

Mazel tov!

Ms. Krieger says:

There are plenty of ways to make a tish egalitarian. I went to one wedding where both the bride and group gave a speech during the tish. They played off of each other and were quite hilarious. And the guests all heckled and whistled and sang. It was great.

(and btw, even traditional tish ceremonies aren’t single-sex by necessity. The mothers of the groom are both there, and other guests are free to come and go between bride and groom.)

Re: mothers at tish?
Not so much.
The mothers stand there, do not eat, drink or speak, but DO LISTEN. Then, in some quarters, they each hold a plate in the air and smash it show they agree to the wedding.

And, by the way, MALE guests are free to come and go between bride and groom. Other than the mothers, women are not present at the tish.

Susan H says:

My daughters each had very moving women’s bedekkens while their grooms and the men wedding guests “fought it out” with great laughter at a tish. Reading your article got me thinking about what my daughtes had arranged that made these bedekkens so memorable.

I think it was because of the activities at the bedekkens. There were chairs for the women guests, seated around the regal bride and moms and grandmoms, and a microphone. The bride’s best friends and close relatives each sang, read, or spoke something special for the bride. Sharing in the privacy of an all-women group proved to be incredibly emotionally poweful.

Now I’m remembering also that, alternating with guests taking the microphone, we’d rise up and dance, or sing all together, sometimes with beautiful harmonies. A few of the musicians from the band joined us with instrumental backup, adding to the intensity of the event.

My other memory of both of my daughters’ bedekkens was of feeling disappointed when I heard the men approaching. We ladies were treasuring such a joyous and meaningful time….

But fortunately each event as the weddings unfolded had its own specialness. The arriving troop of men brought intense excitement, and, what still brings tears to my eyes–the very special groom to be…soon to become my beloved son-in-law.

Emily says:

My husband and I had an eqalitarian tish before our ketubah signing. Both events were open to all guests at the wedding (most of whom were staying at or near the hotel where the ceremony was) – we gave the d’vrei torah together, and because most of our guests were not at all familiar with the tradition of interrupting and telling jokes, we had our 7-yr old niece and flower girl come up and tell jokes during it, and we also told jokes. I loved it because it offered a new experience for our guests and infused the day with a traditional base. I felt like it brought our guests more into the process with us, and then it made the ketubah signing more meaningful. I also really liked inviting everyone to the ketubah signing straight from the tish. of the 130 guests maybe 40 or so joined us for these two events, and it was very special. We hadn’t planned a traditional bedeken, but then the rabbi kind of threw it in during the ketubah signing, so if you don’t want it, be sure to point that out to the rabbi!

We both had a tish. My dvar Torah was like 3 minutes long and about veils. It wasn’t so deep, but it was fun, and there was tons of singing and dancing and clapping.

At the bedecken, after my fiance “veiled me” – I put on his kittel for him. So we each covered the other.

Ms. Krieger says:

@Lynn Somerstein
RE: mothers at the tish
This, like many things, comes down to minhag and the particular wedding. Some weddings are more sex-segregated than others…but there’s no law saying women can’t attend a tish, and plenty of weddings have guests of both sexes at both the tish and badeken.

Mazel tov on the upcoming wedding! Another reason for having the bride’s face covered is in order to show that the groom is not marrying her for her surface beauty, an idea I find very empowering as women in our society are so often objectified.

Also, I’m not sure what you were referring to in terms of covering the “throne” with a white sheet to symbolize purity – what’s usually done is that the back of the dress is draped over the chair so it doesn’t get wrinkled (it also looks pretty!). In terms of wearing a traditional wedding dress, you should just know that the color white in Judaism is not about virginity. Both the bride and the groom wear white (the groom wears a kittel) as the wedding day is a personal Yom Kippur for each of them and a chance to begin their new life together with a clean slate.

In terms of what the bride does during the tish – first off, we had better food in my room as the shmorg is usually held there along with an open bar. Also, there is something happening during that time. It’s called the “kaballas panim” which means “greeting of the guests” and it was a very special time for me for two reasons. One – the bride and groom are said to have a unique merit on their wedding day and therefore have a special ability to give blessings out to people. So I used that time to offer blessings of health to sick guests, blessings of children to guests with fertility problems, and blessings of finding a soul mate for guests who were looking for one. I also loved having the opportunity to speak to my friends and family one on one – many of whom had traveled very far to be there. There was no other time in the wedding, with all the music and dancing, where such exchanges were possible.

Regarding the tish, my advice to you, as a wife who’s about to celebrate her 10th anniversay, is that if merely describing a tish brought such joy to your future husband’s face, let him have it. If you start off the marriage with such giving only good things wil come!

laurie says:

I truly believe in ritual and tradition—with a few exceptions. And, as proven over time, so do rabbis. While according to Torah it was acceptable to have more than one wife, or concubines…and the Torah never spoke of it negatively – but at some point – the rabbis did. So changes in law and rituals – by the rabbis – are able to be changed. I say “law” because if one were to go by the precepts that if Torah says it…it is good and binding…those are just two examples of it not being the case.

50 years ago or so…a true Yeshiva for women was started by an Orthodox rabbi who believed women should be educated.. This yeshiva was frowned upon by most orthodox rabbaim, but he had a vision and it has thrived to this day. Who would have thought? 40 years ago when an individual woman had the foresight and chutzpa to challenge the status quo of the day…she became a Reformed rabbi. Not too long after that breakthrough, the Conservative Movement granted smicha to women. Of course there were those who poo pooed it and believed it would never happen in the religious world. (eh, its only Conservative). 20 years later: 1) Othodox women’s minyanim are not uncommon, 2)and many women now know how to lein and conduct services (within certain parameters)OY!OY OY! Then yeshivas in Israel, sanctioned by religious leaders, give some women the “right” to become scholars in Jewish law as pertains to women’s issues and could give psaks on their situations. Low and behold 20 years later…many women are now well educated Jewishly, are scholarly, and some of these women hold very rabbinic positions in shuls…but, without the title rabbi. This year a well respected and esteemed rabbi – Avi Weiss (sp?) gave orthodox SMICHA to a woman!!!! Of course he was threatened with expulsion and other penalties for having done that and and forbade him from doing it again – but it was another first. NEVER SAY NEVER!!! We women are hard to keep down! Who knows what “advances” are ahead?

Anon says:

Editors: The plural of d’var Torah is divrei Torah, not *d’vrei.

What Sara said about badeken.

Also, Laurie, there are not Orthodox women’s minyanim, there are “t’fillah (prayer) groups” where d’varim shebikdusha are not recited and it doesn’t “count” as a minyan for ritual matters like Torah reading. Progress, yes, but a bit slow for some of us.

Loved the article. And not surprised that Rabbi Baesh would come up with some creative ideas. Mazel Tov Katie and Daniel.

Nancy says:

Dear Katie – interesting and moving article. A couple ideas for you…one, bride at her bedeken receives and transmits individual prayers, as she is considered that day closer than usual to Heaven. And since you are entering a new phase of your life, maybe instituting a new practice (giving a dvar torah) is not hypocritical but a moving forward. You’ve obviously done a lot of research and thinking about bride and groom wedding day customs…maybe take that as your base, share with others, stimulate in your hearers (both married and not) reflections on their own journeys, wishes, goals, achievements…mazel tov

Beth says:

This is a wonderful article, but if you care so much about revitalizing Jewish tradition, why not hire a modern klezmer band for your wedding? The best ones will integrate all the music you love (including jazz and bluegrass) into the event.

Mazel Tov!
A bit of advice … our rabbi insisted on an egalitarian approach in which the women would “roast” me (the kallah) much as the men traditionally “roast” the hatan. Big mistake: only one female guest understood what was going on, so I was surrounded by bewildered faces as the (female, and well-intentioned) rabbi tried unsuccessfully to stoke the female guests into joviality and Torah-related fun. For that matter, only one man participated in the enforced male celebration upstairs — and this was with mostly Jewish guests. The tisch/bedeken traditions are not familiar to so many people. You might want to offer a quick tutorial of some kind so you’re not stuck with awkward silence as we were.

yohanan gamar says:

“so us” captures the problem.your wedding and the weddings of all other jews are important only because the wedding is the particular expression in the lives of two people of the ultimate purposes of judaism.without that you are just “so us” and hence not terribly interesting or is only when you at the moment of kiddushin are the realization of family as the carnal embodiment of the purposes of judaism that the two of you become part of something far more important than yourselves which in turn endows the two of you with ultimate importance.the classic wedding ceremony takes place for the bride and groom as individuals in the kiddushin, and then endows two individuals with ulitimate jewish and human purpose by infusing their wedding with the ideas and beleifs expressed in the seven blessings.

There is a reason for the “tisch,” mentioned by no one who commented so far.

It is to sign the official engagement document or “tena’im.” (conditions of engagement). In ancient times, there were two ceremonies, erusin and nisuin and the two were widely separated, by months of not years.

We perform the erusin right before the actual wedding (the first set of blessings recited under the huppa (wedding canopy) are the “birkot erusion” followed by the nesu’in or marriage consummated in from of two reliable witnesses, and to the exclusion of all others present, and is consummated by the giving of the ring, by signing the ketubah (marriage contract) and immediately afterards by a period when they are left alone privtaely. The immediate joining of the erusin and nesuin as to minimize the time that a woman is “asura leba’ala” (forbidden to her husband) “v’asura lechol adam” (forbidden to everyone else). A betrothed woman needs a divorce before she can marry anyone else, and once divorced would be forbidden to a Kohen. If the husband drowns or otherwise can’t be located, and his passing cannot be confirmed, or if he refuses to give his wife a divorce, then she can become an “aguna,” (an anchored woman). As an extra precaution, as there are strong opinions against breaking an engagement, the tena’im nowadays are usually signed right before the wedding, at the “tisch” and a plate is jointly broken by the mothers-in-law to be, in memory of the destruction of the temple.

The ketuba, or wedding contract is also a protection for the woman. At a minimum is guarantees her one year of living expenses, enforced by a lien of all his property.

All-in-all, I think the Jewish wedding practices are primarily designed for a woman’s protection.

re the drink-fueled roast going on at the men’s side. The atmosphere is supposed to be joyous, not wild. Plus, the chatan and kallah are fasting, so that should be kept in mind.
Not everyone follows the custom of “interrupting” the chatan, which was started to spare a nervous chatan the stress of having to make it all the way through his drash. Other customs support the chatan sharing his speech, with songs bracketing his words.
It saddens me to see people tossing out traditions that are millenia old because they think they are sexist without really knowing or understanding their origins.

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Rethinking the traditions of tish and bedeken for a progressive, egalitarian wedding

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