Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Praha 1, U Staré školy 3
April 6 – June 4, 2006, open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
Although the Jewish community has been an integral part of Czech society for many centuries, the family ceremonies of this cultural and religious minority have not yet met with an appropriate level of interest and attention from the wider society. Due to a lack of specialist work on this topic in the past, the descriptions of the life of rural Jews in the literary work of Vojtěch Rakous made even more of an impression on the general public. The tragic events of the Second World War and the genocide of the Bohemian and Moravian Jewish population not only ended the centuries-long presence of the Jews in many areas of the Czech lands, but also severed family and local bonds. This permanently affected the form of local lifecycle ceremonies and also impeded their study and interpretation.
In Judaism, the wedding and marriage are closely linked to religious law. The union between a man and a woman is possible only between Jews (Jewish identity is passed on via the mother), or between a Jew and a convert to Judaism, known as a proselyte. The wedding is a precisely specified legal act, based on deep-rooted biblical and Talmudic traditions. Its precepts are independent of the rules and laws of the wider society, although its form has been influenced by many legal restrictions, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Since biblical times, the form of the Jewish religious wedding has undergone only small changes. Marital union is a social contract between a man and a woman for the purpose of living together and having children. Judaism allows for divorce under certain conditions and for centuries has retained the tradition of the levirate marriage.
The Jewish wedding ceremony has always consisted of two basic portions – betrothal (Heb. Kiddushin or Erusin) and the wedding proper (Heb. Nissuin). Originally, there was a period of up to one year between the two parts, but for a long time they have been held on the same day.
The actual wedding ceremony under the baldachin (Heb. huppah) is preceded by a settling of the wedding terms (Heb. tenayim), a fast by the betrothed couple, a visit to the ritual bath (Heb. mikveh) and the signing of the wedding contract (Heb. ketubbah).
After the bedeken ceremony (veiling of the bride’s head), the groom (Heb. hatan) and bride (Heb. kalah) are brought under the canopy. The latter is usually situated inside the synagogue, although weddings used to be held outside and in the evening, with the starlit sky serving as a canopy. The betrothal ceremony begins with two male witnesses, the officiant (not necessarily a rabbi) and a minyan (quorum) of ten adult males in attendance. This involves the bride circling the groom, a blessing over wine, a blessing of the betrothal, the couple drinking wine, and the betrothal of the couple with a ring that the groom puts on the bride’s finger.
The reading of the wedding contract separates the two portions of the ceremony. This is followed by the actual wedding, which includes seven blessings (Heb. Shevah Berakhot) and the drinking of a second cup of wine. At the close of the ceremony, an item is symbolically broken as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. After the couple have spent a while in privacy, it is then time for the meal and the wedding festivities, together with presents, entertainment and dancing.
This exhibition, which has been several years in preparation, focuses on the course and attributes of the traditional wedding ceremony of Ashkenazi Jews. The photographs, garments, rings, contracts and many other items on display provide an overall picture of one of the most important events in the life cycle of every individual and show how the wedding has been celebrated by the Jewish community in the past and present.