The Jewish wedding is actually a series of small ceremonies strung together like a string of pearls. From the bedeken and the bride circling the groom under the chuppah, to the breaking of the glass and so many others, each ceremony is infused with tradition and meaning, as they have been included, embellished and developed through the centuries and within the Jewish communities around the world.
Many of these traditions involve commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and both Batay Ha’Mikdash. One of these traditions, especially amongst Ahskenazi Jews, is to put a small dot of ashes on the forehead of the groom (where the Tefilin is placed), just before the chuppah. Some put on the ashes and then gently wipe them off, so that just a smudge of the ashes is left.
I have also heard that there is a minhag to place ashes on the forehead of the bride, but I have never seen this. I guess the idea of ruining a very expensive wedding dress (not to mention makeup), has discouraged the widespread acceptance of this minhag.
As the ashes are put on the groom’s forehead, some recite the line:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither
אם אשכחך ירושלים תשכח ימיני
The use of ashes embraces an interesting use of a kind of dual symbolism. On one hand, the use of ashes has always represented an open expression of sadness and loss. This is the reason for the minhag that some people place ashes on their foreheads to signify the death of a relative or even at the time of a community disaster (see Migilat Esther). This minhag was then brought into the wedding traditions to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem.
On the other hand, another interesting aspect of the ashes minhag at weddings is the idea of “counteracting” the Ayin Harah or not casting an evil eye. In fact, many of the minhagim of mourning were ‘borrowed’ for the wedding celebration in an effort to “confuse” the evil spirits into thinking that the wedding was really a funeral and so prevent them for ruining the happiness of the occasion.
There is even a minhag of the bride and groom emptying out their pockets before the chuppah; reminiscent of the pocket-less kitel or shroud worn by the dead. The kitel itself was brought into the wedding traditions and worn by the groom, which is yet again another example of this dual symbolism.
Interestingly, the Sephardi Jews took the idea of sadness or bitterness in another direction. They used to place a wreath of olive branches on the groom’s head (and sometimes the bride’s head, as well). The bitterness of the olives, once again, represented the bitterness of the destruction of the Batay Ha’Mikdash.
No matter what the minhag, the central idea is always the same: even during our happiest moments, there is always sadness.
As the New Year approaches may we all be zoche to see the rebuilding of the Beit Ha’Mikdash in our generation.
שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו
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