This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Beneath the Stars*

Some time ago I was consulted by a hotel owner who was considering doing some renovations to one of the social halls in his establishment. He had been advised that Jewish weddings should be held under the stars, and was therefore planning to build a skylight for that purpose. As a Catholic, he was curious about the origin and significance of the Jewish custom.

As it happened, his question had a short answer and a long one.

The short answer can be found by means of a quick glance at the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative compendium of Jewish religious practice. The relevant ruling is contained in the glosses of Rabbi Moses Isserles, which cite the prevailing Ashkenazic customs that were omitted by the Shulhan Arukh's Sepharadic author.

In the section dealing with weddings, Rabbi Isserles writes: "Some say that the wedding canopy should be placed under the heavens in order to symbolize that their offspring will be as plentiful as the stars in the heavens."

As is the case with most of his rulings, Rabbi Isserles was basing himself on earlier compendia of Jewish customs. His sources consisted of several authoritative works from the fourteenth century.

And this brings us to the long answer to our original question

It appears that there was an established custom in some Ashkenazic communities of holding weddings in the synagogue courtyard. Correspondingly, there evolved a considerable reluctance to hold them inside the synagogue buildings, irrespective of any imagery that might attach to the stars.

The question of whether it is at all permissible to hold the nuptials inside the synagogue became a matter of fierce controversy in the nineteenth century. An inquiry was addressed to that staunch defender of tradition, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (the Hassam Sofer) of Pressburg, asking whether it was allowed to deviate from older custom by moving the huppah into the synagogue. In his responsum, Rabbi Schreiber cited an earlier pronouncement by Rabbi Meir Mintz, to the effect that one should always strive to perform actions that signify blessings. However, Rabbi Mintz's responsum also spoke at length about the where the bride should be positioned vis à vis the Torah ark, implying that the ceremony was held inside the synagogue.

The Hassam Sofer resolved the apparent discrepancy by observing that Rabbi Mintz was referring to two separate ceremonies. The old Ashkenazic custom knew of a celebration known as the mayen (from an old German word for dancing or rejoicing) that was held prior to the actual wedding. The event had been described by Rabbi Jacob Moelin (the Maharil, 1355-1427):

At dawn...when the beadle calls everyone to come to the synagogue, he also summons them to the mayen. Then the rabbi escorts the groom in front of himself, with all the people following behind, to the light of torches and with musicians, to the synagogue courtyard. Then they would go back again, still accompanied by the torches and the musicians, in order to escort the bride and her companions. Upon the bride's arrival at the entrance of the synagogue courtyard, the rabbi and the dignitaries lead the groom to the bride. The groom takes her hand, and as they are joined together everybody tosses wheat on their heads while they say "be fruitful and multiply" three times.

The Hassam Sofer presumed that when Rabbi Mintz spoke of an outdoor ceremony, he was referring to this mayen celebration, not to the actual wedding. As he understood the original purpose of the custom, its authors wanted the new couple to benefit from both the symbolic blessings of the stars, and the sanctity associated with the synagogue. These dual ceremonies were still prevalent in much of central Europe.

On the other hand, Rabbi Isserles lived in Eastern Europe, where the mayen ceremony was not known. For that reason, he insisted that the wedding should be held out of doors, in keeping with venerable tradition of their central European forbears.

However, as we survey the positions of other halakhic authorities who dealt with the question, we begin to suspect that there is more at stake here than generic conservatism or resistance to change.

In fact, it is only in the closing sentences of his responsum that the Hassam Sofer offers us a glimpse of his real concerns:

And if anyone chooses to forego the blessing, deeming it an inconsequential matter, his real intention is to emulate gentile customs. The gentiles are not subject to the blessing of the stars [since this was bestowed upon Abraham], and therefore they hold their weddings inside their churches.

However, for those who desire to partake of their ancestral blessing, that the fruit of their loins should be like the stars and as plentiful as the fish in the sea--then may the Lord fulfil all their wishes for good!

From these remarks we may learn that the traditionalist antipathy for synagogue weddings was rooted in their perception that such ceremonies were an imitation of the Christian practice. Indeed, many of the ritual innovations that were being introduced by the nascent Jewish Reform movement were designed explicitly to make Jewish practice resemble as much as possible those of the Protestant churches.

Nevertheless, the earlier traditions were not entirely consistent on this issue. Though the festivities described by the Maharil had taken place in the synagogue of Mayence, a seventeenth-century account of a wedding in nearby Worms situates the wedding in the communal social hall.

Some authorities deduced from the Hassam Sofer's ruling that there were grounds for permitting a wedding to be held in a private home, since this did not resemble the Christian practice.

Other rabbis raised additional questions that reflected the conditions and mores of their societies. For example, those Jewish communities that were surrounded by hostile gentiles feared that the festivities were apt to provoke violent attacks.

Several Sepharadic authorities were careful to note that their communities had never observed the Ashkenazic custom, and that their weddings were normally held indoors. Some, however, were very persistent about requiring the Ashkenazim to observe their own custom.

In more recent years, several distinguished rabbis took more lenient approaches to the issue. Rabbi Moses Feinstein argued that outdoor weddings were no more than a recommended custom; but as long as there is no conscious intention to imitate Christian practice, it should not be insisted on. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef has expressed a similar view, observing that it is not an important enough issue to provoke a dispute.

One recurring argument against synagogue weddings is that the festivities might lead to actions that are inappropriate for a sacred place. Citing talmudic passages that forbid the use of the synagogue for anything other than prayer or religious study, some rabbis were particularly troubled by the free mixing of the sexes that took place on such occasions, in contrast to the strict segregation that was usually enforced in traditional synagogues.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, who spent much of his time among the non-observant pioneers of pre-state Israel, raised an additional point: The modest dress codes that governed traditional diaspora Jewish communities are no longer the norm in our times, and therefore it would be a profanation of the synagogue to hold weddings there, when many of the participants will be dressed in skimpy or revealing clothing.

And so once again, a seemingly straightforward query into the source of a Jewish wedding custom has introduced us to a proliferation of rabbinic opinions and historical controversies.

You might even say that the number of divergent views on this question is plentiful as the stars in the heavens.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 22, 2001, pp. 16, 18.

  • Bibliography:
    • Otsar ha-Poskim, 4th revised ed. (Jerusalem: 1965)
    • Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (New York: Atheneum, 1969).
    • Ze'ev W. Falk, Jewish Matrimonial Law in the Middle Ages, ed. A. Altmann and J. G. Weiss, Scripta Judaica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966).
    • Leopold Löw, "Eherechtliche Abhandlungen," in Gesammelte Schriften (Szeged: 1893).