The traditional wedding ceremony, like other significant rites of passage, is carefully defined by the norms of Jewish law and custom, so that very few of its details are left to chance. Some features, like the text of the "seven blessings" that are recited under the canopy, or the breaking of a glass in memory of the destroyed Temple, are rooted in ancient sources. Other practices have evolved through the conventions of individual communities.
Where the bride and groom are to stand under the huppah is one of those areas that came to be governed by local usage. Sources from the mediaeval era report that the prevailing custom in Ashkenazic communities was for the bride to stand at the groom's right side, a procedure that was supported by a Biblical proof text: "Upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir" (Psalms 45:9). In other localities the order appears to have been reversed. As long as Jews adhered to the practices of their own communities, everything should have continued harmoniously.
This innocent question of wedding protocol became the focus of a controversy in an episode that occurred in Rome in 1528. When doubts arose over what the correct practice ought to be in their city, a prominent local sage, a certain Rabbi Judah, insisted that the bride must stand on the left. As the disagreement progressed, Rabbi Judah made it clear that he would have taken this position even if the local precedent had been otherwise, and that in his opinion the longstanding Ashkenazic custom was indefensible.
In order to appreciate the vehemence of his argument, we must note that the Rabbi in question was also a Kabbalist. For proponents of this mystical philosophy the concepts of right and left are fundamental to the metaphysical structure of the universe, reflecting the tension between the divine attributes of justice and mercy. According to the imagery of the Kabbalah, the merciful, masculine aspect of God, is identified with the right side, and the just, female side with the left.
In the eyes of the Jewish mystic, human actions are a mirror reflecting the celestial creative forces. The joining of male and female humans is thus, in a profound sense, essential to their being created in the "image of God"--for gender divisions originate in the divine realms. Therefore it is only fitting that the woman position herself to the left of the man. To do otherwise would be a reversal of the proper order of creation, and might be fraught with dire metaphysical consequences.
By insisting that halakhic decision-making be subordinated to mystical theology, Rabbi Judah had raised some sensitive issues about the borders and priorities of law and theology in Judaism.
However not all questions about where to stand under the huppah were of such weighty dimensions. Some related more immediately to the personal relationships between the new couple.
Thus, the 17th-century mystic Rabbi Abraham Azulai observed that the balance of power in the marriage will be affected by where the bride and groom place their feet during the ceremony. If the husband succeeds in positioning his right foot upon his wife's left foot while the blessings are being recited, then this will establish the pattern for the future marriage, and she will continue to submit to his authority. But if she puts her left foot on his right, then she will thereafter wield the power in the home.
Rabbi Azulai tells of an occasion when a certain bride came out the loser in the foot-stamping competition at the huppah. Distressed, she reported the incident to her father, who revealed to her a solution to her dilemma: Just before the consummation of the marriage, he advised, she should ask her husband to bring her a glass of water. This well-timed drink would shift the power back into her hands.
The learned Kabbalist, writing in 17th-century Jerusalem, was probably unaware that the procedure he was describing bore an uncanny resemblance to a well-known folk belief still current among the people of Cornwall. According to a local legend, the waters of the famous well of St. Keyne possess the ability to bestow domestic authority upon the partner who is first to drink from them after the wedding ceremony. A popular English ballad expresses the dismay of a fresh bridegroom upon his discovery that his new bride had the foresight to secretly carry a bottle of the wondrous waters to the wedding, giving her an unbeatable advantage.
Such intense competitiveness at the threshold of their married life suggests that neither husband nor wife were truly putting their best foot forward.
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