I’ve been thinking about the custom of the veil in Jewish weddings. I had some questions about it, so I thought I’d see what Google says, and then I’ll let you know what I was/am thinking. I’m actually going to quote the whole sections here so you don’t need to go hopping around.
Let’s start with the simplest of explanations, but already includes the part that starts to get us into trouble ( more on that later):
The bridal veil is a custom as old as all other Jewish customs. We find that even the Matriarchs wore veils at their weddings, as we see in Genesis 24:65
And she (Rebecca) said to the servant, “Who is that man in the field, walking toward us?” And the servant said, “He is my master (Isaac),” and she took the veil and covered herself.
These days, however, it is the chosson himself who places the veil on the kallah, to prevent the sort of switch that Laban perpetrated against our Patriarch Jacob, in Genesis, Chapter 29. And so, the chosson, along with his entourage, will enter the women’s section, and the chosson will place the veil on his kallah.
And now we’ll go one step more:
The custom of veiling the bride (badecken) is traditionally explained by the reference to Rebecca in Genesis (24:65) “Rebecca took her veil and covered herself” upon her first meeting Isaac. Popular legend attributes the badecken to the Biblical story of Jacob and his wives. After working seven years for permission to marry Rachel, Jacob was tricked on his wedding day into marrying Leah, instead (Genesis 29:25). To avoid such a mishap, according to legend, the groom “checks” to be sure than it is, indeed, his bride, before her veil is lowered over her face. Students of Jewish folklore believe that the use of the veil by a Jewish bride may be an adaptation of a Roman custom. Among Romans the bride wore a full-length veil, which was used when she died as her burial shroud. Among Oriental Jews, the veil is made of opaque material. It is so designed to serve as an affirmation that the bride is placing her complete faith and trust in the man whom she is about to marry.
And then there’s this–can you guess where this is from? Okay, I’ll let you know.
Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses depicts him as having horns coming out of his head. Do you know why?
The horned Moses is an old inaccuracy, which originates in a Greek mistranslation of a verse in the Hebrew Bible. After coming down from Mount Sinai, Moses is described as having rays of divine light beaming from his face. But being that the word for “beaming” and “horns” have the same letters in Hebrew, an old Greek translation mistakenly rendered this verse, “And Moses had horns.” Based on this, many medieval artworks depicted a horned Moses, most famously Michelangelo’s sculpture.
The Torah continues to say that Moses’ face was so bright with holiness, no one dared look at him. He had to wear a veil whenever he spoke to the people in order to filter the divine glare.
This is also why a bride wears a veil. The souls of both bride and groom are in an elevated state under the Chuppah (marriage canopy), as they are about to unite as one. In the bride, this elevated state is more revealed. She radiates a special holiness; the divine presence (“Shechinah”), the feminine aspect of G-d, shines through the face of the bride.
This light is so intense that it must be veiled, just as the light emanating from Moses’ face had to be covered. Holiness needs privacy.
Okay, can you figure out what parts I have trouble with?
Hint: why doesn’t the guy have to cover his face? Even Moses did!!!!
Now this one I like for its completeness, but I don’t like that it doesn’t actually bring its sources.
The groom is then escorted by his father and the bride’s father, the rabbis, the dignitaries, and the others in his retinue to the bridal reception area for the veiling ceremony, known in Yiddish as the bedeken (Hebrew, hinuma). Accompanied by his friends, who dance and sing in front of him, the groom leads the procession to the bride. He approaches the bridal throne and covers the bride’s face with a veil (Yiddish, dektich). He is then escorted back to the groom’s reception room by the men, to prepare for the huppah ceremony [the public marriage ceremony that takes place under the marriage canopy, or huppah].
The veiling ceremony dates back at least to early medieval times, and some find a reference to the custom in the Talmud. The reason for the ceremony is probably related to modesty; the veil symbolically represents the added level of modesty the bride is expected to adopt with her elevation to the married state. The Torah relates that when Rebecca saw her bridegroom Isaac coming toward her, “she took her veil and covered herself. The bedeken ceremony thus recalls to all Jewish brides the matriarch’s gesture of modesty at seeing her bridegroom, inspiring them to emulate their biblical forebears and conduct themselves with an elevated level of modesty in their married lives.
Some ascribe the custom of the bride’s veiling to her position of centrality at the wedding, and the possibility that some men, undisciplined in their thoughts, might cast lustful eyes at her. The veiling accordingly underscores that, from this day on, the beauty of the bride is reserved for her husband alone to appreciate. Others see in the ritual a symbolic act directing attention away from the physical toward the spiritual at the wedding, constituting a public demonstration by the groom that his interest in the bride lies not in her beauty, but in the deeper, inner qualities of her character which, unlike her physical beauty, will not disappear in time.
There is also a rabbinic opinion that the tradition has a legal basis, as it symbolizes the groom’s public obligation to clothe his wife, and is thus a procedure which is an integral part of the legal marriage process.
In some communities it is not the groom, but the rabbi who performs the veiling procedure. When the rabbi veils the bride, he often simultaneously recites to the bride the biblical blessing: “O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads.”
The tradition of Hasidim and some Oriental Jews, and the old Jerusalem community, is for the veil to be opaque, to assure that the bride’s entire face is covered for the wedding ceremony, so that she can neither see nor be seen.
And now we dip back into the world of excuses and silliness:
Now you may be wondering, why the bride is to be veiled and why the job of putting on the veil, especially given the fact that most men are rather clueless about women’s accessories — bridal or otherwise — is given to the groom. This goes back to really ancient history. Brides would cover their faces out of modesty. We see that in the Bible when Rivka [Rebecca] is brought over to her groom, Yitzchak [Issac], she covers her face. In the next generation, the cover of the bridal veil prevented Yaakov [Jacob] from realizing that he was, in fact, marrying Rachel, for his duplicitous father-in-law put her sister, Leah, in her place. To avoid such bridal switches, the groom ascertains that the woman behind the veil is the woman he means to marry by putting it on himself. Some also suggest that putting on the veil points to the groom’s obligation to provide for his wife’s clothing and other essentials, as stipulated in the kethuba.
In his book Beyom Chasunaso: An Explanation and Analysis of of the Laws and Customs of a Jewish Wedding (2007), Rabbi Zev Cinamon gives another reason for the groom’s role in the veiling. According to some opinions, the bedeken, in spreading a covering over the bride constitutes the chuppah. Consequently, they would suggest that the groom be the one who owns the veil that he spreads over his bride. Some would even designate witnesses for the bedeken as an actual act of marriage (Cinamon 37).
Some people like to ascribe further meaning to the veil, by declaring it a symbol of the fact that what’s inside is the real measure of a person rather than physical beauty. But I haven’t seen that reason in historical written sources. It also does not completely fit the custom of declaring the bride to beautiful and kind. According to the ruling of Hillel, which trumped the ruling of Shamai, the proper thing to say at a wedding is, “kallah na’ah vechasuda,” regardless of the objective assessment of the bride in question. We literally sing the bride’s praises by declaring her to be beautiful, as well as good.
As everyone watches the bride walk down the aisle, the veil gives her some small measure of privacy. Nevertheless, at a standard Orthodox Jewish wedding, the wedding veil will be made of the standard tulle or illusion fabric, which is very close to sheer. Hasidic brides, on the other hand, do wear opaque veils that completely obscure their faces. Happily, the bride is not left to make her way on her own, so her blocked vision should not result in any missteps.
Missteps indeed. And do you see (pun intended) that this one contradicts the previous one? If we are to comment on the beauty of the bride, then we should not be misled by having to veil her to do so.
My problem is that I was also always under the mis-impression that this whole veiling thing was mimicking Yaakov/Jacob and his checking out his bride so he wouldn’t get the wrong bride. But, if that ‘s the reason, then we should have an unveiling of the bride at the chuppah itself, so that he’s not getting the wrong merchandise, if you will.
So then I think we’re left with a problem. If it is after Rivkah veiling herself, then why does it get done for the present-day kallah? If it is for modesty, then why is she shown before or after the bedeken?
So maybe we should have a veiling before the wedding, then an unveiling under the chuppah indeed to ascertain if she is the correct bride.
As to the thing with throwing a shmatte over the poor girl’s face so she has to be led like a lamb to the slaughter, well, I just have too many problems with that. And that’s probably enough for now.