Not all Jewish weddings are made alike.
What separates a Sephardic wedding from an Ashkenazi wedding?
The henna ceremony is probably the most recognizable difference. Several days before a Sephardic wedding (in Israel, henna happens after the wedding meal), a festive party takes place where the bride wears colorful clothing and the guests dance to music from Morocco or Yemen or Spain or Iraq or whatever the country of origin is. The highlight of the ceremony is the painting of the bride’s hands with henna dye as a symbol of good luck for the bride and groom. The guests have their hands painted, too.
“It’s very festive. The food is sumptuous. It’s just a very lovely ceremony,” said Irene Kaplan, a woman of Moroccan heritage whose late father, Albert Emsellem, was one of the founders of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, just outside of Washington, D.C.
“It’s supposed to be good luck for their wedding, and good luck to the people who are attending and getting the henna on their hand,” added Kaplan.
Former Magen David president Samy Ymar, who is also of Moroccan descent, had a traditional Sephardic wedding in Washington in 1978 and recalled the henna ceremony.
“It was like a week before. On a Saturday night. There was Moroccan music, Moroccan food, Moroccan pastry and Moroccan clothes. The men [wear traditional clothing] and the ladies are dressed with special clothes,” said Ymar.
Ymar recently attended his son’s henna ceremony and Moroccan wedding in Herzliya, Israel.
The henna plant is found throughout parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia and can be traced to antiquity. In Israel, henna can be found in the Ein Gedi oasis in the Judean desert. The Bible mentions henna: “My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms from the vineyards of Ein Gedi.” (Song of Solomon 1:14).
Other pre-wedding differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic ceremonies include a special mikvah party for the bride and a special Shabbat for the groom, depending on custom or often together with the bride.
The wedding itself differs from Ashkenazi customs mostly in what Sephardic couples don’t do. They don’t fast on their wedding day. They don’t bedek, or veil the bride. They don’t take a private moment right after the ceremony. Also, the Sephardic bride does not circle her groom seven times, and the groom doesn’t wear a kittel, a white ceremonial robe.
Kaplan’s cousin, Esther Amsellem, whose daughter had a Moroccan wedding in New York a couple of years ago, sees more similarities than differences these days between an Ashkenazi and Sephardic or any wedding for that matter.
“It was a very joyous occasion. We did sneak in some Middle Eastern music into there. Some Moroccan music and Israeli music and the American music that everybody is used to. It was very much a New York wedding,” said Amsellem.