Recipe for a Ritual, by Rabbi Roni Handler

When Freedom to Marry, an organization dedicated to ending marriage discrimination, posted about my essay in Tablet Magazine, I was astounded by the tremendous response to the post and by the outpouring of well wishes.  I have also received several inquiries about how my wife and I designed our unique wedding ceremony, including the kabbalat panim ritual described in my essay:

The origin of the bedecken ceremony is in the biblical story in which Leah was switched out for Rachel on the day she was to wed Jacob. Isabel and I were not interested in this ritual “checking”—both because it felt too heteronormative and also because we were pretty sure we were both going to show up. Instead, we repurposed this ritual and connected it to part of the essence of a wedding tisch, which generally serves to relax the couple before the ceremony ... We wanted to honor the moment when we first saw each other on our wedding day while also ritually preparing ourselves for the enormity of the day ahead. For us, carefully thinking through each piece of the wedding and not being afraid to adapt the tradition to better suit our particular situation meant that our ceremony was uniquely ours.

Deciding upon the details of this particular ceremony was not an easy process; it required a lot of thought and conversation. When planning any ritual (for myself or for others) the first thing I consider is the purpose of the ritual. What are we trying to accomplish? Are there Jewish symbols or liturgical pieces that we would like to include? 

In this case, Isabel and I knew pretty quickly that a traditional bedecken was not going to work for us—though we wanted to hold onto the idea of sanctifying the first time we saw each other on the day of our wedding.  We also decided against a traditional tisch as we did not want our guests to have to choose which tisch they would attend and we did not want to have to prepare a teaching (since we understand the intention of this ritual to be—in part—to put the couple at ease).  We did, however, like the idea of creating a ritual that would help us relax so we decided to combine elements of these two rituals into one.

We wanted to create a kabbalat panim ritual that would encourage us to truly welcome and see the other—a ritual similar to the the kabbalat Shabbat service that helps us welcome Shabbat. As we discussed existing rituals we could draw upon, we quickly settled on the act of ritual hand washing. 

Rabbis Roni Handler and Isabel de Koninck performing their kabbalat panim ritualIn the morning and before meals, many people ritually wash their hands in order to spiritually prepare themselves for the day or meal ahead.  This hand washing traditionally occurs without any jewelry on one’s hands.  Since our engagement, Isabel and I had adopted the practice of symbolically re-enacting that commitment by replacing our engagement rings on each other’s hands after we ritually washed our hands for Shabbat.  In drawing on this in our kabbalat panim ritual, we also marked the last time we would replace our engagement rings without our wedding bands.  Not only did this ritual pick up on a pre-existing tradition in our relationship, but it helped ritually and spiritually prepare us to step under the chuppah together.

Creating a ritual might be a new experience for some, but it need not be scary or overwhelming.  In fact, creating a new ritual can be empowering—particularly for people who do not or have not always seen themselves and their stories in the structures of the ancient rituals. This is true for women, LGBTIQ people and people with disabilities. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you create your own rituals:

•  Always be careful not to pile on too many symbols or pieces of liturgy; it is, in fact, possible for there to be too much of a good thing.

•  Think about who you want to be involved and what their roles will be.  It is okay to push people a little out of their  comfort zones for the sake of your ritual, but it will not serve anyone if they are completely panicked.

•  And, last, think about what is meaningful to you. 

After discussing these questions, and reflecting on our values and vision of what we hoped to accomplish through this ritual, Isabel and I came up with a short, but poignant, kabbalat panim ritual: Our bridal parties danced each of us down from our hotel rooms and each mother offered personal blessings to her daughter.  We were then brought into the same space where we saw each other for the first time on our wedding day.  Our rabbi welcomed us to the hand washing ritual. In those moments of tenderly washing each others hands, and slipping our engagement rings back onto each other’s fingers, we were able to breath deeply into the moment and be truly present to the joy of our wedding day and our entry into married life.

Photo of Isabel and Roni's hands by Koala Photography.