The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning
Hayyei Sarah 5764
Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 22, 2004 27 Marheshvan 5764
In a traditional Jewish wedding, there is a beautiful and dramatic ceremony before the chuppah known as the "bedeken" (Yiddish for "veiling"). At this celebratory moment, a groom is escorted with song and dance to meet his bride as he lowers the veil over her face. One popular explanation for the custom of bedeken is that the groom is "checking" (from the Hebrew root b-d-k) to make sure that he is marrying the correct woman. Jacob was tricked by Laban into marrying Leah, instead of Rachel, because she was masked behind a veil. However, the origin of the bedeken, "veiling," ceremony is found in this week's Torah portion.
In parashat Hayyei Sarah, Rebecca leaves her childhood home to join her future husband, Isaac. Upon seeing Isaac in the distance, Rebecca "took her veil and covered herself" (Genesis 24:65). Jewish brides replicate Rebecca's gesture at every marriage by covering their faces with a veil. At the bedeken, it is also customary to bless the bride with the same blessing bestowed upon Rebecca, "O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads" (Genesis 24:60).
Given this biblical precedent for the bedeken ceremony, the question still remains -- what is the purpose of veiling a bride? Veiling is usually understood as a sign of modesty. A bride veils herself to signify that she will reserve herself solely for her husband. They alone will share a sacred intimacy. However, I would like to propose another symbolic theme of veiling suggested by our parashah.
Notice that Rebecca does not veil herself after meeting and wedding Isaac, as a sign that she is saving herself for the sole purview of her husband. Rather, she veils herself before approaching Isaac. Similarly today, a bride veils herself before the chuppah. The veil suggests that, despite the intimate union of marriage, a bride will retain her independence and her unique identity. Rebecca veils herself as if to say, "I will give myself to you, but there will always be a part of myself that is separate and distinct from you." In the modern bedeken ceremony, when the groom himself lowers the veil over his bride, he affirms and respects his wife's privacy and her individual self worth.
Marriage is a delicate balance. On the one hand, a loving marriage embraces the union, intimacy and selfless sharing of two lives. On the other hand, a successful marriage supports and fosters the personal growth and unique journeys of each partner throughout their lives. At a Jewish wedding, the chuppah represents the holy union of a bride and groom as they create a shared home together. The gossamer veil suggests that in the midst of their deep connection, each spouse will retain a healthy independence.