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Note: The prayer that begins with the liturgical formula barukh ata adonai (You are worshiped, Lord) is called a b’rakha in Hebrew. In the context of this formula, the term b’rakha has no acceptable English equivalent, though it has frequently but erroneously been translated as “blessing.” This inadvertently and incorrectly implies that it is in the domain of man to bless God. The term b’rakha (plural b’rakhot) is therefore herein left in the original Hebrew.
The sheva b’rakhot are the seven b’rakhot that constitute the second and final part of a Jewish marriage ceremony, solemnizing the completion of the nuptials. The section recorded here is known as seder nissu’in (the order of the marriage service). It is preceded by a section known as seder eirussin (the betrothal service), which is a formula from antiquity that consecrates the institution of marriage and binds the couple in preparation for actual marriage. Originally, the betrothal rite was separated from the nissu’in, or actual wedlock, by a considerable amount of time—from a few months to as long as a year—during which time the couple was considered mutually bound except for cohabitation or marital relations. For many centuries, however, the two ceremonies have been combined as a single event.
In modern Jewish ceremonies, the recital of the sheva b’rakhot is preceded by the bridegroom’s formulaic avowal of the marriage undertaking in the presence of qualified witnesses, which, since the 7th century, is accompanied by the placement of a wedding ring or band. This may be followed by the reading of the marriage contract (k’tubba), which the bridegroom has furnished the bride as evidence of his assent to the obligations set forth therein. The sheva b’rakhot are then intoned by the officiant (or distributed as honors among as many as seven individuals). These texts are quoted in the Talmud (K’tubbot 8a) as birkat ḥatanim. Like the preceding betrothal pronouncement, the first of the sheva b’rakhot is a prayer recited over wine, acknowledging God as the Creator of “the fruit of the vine.” Wine is traditionally a symbol of joy in Jewish ritual and life; and ensuring joy at a Jewish wedding is considered a religious obligation.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire (1872–1946), interpreted the recital of the sheva b’rakhot as a means of establishing each new Jewish home in relation to Creation, to Israel’s entire history, and to the ultimate messianic hope of the people Israel. Thus, according to that perception, the second and third b’rakhot refer to God as the source of nature, the Creator of the universe, and, specifically, the Creator of mankind. The fourth b’rakha refers to the perpetual renewal of humanity in God’s image. The fifth expresses hope that the same degree of joy now experienced by the bridal couple will soon be shared by all Israel in the context of the restoration of Zion (“Lord, who brings joy to Zion through her children”). The sixth compares the couple’s joy to the initial happiness and contentment of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden. The seventh and final b’rakha underscores the combination and interdependence of individual and communal aspirations. It intertwines the divinely mandated rejoicing of the bridegroom and bride with the hoped-for collective joy of Israel that will accompany messianic redemption. It is a prayer both for the couple’s happiness and for national exultation in an eventually restored Judea and Jerusalem, acknowledging God as the source of all rejoicing.
In Judaism—apart from whatever state legal requirements may apply—no rabbi or other ordained clergyman is required when it comes to officiating at or conducting a marriage ceremony. But a respected and Judaically knowledgeable Jew, clerical or lay—a m’sader kiddushin (marriage authority)—must be present to ensure that all matters are conducted in accordance with Jewish law; he may or may not be the officiant who intones the liturgical texts or pronounces the b’rakhot.
With regard to various requirements for officially sanctioned officiants, most states in the United States recognize the authority of bona fide cantors to fulfill that role. (The issue is moot in many European countries, where two entirely separate ceremonies may be required, usually in distinct venues: a civil one under state authority, usually followed by the independent Jewish one in which only Jewish law and custom apply.)
The aesthetic dimension of a traditional Ashkenazi marriage service provides a principal musical role for the cantor, ideally accompanied by a choir as a traditional adjunct to cantorial art. Apart from whatever other discretionary musical selections may be offered by way of introductory Psalms and other texts, the sheva b’rakhot have frequently been the primary vehicle for extended cantorial expression—whether improvised or formally composed. The aggregate cantorial-choral repertoire is replete with a wealth of wedding music, and many of the important 19th-century European cantorial compendiums contain multiple settings for the various texts of the marriage service. Beginning in the early 20th century, many American synagogue composers followed that example. In eastern and western Europe, throughout the 19th century and until the Second World War, choral participation was typical of weddings in both orthodox and nonorthodox synagogues wherever the resources were available. In America, too, up through the 1950s, choirs were a common feature at traditional weddings in many communities, far more so then than now. In the New York area during those years, for example, there were choirmasters who earned substantial portions of their annual incomes from marriage services, and on a typical Sunday, a single choirmaster and his own independent choir could perform as many as a dozen weddings. Among English orthodoxy, to this day, choral wedding services remain more the rule than the exception; and choirs for marriages in English Reform synagogues are also still frequent.
This elaborate arrangement of the sheva b’rakhot by Simon Spiro is based on two distinct earlier compositions. One, by Sholom Kalib, was written originally for cantor and organ (or piano). Kalib, a noted synagogue music scholar as well as an accomplished composer and arranger, has focused specifically on eastern European cantorial traditions. A native of Dallas, Texas, who spent much of his youth in Chicago singing in—and directing—synagogue as well as Jewish secular choirs, Kalib has for many years been in great demand by cantors throughout North America for his choral arrangements and keyboard accompaniments for cantorial pieces, as well as for his own compositions. In addition to his long tenure as a professor of music theory at Eastern Michigan University, he has also served cantorial pulpits in Detroit and in Flint, Michigan. Although Kalib’s original setting of the sheva b’rakhot includes all seven b’rakhot, Spiro used only the first five for his new hybrid arrangement, and he liberally expanded on Kalib’s more straightforward and traditional harmonization.
For the last two b’rakhot and their surrounding text, Spiro turned to a composition by Meyer Machtenberg that at one time was quite popular for traditional weddings in the greater New York area. Born in Vilna, where he grew up singing in choirs of several important cantors and at the Vilna Shtotshul (city synagogue), Machtenberg immigrated to the United States when he was seventeen. Eventually he became one of the finest and most-sought-after cantorial choirmasters on the Eastern Seaboard. At one time or another he worked with most of the great virtuoso cantors of his time, including Gershon Sirota, Mordecai Hershman, Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky, and David Moshe Steinberg. He also wrote many original settings, a number of which are performed regularly today. His partial setting of the sheva b’rakhot was composed for four-part choir, but Spiro has gone far beyond the original simple harmonic structure in his new arrangement, adding inventive chord structures and progressions. In addition to the Kalib and Machtenberg sources, Spiro has also incorporated other traditional cantorial phrases and passages, as well as material of his own.