Emanuel Synagogue

Parashat Vayetzei

It is extraordinary how explanations of rituals, however incorrect they may be, get perpetuated by their constant retelling.  The one that frustrates me in our tradition is the one I hear constantly about Bedeken, the ritual in which a bride is veiled before her wedding.  How many times have we heard that this tradition goes back to a story in this week’s parasha, when Jacob marries a veiled Leah, instead of the beloved of his dreams whom he assumes stands by him under the chuppah, Rachel? Just as Jacob tricked his father by pretending to be his brother Esau, now Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying the hidden and veiled wrong daughter.  This interpretation has nothing going for it except the number of times it has been retold.  Talking about fake news!

Let’s explore the problems with this explanation.  First of all, the tradition of Bedeken is about lowering the veil over the bride.  In the story of Jacob and Leah, the whole point is she is already veiled and thus he does not recognise her; Bedeken is not a veil lifting, but a veil lowering ceremony!  Second, we have often heard, “the groom is making sure he has the right bride”, or more crudely, “he is checking out the goods”.  How crass an expression at a most intimate moment prior to the chuppah, one in which after all the preparations one settles and focuses on the significance of two people joining their lives in loving commitment.  Third, one would hope this tradition derives from a story more befitting the sacred bond of marriage. 

Indeed,  it does.  As the groom lowers the veil the following blessing is recited: Achotenuat hayi le alfei revavah—”Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands” (Genesis 24:60).  This is the blessing given to Rebecca by her mother and brother as she leaves on her journey to the promised land for her marriage with Isaac.  We also know from this story that after she arrived to Isaac’s home, seeing him in the fields, she lowered her veil as she approached him, as a sign of their exclusive commitment (Genesis 24:64).  The story of Isaac and Rebecca is the first love story of the Torah and the first “Jewish marriage” in the Torah: “Then Isaac brought her into the tent and took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67).  What a far more beautiful story, in word (the blessing) and deed (the lowering of the veil) clearly connected to the tradition of Bedeken!  

Bedeken has nothing to do with the story in this week’s parasha of Jacob, Leah and Rachel – it has everything to do with the love story of Isaac and Rebekkah from a couple of weeks ago.  So let us get our story straight – and in so doing, realise how easy it is for something to be accepted as factual, as nonsensical as it may be, just because it has been repeated with confidence and certainty many times. Perhaps the best lesson from this week’s parasha based upon Jacob’s story is: “we won’t get fooled again!”

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins