World of the Sages: Sweet redemption

A Jewish wedding is certainly a cause for communal celebration.

When the groom is called to the Torah in honor of his marriage, an army of children cluster around his feet waiting for the candy to be thrown. As the sweets come raining down on the groom, there is a mad scramble as each young gatherer dives for every candy that hits floor. The Talmud discusses using food not for eating but merely to add to the joy of a bride and groom (B. Brachot 50b). "We may let wine flow through pipes before a groom and before a bride." Nowadays this custom is not widespread, yet it is still intriguing to understand the message of the flowing wine. One commentator explains that this procedure serves as a fortuitous sign (Rashi, 11th century, France). Alas, this does not explain the symbolism of the custom. A later halachic authority finds the symbolism in the flowing through the pipes: Just as the wine is drawn through the pipes, flowing evenly and smoothly, so too tranquility and goodness should flow with ease for the young couple (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, 16th-17th centuries, Bohemia, Poland, Italy). According to another commentator, the symbolism can be found in the liquid: wine, not water (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). Wine improves with age and we bless the newlyweds that their mutual love should be like wine: As the years pass, their love should only be enhanced. An aged wine is not like a young wine, and a relationship that has stood the test of time is enriched by the joint experiences and by grappling together with the vicissitudes of life. What happens to the wine once it flows through the pipes? We find two approaches amongst the commentators. According to one commentator, the flowing wine is central to the joy of bride and groom. Even though the wine is rendered unusable, it is not considered a waste, for it serves its purpose in promoting the elation of the new couple (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona). Another explanation offered is that the wine flows through the pipes into a vessel and is then drunk (Rashi and others). Thus the wine is not wasted. This approach fits the continuation of the talmudic passage that relates to another food-related custom employed for the delight of the young couple: During the summer we throw toasted grain and nuts before the bride and groom, but not during the winter. Baked rolls, however, are not thrown before the newlyweds, neither in the summer nor in the winter. These guidelines are based on what happens to the food when thrown or when it hits the ground. Baked goods become repulsive once they are thrown and certainly when they hit the ground. Toasted grain or nuts can still be eaten if they fall on a dry floor; not so if they fall in the wintry mud. In the same vein, our sages allowed the flowing wine for it was still drunk after its symbolic journey through the pipes. The grain and nuts thrown before the bride and groom may be the source for the prevalent custom to throw sweets at the groom when he is called to the Torah. Even throwing confetti may have similar roots: Though confetti nowadays is made of small pieces of paper or plastic, the Italian word confetti refers to almonds with hard sugar coating. One halachic authority records the practice of throwing raisins before the groom on the Shabbat before his marriage when, according to the Ashkenazi rite, he is called to the Torah. This custom, however, is frowned upon for raisins are soft and become repulsive when they fall on the ground (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland). Throwing items in honor of the bride and groom is problematic in aspects other than wasting food. Significantly, none of the sources record throwing things at the bride and groom; anything tossed is done so before them for their enjoyment, not to injure, hurt or even sting them in any way. A candy pelted at a young groom as he nervously reads the blessings over the Torah reading is not a formula for causing him delight! Similarly, nowadays Italians don't throw the sugar-coated almond confetti; though they would throw little pieces of paper called coriandoli. Italians do, however, give out little tulle bags of confetti at weddings. The mess made may also be a concern. One halachic authority implores those who throw the toasted wheat before the bride and groom to sweep up afterward so that they will not be stepped upon and crushed by passersby (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe). The rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, raises a further problem with throwing candies: It is likely that as they are hurled, they will strike the Torah scroll, hardly a respectful manner to treat our holiest book. Rabbi Neventzal, however, notes that no previous authorities were concerned with this issue and the sweets are thrown with good intentions, not - Heaven forbid - to show disrespect toward the Torah scroll. Nevertheless, Rabbi Neventzal questions the value of the practice of throwing candies, praising congregations that instead of throwing them, distribute them in little bags to the children. While Rabbi Neventzal's suggestion solves certain issues, it is doubtful how this distribution achieves the goal of bringing joy to the bride and groom. A Jewish wedding is certainly a cause for communal celebration. A particular focus of the festivities is the responsibility of participants to facilitate the joy of the newlyweds. Our sages tell us that delighting the groom and bride is akin to rebuilding one of the desolate places of Jerusalem (B. Brachot 6b). Thus there is an element of national redemption in making the new couple happy. Indeed two of the seven blessings recited at the wedding in honor of the newlyweds refer to making the groom and bride revel in their new status (B. Ketubot 8a). While we undoubtedly seek to augment the joy of newlyweds as they embark upon building a new home, other considerations may limit what we do as we seek to rebuild the desolate places of Jerusalem. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.