The terms used to describe the veiling of the bride is most often spelled bedeken, but also occasionally spelled badeken, badecken, or even badekin, as there are no hard and fast rules about the English spelling of Yiddish words.
The Ashkenazic custom is for the groom, accompanied by friends and relatives who sing and dance around him, to approach the bride and pull the veil down over her face. This is one of the key moments that any Jewish wedding photographer knows is a must-have shot. Remember, the bride and groom have not seen each other for some time now. They are usually quite happy to meet up, and their joy is reflected in their faces. The veiling is traditionally followed by the bride getting blessed by her father, mother, and, possibly, grandparents who lay their hands over her head — another great picture moment.
The question is: why go through this public veiling, and why make the groom responsible for it?
The practice goes back to really ancient history. Brides would cover their faces out of modesty. We see that in the Bible when Rivka [Rebecca] is brought over to her groom, Yitzchak [Isaac], she covers her face. In the next generation, the cover of the bridal veil prevented Yaakov [Jacob] from realizing that he was, in fact, marrying Rachel, for his duplicitous father-in-law put her sister, Leah, in her place. To avoid such bridal switches, the groom ascertains that the woman behind the veil is the woman he means to marry by putting it on himself. Some also suggest that putting on the veil points to the groom’s obligation to provide for his wife’s clothing and other essentials, as stipulated in the kethuba.
In his book Beyom Chasunaso: An Explanation and Analysis of of the Laws and Customs of a Jewish Wedding (2007), Rabbi Zev Cinamon gives another reason for the groom’s role in the veiling. According to some opinions, the bedeken, in spreading a covering over the bride constitutes the chuppah. Consequently, they would suggest that the groom be the one who owns the veil that he spreads over his bride. Some would even designate witnesses for the bedeken as an actual act of marriage (Cinamon 37).
In Megillas Ruth, the heroine of the story tells Boaz, “uparashta knafecha al amatecha” [you should spread your wings over your handmaiden] (3:9) Rashi elucidates that term to mean, spreading the wings of the garment, that is to cover her in a tallith in the terms of nesuin – marriage.
Some people like to ascribe further meaning to the veil, by declaring it a symbol of the fact that what’s inside is the real measure of a person rather than physical beauty. But I haven’t seen that reason in historical written sources. It also does not completely fit the custom of declaring the bride to beautifu (see Kethubos 16b-17a).
According to the ruling of Hillel, which trumped the ruling of Shamai, the proper thing to say at a wedding is, “kallah na’ah vechasuda,” regardless of the objective assessment of the bride in question. We literally sing the bride’s praises by declaring her to be beautiful, as well as good. Though the Gemara does include the justification the house of Hillel gives for appearing to deviate from strict truth to show consideration for others and not arouse any bad feelings like buyer’s remorse, I think there could be something else going on in that ruling.
We know that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d is likened to that of a groom and bride, an allergory used in many parts of the Bible. In the course of the relationship, we do sometimes err and so appear less than beautiful. Nevertheless, we do not lose our essential beauty. As the woman declares in the fifth verse of the first chapter of Song of Songs,though her complexion now does not look beautiful, it is only temporary, and her essential beauty will return. Those who see only the external flaws fail to appreciate the truth about a form of beauty that remains even when hidden.