Sunday 16 January 2022

367) The “Shevartzeh Chaseneh” or Black Wedding

 The Yizkhor bukh fun der Zhelekhover yidisher kehileh (Chicago, 1953) shows a Black Wedding taking place in Zelechów during the time of the Holocaust.

This article explores the very strange practice of performing a Shevartzeh Chaseneh or Black Wedding at a Jewish cemetery. It entailed the conducting of a legal wedding ceremony between two people in the belief that such an event would appease the dead to intercede on behalf of the community and halt a crisis such as a typhus epidemic. I have drawn extensively upon the writings of Hanna Wegrzynek[1] who has researched this very strange yet quite common phenomenon and has traced it roots and origins.

Some documented cases

Lublin 1892

On the first of September 1892, the Gazeta Lubelska[2] recorded two weddings that had taken place the previous day at Lublin’s Jewish cemetery. The weddings involved a strange ritual where four young women, probably the bridesmaids, were harnessed together and ploughed up fields just outside of the town. Another related ritual involved the illegal release of water from the city reservoir and its barrier chains were seized and buried in the cemetery.

Opatów 1892

Around the same time, another Shevartzeh Chaseneh took place in the town of Opatów, where the cemetery was the venue for the wedding seuda or feast, as well as the dancing. The local belief was that the epidemic ended just a few days later.

The Yizkor Buch or Memorial Book of the Ryki community, which chronicled the local events, also records similar Black Weddings having taken place.

Dziennik Narodowy 1916

In 1916, the Dziennik Narodowy or National Daily News, also recorded another Shevartzeh Chaseneh probably also in Lublin.

“Yesterday something occurred in our town that clearly attests to the truly shocking ignorance prevailing within the local Jewish population. Among the Jewish masses in provincial towns of the Kingdom of Poland, the superstitious belief has survived that any kind of epidemic may be combatted by holding a wedding at a cemetery. This superstition is held also by Jews here in our town, and since the typhus epidemic is spreading almost exclusively in the Jewish neighborhood, the decision was made to make use of some salutary means. And whom to marry off? A young couple was found. They did not know each other before. Both are poor. Several hundred rubles were collected from the local Jews and a wedding was organized. From this amount, 200 rubles were set aside as a dowry, and the rest went to cover the cost of the wedding. A crowd of several thousand people set off for the cemetery-wedding celebration. A canopy was erected and the cemetery fence was measured off with a white cloth, which was then handed to the “bride.” Bed linens and underclothes for the newlyweds were to be sewn from this material. When the measurements were finished, the wedding ceremony was conducted, after which the crowd returned to the town, secure in their belief that they had taken ‘the only [possible] step’ toward staving off the epidemic (cited in Wegrzynek 2011:55)[3]

The obviously vitriolic tone of this account does not detract from the general content which appears to be uncontested and factual. The purpose of the white cloth was, for mystical reasons, to demarcate the specific area of focus in the cemetery in which the ceremony took place.

Biłgoraj, Kamieniec Podolski, Zarki and Lwów 1920

According to Wegrzynek (2011:56):

Memorial Books from Biłgoraj, Kamieniec Podolski, as well as an individual account by Eli Zborowski regarding Zarki, mention similar weddings during or after the First World War. A cemetery wedding involving local elites was performed in Lwów in April 1920.

Most interesting is Wegrzynek’s (2011:56) description of the Shevartzeh Chaseneh which took place in Lwów involving “leading rabbis”:

In this case, special invitations were printed in order to ensure that leading rabbis and other important local personages would take part, an indication that such weddings were not restricted to the common folk. In fact, it was a hallowed custom: it was to take place ‘according to an age-old tradition to appease God’s anger when pestilences are raging.’[4]

New York 1918 

Another Shevartzeh Chaseneh was held in 1918 in New York, in an attempt at warding off the Spanish Flu.[5] 

Zelechów, Warsaw during the Second World War 

Wegrzynek (2011:64) shows how Black Weddings were still being practiced up to the Second World War, when: 

Attempts were made during the Holocaust to hold Black Weddings in ghettos to combat typhus epidemics. One such ceremony was held in Zelechów (see photograph above).”

There was also an attempt to hold a Black Wedding in Warsaw, as Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat, records:

Yesterday I was inoculated against typhus a second time. My blood test showed a negative reaction, which meant that I could fall ill with typhus. A few months ago, the rabbis proposed to me that a wedding should be celebrated at the cemetery. In their opinion, this would help combat the epidemic (Wegrzynek 2011:64-5).”

Questioning the authenticity of these accounts

Many find this notion of a Black Wedding very strange and macabre and claim that it is impossible that such ceremonies could have ever taken place, but Wegrzynek (2011:57) writes:

“…Black Weddings unquestionably flourished among the Jews of east central Europe, particularly in the area which until the late eighteenth century was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and which today comprises Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.”

The mechanics of the Black Wedding

It was believed that the dead sometimes put curses such as cholera and typhus on communities and that the only way to stave off the epidemic was to appease them by conducting an actual wedding ceremony at the cemetery.

The bride and groom were usually either very poor or infirm and money for the celebration was collected from the wealthier members of the community. In this way, while benefitting the community as a whole, it was also deemed a “mitzva”, because they were helping people who otherwise would not have been able to have such a lavish wedding.

There was also another very sad usage of the Shevartzeh Chaseneh and that was in a case where a bride-to-be died before the proposed wedding. The custom was then to take a black wedding canopy to her funeral in the belief that it would bring joy to her soul. In this instance, it was called a Shvartzeh Chuppah instead of a Shevartzeh Chaseneh.

Origins of the practice

Wegrzynek (2011:57) points out that it is not all that easy to trace the origins of this practice. Some claim it began soon after the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648.[6] On the other hand, ethnographic accounts from the early twentieth century suggest 1771 as the date the first Black Wedding took place, in the town of Berdichev.[7]

Some suggest the custom may have been adapted from some similar Slavic or Christian practices that also involved cemetery visitations. However, Wegrzynek (2011:60) rules out Christian influence because:

Many of the Slavic rituals which closely resemble Black Weddings are known solely from early medieval sources, and seem to have been completely eradicated after the Middle Ages owing to the Church’s Christianizing initiatives.”

So, if the custom did not originate after Chmielnicki, and if it did not imitate a Slavic or Christian practice, then where did it come from?

Wegrzynek (2011:58) sums up the historical evidence as follows:

One can only say that all extant accounts—whether ethnographic, literary, journalistic, or iconographic—originate from the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, even if they refer to earlier centuriesbut its relative frequency is suggested in manifold references in various types of literature.

Essentially this means that people only began to refer to Black Weddings from as late as the mid-1800s, although the practice may have already been ongoing for some time.

Wegrzynek (2011:62) concludes that the custom must have been connected to certain beliefs of the Chassidim:

It must be recalled that the Jews of east central Europe had their own rich tradition of magic-related practices and demonic beliefs, sometimes brought over with them from German-speaking lands and sometimes derived from kabbalistic literature…

Such practices could also be found among Jews in early modern Poland.[8] Hasidism, which emerged during the latter half of the eighteenth century out of Podolia (contemporary Ukraine), was predicated on the belief that specially endowed individuals could move between earthly and supernal realms. Hasidism perpetuated popular beliefs in demons and spirits that could harm the living and even take control of their bodies.[9]

This idea seems to be corroborated by the fact that Black Weddings were observed primarily in areas where Chassidism was flourishing:

It was probably no coincidence that the ritual of the Black Wedding was observed in Podolia, Volhynia, eastern Galicia, and northern Małopolska, areas where Hasidism was very influential. In contrast, there are no accounts of Black Weddings in northern Lithuania, where Hasidism was weaker.”

Mystical customs

As opposed to the Maimonidean rationalist tradition which did not believe in demons and cemetery rituals, mystical customs already existed that contained the seeds for Black Weddings, such as the bride being encouraged to visit the graves of her parents and to “invite” them to the wedding. There was the very popular belief that deceased parents could intercede on behalf of the bride.

Furthermore, the betrothed were considered dangerously susceptible to influences and negative energies from spirits and demons, and that is why the custom arose to accompany them and not leave them alone for eight days before the wedding.

According to The Week Beforehand - Marriage (

Every Jewish wedding is an event of colossal spiritual importance, drawing down upon the couple — and by extension upon the entire world — a transcendent Divine energy of the highest level. According to Kabbala, this impending phenomenon can potentially elicit negative spiritual energy, known as "kelipah," to combat it. The presence of two Jewish souls, that of the bride or groom and their watchperson, is powerful enough to repel any forces of kelipah which may strive to cause harm and prevent the wedding.”

According to Shemira before the wedding – 

The reason for this is because the time before the wedding Mazikim try to interfere with the couple. Having a guard prevents Mazikim from harming the Chasan or Kalah. 

Mazikim” are believed to be demons or evil energies. The shomer or guardian is believed to act as a protection against such entities. 

There was also the strange custom of measuring the length of a sick person with a thread and then to make a wick for a candle out of it and burning it in the synagogue, or to taking the candle to the cemetery and wrapping it in a shroud and then burying it. 

All of these types of mystical customs relating to “Mazikim”, demons, cemeteries, susceptible brides and grooms were already in place and part of common practice in many segments of the Jewish community. This being the case, it was not that giant a leap to perform Black Weddings at cemeteries.



Further reading 

For more on possible influence from German-speaking lands, see Kotzk Blog: 228) CHASIDEI ASHKENAZ – ‘THESE ARE NOT SUPERSTITIONS’!


[1] Wegrzynek, H., 2011, “Shvartze khasene: Black Weddings among Polish Jews”, in Holy Dissent: Jewish and Christian Mystics in Eastern Europe, edited by Glenn Dynner, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

[2] Gazeta Lubelska 183 (1892): 1.

[3] Dziennik Narodowy 55 (March 1916): 3

[4] Maksymilian Goldstein and Karol Dresdner, Kultura i sztuka ludu zydowskiego na ziemiach polskich (Lwów: M. Goldstein, 1935), 3.

[6] Viktoriya Mochalova, “Istselenie, spasenie, izbavlenie v evreyskoy traditsii i magicheskaya praktika (evreyskiy obryad kladbishcheskoy svad’by i ego slavyanskie paralleli),” Folk Medicine and Magic in Slavic and Jewish Cultural Tradition (Moskva: Sefer, 2007), 95.

[7] Ibid. 96.

[8] Hundert, G., 2004, Jews in Poland–Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity, University of California Press, Berkeley, 131–59.

[9] Dynner, G., 2006, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, Oxford University Press, New York, 143, 241.


  1. Thank you for posting this. The nineteenth century Yiddish author Y. L. Peretz has a darkly comic story on this theme, where an epidemic is sweeping the country and everyone in the shtetl is praying it won't reach them, except one poor orphan boy who sees it as his only chance of getting married.

  2. Yes, besides the many anomalies connected to this practice is the way it negates the principle of assisting the needy without impinging on their dignity.