Choosing the Rings
The ring that a man gives a woman under the chuppah is considered in Jewish tradition to be the thing that makes the marriage official. It is given in the presence of witnesses because it is not just a symbol of love but an act that plays a legal and ritual role. With its giving the groom says a phrase that begins, “harey at mikudeshet li” (“you are sanctified unto me”).
Jewish law writes that the ring that is used to effect kiddushin should belong to the groom before he gives it to the bride. It should be plain, but its value should be apparent. The ring usually would not contain unique artwork or stones whose value is in the eye of the assessor. It is most commonly a plain gold, silver, or platinum band whose value is assessed based on its weight. Some feel a ring is used because it represents the perfect circle that bride and groom will form together.
In the time of the Talmud, a marriage could be effected in one of three ways — by giving something of value, by writing a document declaring the marriage, or, though deemed inappropriate for use as a wedding ceremony in the Talmud, through having sexual intercourse. None of these though would count as an official wedding if they were not done with the specific intent on the part of groom and bride to become married through the act.
In Judaism, a marriage is a concrete change of status. Before it you were accessible to all, and now you are committed and permitted only to your spouse. The famous Talmudic commentary of Rash”i, in tractate Kiddushin, makes clear that this is not, heaven forefend, a purchase of a spouse. For this reason, in traditional Jewish law, one would not use the American custom of exchanging rings because that was often used for purchases. Rather, the ring given represents the legal consideration to effect a kinyan, a legal pact binding two people exclusively to each other.
Technically, a ring is not necessary and any object of value will do. In fact, according to the Talmud, if the husband was a good dancer, he could dance before the bride, thus effecting the kiddushin with the value of the dance if she were to accept it.
There is evidence that the custom of using a ring for a marriage may go back even to the biblical period. It has been suggested that the giving of a ring from husband to wife is symbolic of the bride and groom's desire to be equal partners, similar to when Pharaoh transferred his ring to Joseph when he wished to give Joseph authority over the kingdom of Egypt.