Ayrusin: The Ring Ceremony

In the Talmud and in Jewish law, the act that is considered the actual wedding is the giving of a ring or other thing of value to the bride from the groom in the presence of two witnesses. The rabbi will usually call up the witnesses for this procedure if they are not already under the chuppah. Since Jewish law requires that the ring be something of value, the rabbi may ask the witnesses to verify its value by looking at the ring to see that it is a real ring and of at least a minimal value. Different rabbis have varied methods of conducting the ring ceremony, some with more words and explanations and others with less.

The Meaning of the Ring

In the times of the Talmud, anything of value — even services rendered — could be used to create the marriage covenant. Today, almost all weddings are performed with a ring, and this has been so for longer than a millennium.

There are many reasons for the use of a ring. A circle is quite appropriate for a wedding since it has no end, just as we hope the couple's marriage will have no end. According to many traditions, the circle is the most perfect of shapes since it has no edges or corners. A circle reminds us of the ancient Jewish communal dances, which were performed in a circle. According to the Midrash, in the world to come it will be God who occupies the center of the proverbial dance circle. A circle is something that joins other things together and that envelops them, as we hope the couple's love will envelop their family and as God envelops and protects the universe.

The rabbi may then ask if the ring does indeed belong to the groom, since the Talmud writes that the groom must give the bride a ring that belongs to him. The rabbi may then ask the groom and bride if they are ready to be married in order to ascertain that she is entering into the marriage with sound mind and free will. Then the rabbi will ask the bride to put out her right index finger. Before the groom places the ring on the bride's finger he will be asked to repeat after the officiate the following words: “Harey at mikudeshet li b'tabaat zoo kida'at Moshe v'Yisrael.” (“Behold you are sanctified unto me with this ring according to the law of Moses and the people of Israel.”)

There is a strong custom that brides not wear any jewelry under the chuppah except the wedding ring they receive from the groom. Another tradition stipulates that the groom is not to have anything in his pockets and no knots in his clothing. Even his shoelaces are untied; thus, the only “knot” is that which binds him to his bride.

How the Ring Is Given

Despite the fact that rings today are typically worn on the finger next to the pinky, the bride receives the ring from the groom on her right index finger. Many reasons are given for this long-standing tradition. The most straightforward reason is given by Rabbi Samuel Segal of Mezeritch, Poland, in the seventeenth century in his book Nachalat Shivah. He writes that since the index finger is the finger most commonly used to point to things, and therefore the finger most in the forefront and visible, this is the one we use for the giving of the ring before witnesses.

Why is the wedding ring placed on the right index finger?

The right index finger is the one that we point with, and the right side is considered one of love in Jewish mysticism.

The index finger of the right hand is utilized because the right hand is seen as having precedence in Judaism since a majority of people use their right hand dominantly. The right is also appropriate because in the Kab-balah, the right “side” of the divine is a reference to the characteristic of love. Additionally, many people suggest that in ancient times, rings, as is still the case in some eastern cultures, were worn on the index finger, and that this tradition may have just remained with us since that time.

Though at many Orthodox weddings the bride does not usually respond with any words, and there is technically no need for her to recite any words after receiving the ring, she may do so if she wishes, according to Jewish law. Though “thank you” might be a bit prosaic, if she wishes to respond with her own poetic words or those of the ancient Jewish writers, such as from the Song of Songs, that is perfectly appropriate.

According to Jewish law, weddings must not utilize a double ring ceremony in which rings are exchanged. The kiddushin is indeed a business deal, but it is not a purchase or exchange of one ring for another ring. The ring is a symbolic gift the groom gives the bride for her hand in marriage.

In addition, at traditional weddings in keeping with Jewish law and the Talmud's instruction, it is the groom who always gives the ring to the bride. The bride may give the groom a ring, but it should not be given to the groom in exchange for the ring he has given to her. Among liberal Jewish denominations it is quite common for the bride and groom to exchange rings, each reciting their own words or words from Jewish tradition.

Some groups of Orthodox men do not wear wedding rings for fear that this might violate the Bible's commandment that men not wear the clothing of woman. Others do wear wedding rings since in Western countries most married men wear a ring and it is therefore considered a unisex accoutrement.

If you would like the bride to give the groom a ring under the chuppah, be sure to discuss this with your rabbi. Your rabbi may have some rules as to exactly when during the ceremony it should be given. Though many Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis will allow an exchange of rings, no Orthodox or traditional rabbis will allow such a direct exchange of rings. Some will allow the bride to give the groom a ring under the chuppah at another point in the ceremony.

Depending on your rabbi, he may allow the bride to give the groom a ring under the chuppah after the sheva berachot or following the reading of the ketubah. This ensures that it is an act separate from the ring the groom gives the bride, thereby avoiding the halachic problem of an exchange of rings. Other Orthodox rabbis will ask that the bride wait to give her ring to the groom after the ceremony in the yichud room.

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