Let’s talk about “the ring”. No I don’t mean the engagement ring. That little “bauble” is left up to the bride, the groom, and their bank account. I am talking about the ring that counts; the wedding ring. So what are the traditions concerning this ring?
First of all, we have to start at the beginning. Do we need a wedding ring at all? As far as Jewish law is concerned, no we do not need a ring, per se, for the ceremony and therefore the marriage to be valid.
Three conditions must be satisfied in order to consider a couple married according to Jewish law: Shtar: a written agreement, Be’ah: consummation of the marriage and Kesef: an item that is worth more than a pruta (lowest valued coin) must be given to the bride by the groom.
Shtar is the Ketuvah. You can read more about Ketuvot and find my English translation of the ketuva in my article "The Jewish Marriage Contract in all its beauty"
Be’ah, well I think most couples get that one right. So what is left?
Kesef, an item worth more than the lowest valued coin. Why demand such a negligible value for this item? Firstly so that anyone could get married. The cost of the item, which for generations is a ring, should not be so exorbitant that it would prevent a wedding from taking place. Ok, today we have plenty of other factors that can threaten a wedding, but the true essence of a valid wedding is met with just these three conditions and two witnesses, not related to either of the happy couple, to witness a range of events that occur throughout the ceremony.
You may have noticed that this short list does not include a Rabbi, a chuppah, guests, caterers, florists, band or any of the army of wedding providers we cannot live without today. And you are right!
You can hold a Jewish wedding ANYWHERE; in a living room, on a boat, a roof top or a restaurant. Jewish weddings have been held in ghettos, DP camps and forests. Interestingly, it is considered especially auspicious to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony at night under the stars (I’ll be talking about this in a separate blog article in the near future). You have to keep in mind that it is the bride and groom who make the wedding, not the band, the photographer, a four-thousand dollar gown, six hundred white roses or a five-course meal.
However, a ring is the most recognizable symbol of marriage for centuries. Archeologists have found wedding rings from 7th century Byzantium and the practice of giving rings seems to have caught on in ancient Babylonia as well. Rings were also part of the greater gentile custom of exchanging wedding gifts and goods to help ensure the couple’s initial economic stability. Other societies gave and still give bracelets and toe rings, instead of wedding rings for fingers, during wedding ceremonies.
Throughout the centuries, within Judaism itself, jewelry of all types was given during the betrothal and marriage ceremonies. Interestingly, these two ceremonies were actally performed as one ceremony in ancient times.
A perfect example of the giving of jewelry for a betrothal/marriage is described in the Torah when Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a bride for his son Yitzhak and provided Eliezer with what seems to be an impressive amount of jewelry and precious items to “seal the deal”. This collection included nose rings, bracelets and the like in gold and silver.
From Bereshit Perek 24:
נֶזֶם זָהָב, בֶּקַע מִשְׁקָלוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי צְמִידִים עַל יָדֶיהָ, עֲשָׂרָה זָהָב מִשְׁקָלָם
Back to our wedding ceremony and the wedding ring. The ring must be a simple, smooth (without a noticeable beginning or end) ring, without stones or cutouts. Usually the ring is round, but I have seen square-shaped rings, which are kosher, as long as they fulfil all the other conditions.
The ring can be of any metal. I read that another reason for the ring to be plain and unadorned is so that it cannot be over-valued or made to look more expensive than it is really worth, in order to prevent someone from marrying a person under a false pretense or inducement of wealth.
Additionally, the groom must own the ring; that is, he must have bought the ring with his own money. I will assume that a ring that the groom inherited, must be legally considered his own property, in order to be able to use it halachickly. Usually under the chuppah, the Rabbi will ask the groom if he did indeed buy the ring and if it is indeed worth more than a pruta. This second question usually causes a bit of nervous laughter on the side of the bride and her family and is usually followed by a whispered comment such as “it better be…”.
Two witnesses are then called upon to “inspect” the ring, to ensure that is of one piece and that it is indeed worth more than a pruta.
Once this is done the groom will then recite:
הרי את מקודשת לי בטבעת זו כדת משה וישראל
Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel.
The two witnesses also watch as the groom clearly places the ring on the bride’s right index finger.
Before I discuss the bride’s hands, I would like to talk for just a moment about another custom regarding the ring and the bride. I have heard that the witnesses must watch the bride accept the ring, by extending her hand and allowing the groom to place the ring on her finger.
I have also read that the bride should lift her veil as she does this, so that she can CLEARLY SEE the ring being placed on her finger and that she clearly accepts this marriage. I like that!
There is another minhag that the bride should wear no jewellery under the chuppah, so that when she wears her wedding ring for the first time, it is the most important and only piece of jewellery she is wearing. Usually the bride will remove her jewellery right after the badekin and give it into the care of a trusted friend and then put it back on after the ceremony, usually in the yehud room.
The idea of an exchange of rings is not a Jewish tradition. If a couple wants the groom to wear a ring as well, the bride can place the ring on the groom’s finger when and where she pleases. Some do it under the chuppah, others do it in the yechud room and so on.
So back to our bride and her right index finger. The groom places the wedding ring on her right index finger. The bride should not wear gloves or any other impediment, but have the ring placed directly on her finger.
There are all kinds of opinions, beliefs and theories behind wearing the wedding ring on either the right hand or the left hand. These philosophies run the gamut from the left ring finger being associated with the heart to the right index finger being the most active finger and therefore the act of marriage should be signified by the right index finger.
As the ring has been sized to the bride’s left ring finger, the ring may not fit as well as it will on the right index finger. The bride can move the ring to her left ring finger at the end of the chuppah, during yechud or whenever it is convenient for her.
There is a minhag that I heard from my mother-in-law z”l, that the bride should put her wedding ring back on the right index finger during each of their sheva brachot celebrations as well.
In all cases, the wedding ring has become an important part of the Jewish Wedding ceremony. Mazal Tov!
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