By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
We are getting married this spring and studying up on customs of the Jewish wedding. We are debating whether or not to do what we have read about and seen at some weddings that the bride walks around the groom seven times. We haven’t found a good explanation for it, so are concerned this custom might be some type of superstitious thing; if so, those types of things are what we want to stay away from. Also, is there a reason the bride circles the groom and not vice versa? We’ve heard some say it shows the man is the center of the wife’s universe and everything revolves around him, which is totally chauvinistic and the reason some people have rejected this custom. Is there another explanation? We’d rather check it out before rejecting it out of hand.
— Jody and Ron
Dear Jody and Ron,
Mazal Tov on your upcoming wedding!
It’s good you are studying up on the ceremony. The Jewish wedding ceremony is interlaced with deep symbolism and the more you study about it the more it will mean to you.
It’s important to know that Jewish customs, which have been performed by Jewish communities throughout the world for long periods of time, are based upon deep and profound Jewish principles. They were, for the most part, established by leading sages of Jewish law and Kabbalah of early generations. These customs weave the beautiful tapestry of Jewish life, enriching our fulfillment of Judaism with life and color.
The custom of circling the groom seven times is no different. Although this is not customary in most Sephardic communities, it has been the norm in Ashkenazic Jewish communities for centuries. As other Jewish customs, this one is a meaningful symbol that greatly enriches the wedding ceremony. (Some do only three circles; I will explain the predominant custom of seven).
The bride, by circling her new husband, exercises tremendous power over him. The seven circles are reflective of the seven times the Jewish people, led by Joshua, circled around the city of Jericho. When the Jews first entered the Land of Israel they were told to conquer the city of Jericho to begin their conquest of the land. Jericho was a walled fortress city and impregnable. God commanded them to circle the city seven times, and when they did so the tremendous walls tumbled in upon themselves, leaving the city open to conquest.
Similarly, a man often has a “wall” around his heart, hides his feelings and keeps his guard up rather than leaving himself vulnerable to sharing his innermost feelings to another. By circling around her new husband, the woman, like the Jews circling Jericho, causes those walls to go tumbling down. This is done by encircling him with the love and protection she will provide in their new home, and appreciating him for whom he is. When she does this with wisdom, showing him she feels he is her anchor and the focal point of her life and trusts him for her needs, then the walls of his heart tumble down and she has indeed conquered his eternal love.
The woman, in Jewish tradition, represents the Jewish home. Although the husband may build the shell of the home (hence he enters the chuppah first, which represents the home he has built for his wife that she then follows him into), it is the wife who provides the warmth, ambiance and atmosphere of the home. This begins by her encircling him, representing a living home, under the roof of the physical home, the chuppah.
The number seven pervades the wedding; the seven blessings (sheva brachot) which correspond to the seven days of the week. Like the earth revolves around its axis seven times each week, so too the bride rotates around the groom seven times showing their love will pervade their lives every day of the week. Like a man wraps the tefillin straps seven times around his arm in an expression of being bound up in love to the Al-mighty with every action he does, so too the new couple are bound up in eternal love.
Mazal tov, again, and may your new lives together be a fulfillment of all we described and more!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.