In most respects the Jewish wedding ceremony is a very different affair from its Christian counterpart. Neither the huppah, the ketubbah, nor the traditional breaking of the glass have any equivalent outside Jewish practice. There is however one element that does seem to cross over religious and cultural boundaries, and that is the use of a ring in the ceremony.
In the Biblical and Talmudic sources, we find no explicit mention of betrothal by ring. The Mishnah rules that the betrothal is given legal effect by the groom's transferring a sum of money or some other item of value to the bride or her representative. Cases cited in the Talmuds make reference to all sorts of objects that were used for that purpose, including fruits, cups and jewelry, as well as cash --but not rings.
By the Middle Ages, the use of the wedding ring had become a known practice among some Jews, and was identified as a custom which distinguished the Jews of the Land of Israel from their Babylonian cousins. This development is a natural one, since the Holy Land was then under Roman occupation and the exchange of wedding rings was an established Roman practice, described by ancient writers like Pliny and subsequently inherited by the Christians as well.
As in many similar instances, the Jews unconsciously adopted the customs of their environment. For the majority of world Jewry, who lived under the Persian or Arab empires, this was viewed as an exotic local idiosyncrasy. Over the years, the use of rings became the norm throughout the diaspora, until it was almost unimaginable to have a wedding without the groom reciting the familiar formula "Behold you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel."
Now, Jews have rarely drawn clear borders between their past and present. We like to portray the events of our history in terms that are familiar to us. This last observation also applies to descriptions of Jewish weddings in ancient sources.
In Jewish tradition the marriage ceremony par exellence was the revelation at Mount Sinai. Midrashic accounts dwell lovingly on the details: God was the groom and Israel the bride, standing beneath a huppah of clouds. The Torah is the eternal marriage contract, to which the heavens and earth are called to serve as witnesses.
One version of this story, an Aramaic embellishment of the Biblical account, waxes poetic: "The earth danced and the heavens sang, as the Lord betrothed the daughter of Jacob after liberating her from Egypt. Upon her fingers he placed five rings of light" [symbolizing the five books of the Torah].
Indeed, a later mystical work, the Tikkunei Zohar, claims that it was the circular emanations of divine power that came forth from God on that day that served as the model for the rings that are given to brides in subsequent Jewish marriages.
Though we have seen that the use of wedding rings by Jews is a relatively late institution, copied from a Roman model, the authors of the above passages took it so much for granted that, for them, God himself could find no more suitable a way of expressing His eternal covenant with the people of Israel than by the symbolic gift of a ring.
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