This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Voyage Round a Bridegroom*

Difficult as it is to recall all the details of my wedding, which occurred almost a quarter-century ago, one memory that does still emerge through the mists of time was my bride's determination to observe the practice of walking around her groom seven times under the marriage canopy. At that time and in our straightlaced community, this was not a familiar part of the ceremony, and I imagine that the rabbi and guests regarded it as yet another example of our fundamental eccentricity. They were probably right.

I believe that since those days in the hoary past, the custom of circling the groom, like many other obscure and exotic Jewish customs, has achieved more widespread acceptance, often among young couples whose parents or grandparents would never have heard of the practice. The standard pattern seems to be that the more exotic and bizarre a custom is, the more fervently will it be touted as an essential expression of authentic Judaism, especially by individuals whose acquaintance with Jewish tradition is of recent vintage.

By Jewish standards, groom-circling can not lay claim to any impressive antiquity. The earliest known reference to it is in a biblical commentary composed by a certain "Rabbi Dosa the Greek" in the early fifteenth century. Rabbi Dosa cites the custom, which consisted of three rather than seven circuits, as that of "Austria." In subsequent centuries, as many central-European Jews migrated eastward, we find the practice mentioned in connection with Hungary, Galicia, Poland and Russia. Not untypically, we note that similar customs were also attested among non-Jews in Slavic and Balkan lands, and it is not always clear who was copying from whom.

The precise details of the custom vary in the early sources. The older texts generally speak of three circuits. In some versions the bride is escorted on either side by a bridesmaid bearing a candle. Several communities accompanied the ceremony with the singing traditional hymns, or with the humming of a wordless melody.

As is often the case with Jewish customs, there is no consensus about its fundamental purpose or origins.

The favourite proof text is Jeremiah 31: 21: "for the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man."

In the original context of the prophet's allegory, the woman symbolizes the people of Israel, who will initiate the reconciliation with her beloved, the Almighty. Although in the human realm, such forwardness in a woman was considered an unprecedented novelty, on the religious plain God anticipates it eagerly. The Hebrew phrase that is translated "compass"--tesovev-- is used here to designate a courtship, rather than actually walking around. However, the advocates of the custom found in the literal translation of the passage a convenient Biblical precedent.

Indeed, Jeremiah's imagery seems more propitious than that of another biblical passage that was adduced by some interpreters, that of Joshua circling the walls of Jericho seven times until it crumbled to the ground. For all that the theme was understood in a favourable sense, as representing the breaking down of divisions and barriers between the new couple, we may expect that the image would give rise to discomfort among some prospective husbands.

Not all the rationales cited biblical texts. Some scholars proposed interpretations that built more directly upon the elements of the custom.

According to one very practical approach, the whole ceremony was designed to provide the groom ample opportunity to observe his prospective mate from all possible angles, just to make sure that nobody had tried to substitute an impostor in her place. Presumably, the lessons of Jacob's unfortunate deception by Laban have not been lost on his posterity. At any rate, one wonders why this objective could not have been accomplished more effectively by having the man walk around the woman.

However most authorities prefer interpretations that are less practical and more symbolic.

For example, some commentators suggest that the groom is being compared to a king surrounded by the adulations of his ceremonious retinue. This opinion would be more convincing if it were the guests, rather than the bride, who were doing the surrounding.

A more spiritual symbolism was introduced by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch who explained that, in walking around her spouse, the wife was demonstrating how she would bask in the benevolent influences that radiated, so to speak, from his person.

A variation on this symbolism is that it represents how the groom will now be encompassed by the luminescence that issues from his of his bride. The seven circuits are required to penetrate the seven shells of solitude in which the soul has been encrusted.

For all the charm or insight that we find in such explanations, none of them strikes me as altogether convincing. Their sheer number arouses the suspicion that their authors were just guessing at the source for a custom whose original reasons were no longer known.

The most convincing theory is that the practice originated as a protective measure against the demonic whose envy tends to be kindled on festive occasions. The bride's walking around the groom might be a variation on a similar procedure, described in a work from the early nineteenth century, in which they encircled him with a cushion into which had been stitched a gold coin. Similar prophylactic devices are widespread in world folklore.

Whatever its original purpose, I have it on reliable authority that the effects can be quite enduring, and that some husbands have been known remain dizzy for years after the wedding.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 26, 1998, p. 18.

  • Bibliography:
    • Ahrend, Aaron. "Bride Going around the Bridegroom--Study of a Marriage Custom." Sidra 7 (1991): 5-11.