First off, I would like to thank everyone who read last week’s 500th post BUYING A WIFE? As I’m refocusing my posts to cover for the next while to cover Jewish views of marriage and the wedding ceremony, I received tremendous positive feedback. So the departure from my usual fare seems to be a welcome one.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll likely cover the specific mitzvahs, laws, and rituals associated with the ceremony, such as; the ketubah, the chuppah, and what’s the deal with breaking the glass? But for today I wanted to hit on a particular custom that, from a superficial view, may arouse some controversy.
Bridal Circuit Misconceptions
With the choson (groom) under the chuppah, the kallah (bride) ends the bridal procession and enters the canopy. But before she stands next to him, she walks around her beloved seven times (or three, depending on tradition.) To be clear, this is a minchag (custom) and not a halacha (mandatory law), so if a couple doesn’t want to have it as a part of their ceremony, they don’t have to. But they would be missing out on a profound symbol of their relationship as well as a powerful religious opportunity. Though the circuit might seem to be an act of the subservience and obligation, in truth it is. But not for whom you would think.
The most necessary character feature for the chuppah is that it is open, with no walls. It is a remembrance of the tent of Abraham and Sarah which was open to all and it is a statement that the community is welcome at the simcha. But there is also a more subtle statement about the choson. The Gemara states that, “any man who doesn’t have a wife has no walls (i.e. no boundaries).”
There’s not doubt that an unmarried man can have obligations. Obligations to work, obligations to parents and siblings, and obligations to community. However, those obligations are only as real as the man wants to make them. A single man can quit his job, get on a plane, and fly to whatever city in the world he chooses.
However, once a man joins into a family with his wife, he loses quite a bit of his freedom. If he wants to go out drinking with his buddies, his wife is going to need to know about it. How he carries himself in the house will have an effect on her and the children to whom he is now a role model for. Even the work he chooses to pursue and the sorts of people he chooses to associate with will need to be run by the wife. The man now has defined boundaries and responsibilities.
When his kallah walks around him, she is saying he is now the center of her world, but at the same time she is demonstrating that she is now his boundary. We might think that loss of freedom as a bad thing, but as an artist I know that having boundaries makes a big difference. It is when you find your way around obstacles that the truly creative and interesting solutions emerge. How many of us work better with deadlines? The role of marriage focuses the man within those boundaries so he can achieve higher levels of greatness. As the quote says, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
Circle of Trust
One of the Hebrew names for marriage is Kiddushin. It is the first step in the halachic betrothal process which establishes that the man and the woman are separate from everyone else. No longer is the woman permitted to be with any other man and vice versa for the man. In fact, the root of the word Kiddushin is the same Hebrew word for holiness, kadosh. All holiness really means is something that is separate for a special and elevated purpose. The Jewish marriage separates the couple’s relationship and in doing so, sanctifies it.
The kallah circling the choson is a public declaration of that separation. But more than limiting the couple’s physical intimacy, the circling symbolizes a shelter for emotional intimacy. Vulnerability is essential for two people to become truly close. The assurance that neither partner’s concerns will not be arbitrarily shared with anyone outside the circle aims to create the safest of safe spaces.
Closed Walls, Open Gates
For the choson and kallah, the day of the wedding is considered a Yom Kippur. Many couples, in fact, fast until just after the choppah ceremony. The main idea being that the wedding is a renewal as well as a rebirth, as if the couple each are made to be new souls. That may sound a bit flowery, but Judaism regards this fresh start as essential. We all have dated someone where emotional baggage played a major part in the dynamic of the relationship. At best it can be an inconvenience, at worst it can be cataclysmic. Hopefully the couple learns to work through it and find acceptance. But to internalize the day as a Yom Kippur can be an antidote to the troubles that came before.
So as a measure to physically embody that detachment from such baggage, the kallah circles the choson seven times. Why seven? The final prayer of Yom Kippur is known as Neilah, which literally means locking. On Yom Kippur we say that all the gates of Heaven are open and Neilah is the final prayer as the gates are locked up again. So too on the wedding day, the gates for the choson and kallah are unlocked. But the actual unlocking of those gates (as it were) is ritualized with each circle the kallah makes. Seven circuits for seven gates.
Coming Full Circle
After her final lap, the kallah steps inside the newly walked boundary and stands next to her husband to be. Though the couple’s parents, closest friends, and mentors are sharing the moment with them, they are all on the periphery. The bride and groom have now redefined the roles of those relationships in their lives as their new family unit is taking form. It is a circle of exclusion, but it is also a circle of trust, a circle of protection, and a circle of new priority.
Thank you to Nathan and Becky Ben David for permission to use their beautiful wedding photos!