Once upon a time, in my dark and distant past, I used to think that the Jewish wedding ceremony was terribly unfair to the woman. I thought it excluded any and all active participation by the bride – nothing to say, nothing to give, nothing to do, that would be in any way equivalent to the choson’s giving of a ring, and reciting an accompanying formula. Mute, blind and passive, she would stand there and let herself be acquired, not so much consenting as conceding, while the groom would be busy sanctifying her to himself. Why, I used to think, couldn’t tradition have allotted to the kallah some symbolic act, however modest, with which she could, at the very least, indicate her informed consent?
It took several years before the truth dawned on me: that not only does the kallah indeed have her own ritual to perform under the chuppah, but that her ritual takes up considerably more time and space – literally speaking – than that of the bridegroom. I am referring, of course, to the seven circles that the bride spins around her chosen choson; in my opinion, as we shall see, not as a prelude to the actual ceremony, but rather as its first significant component.
There are many different interpretations of the seven circuits and their origins. The most commonly cited, perhaps, is that they correspond to the seven levels of the mystical, heavenly Sephiros; or, that the kallah with her hakafos creates a wall around her choson that will protect him from outside temptations and evil influences. Another explanation is that the circles represent, and remind the choson of, the husband’s seven rabbinical obligations to his wife – his three Biblical obligations are written down in the kesubah.
Some other thoughts ……
I once heard it suggested that the circling was connected with a midrash that the Tevas Noach – the ark of Noah – circled seven times around Mount Ararat before it finally landed. Having asked around a bit, and having been met with vacant stares, I strongly suspect that this was complete fabrication and that no such midrash really exists, but I love the imagery that it evokes: the bride like a vessel with her veil for a sail, adrift on the ocean of life, circling, searching for a safe harbor, a welcoming port – until she finally anchors by the sturdy tree, whose sheltering branches reach out to embrace her.
There is probably a host of other poetic possibilities and historical references to draw from as well. Incurable romantic that I am, I can put a tender spin even on the story of Yehoshua, marching seven times around the walls of Jericho until they collapsed. In the context of a wedding, the wall would stand for the man’s instinctual defense mechanism against emotional involvement; the “wall” with which a man surrounds himself in his fear of being weakened by love. The wall has stood hard and fast, but here comes the bride and with gentle persistence she makes it crumble – a necessary process in order for her and her husband to become truly basar echad – one flesh.
|Tent or Chuppah? Hard to tell! |
Of course, the chuppah is really the symbol of a tent!
(Image from looklovewed.co.nz)
To all of the above, I would like to add a fancy of my own, which occurred to me one day as I was lost in contemplation of that wedding which might, be’ezras Hashem, take place some time in the unknown future* with myself as one of the main characters. According to this conception, the spheres are spun around the groom at seven different physiological levels, (perhaps slightly reminiscent of the concept of the chakras – seven centers of spiritual energy, located along the human spine), each corresponding to the emotional energy of an organ or a limb positioned at that level.
Consequently, the first circle is drawn around the bridegroom’s body at the level of his eyes, so that he should only see beauty in his bride. The second circle envelops his ears, so that he should learn to listen to her with patience and understanding. The third circuit goes at the level of his mouth, to make him only speak gently to her. The fourth one involves his heart in order to make him always loving and loyal. With the fifth round his arms are charged with the task of shielding her, of carrying her through difficult times. The sixth circuit will ensure that all his physical passion is directed towards his wife; and the seventh, that he will stand firm in his commitment.
Regardless of how we choose to interpret the seven circuits, it is by encircling the choson that the kallah takes possession of him. Thus she is enclosing him within her sphere; marking her territory; leaving, if you will, her trail of scent around him, thereby setting him aside for her exclusive benefit. With these wedding rings – seven symbolic rings instead of one made of gold – the choson is sanctified to his kallah. Those misguided feminist detractors who (strange as this is to fathom), denigrate the ritual, lobbying for its abolition, calling it a remnant of a submissive and seductive dance that the bride performs for the pleasure of her prospective master, couldn't be more wrong! This is the proud and powerful act with which a Daughter of Israel takes herself a husband.
*FOOTNOTE: In 2004, seven years after this article was originally written, the author was finally zoche to walk, trembling but unaided by her unterfirerinnen, seven times around her choson. It worked!