Standing in front of her family, friends, rabbi and God, the bride slowly walks around her groom. Whispers go through the bridal party as they help her count: one … two … three ... The bride circles seven times, coming to a stop next to the groom. Smiling (and slightly dizzy), she is ready to be married to the man who is, literally, the center of her new life.
Beautiful and emotional to watch, circling is an ancient Jewish custom that has long been performed at Orthodox weddings. However, it fell out of favor in the 1980s and ’90s with non-Orthodox brides who found it old-fashioned or downright sexist.
Today, a new generation of brides and grooms is reviving circling, adding it back to wedding ceremonies. And it’s not just being done at Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Beth Kalisch, of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, says that many, if not most, of the couples she marries want circling in their ceremonies. “But they are finding new interpretations for it,” Kalisch says, “and that makes all the difference.”
What was the original interpretation of circling? As with many other Jewish customs, there doesn’t seem to be one concrete answer. In the vein of “two Jews, three opinions,” several theories exist. Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Yardley’s Congregation Beth El believes that the custom relates to a passage in Jeremiah that references brides circling their grooms, although the ritual may have developed long after the Torah was written and the text was merely included as part of the ceremony.
Another theory, as Kalisch explains, is that circling evolved as a folk custom based on the perceived power of a circle. “In ancient Judaism, a circle was believed to have protective, magical qualities,” Kalisch says. “What was inside the circle was sacred.” There’s even a Talmudic source: Honi the circle maker. The tale relates to Tu B’Shevat, she explains, and it goes like this: Honi was an old man when he decided to plant a carob tree. “Why a carob tree?” people asked. “It’ll take 70 years to blossom and you won’t live long enough to eat its fruit.” Honi answered that he planted the tree not for himself but for future generations. His grandparents planted trees so he could eat their fruit, Honi said, and he was carrying on the tradition. And Honi seems to have put his circle-making skills to use by performing other miracles, so putting the two things together makes for a lovely wedding story.
Kalisch and Gruenberg point to other circling references in Judaism for explanations as to why it is done seven times. There are seven days of creation and the bride and groom are creating a new life together. The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) are part of the wedding ceremony. “When a man takes a wife” appears seven times in the Torah. And Joshua circled the walls of Jericho seven times before they fell and God ushered the Israelites into the Promised Land.
This last explanation holds enormous symbolism for brides and grooms, the rabbis report. But what may seem like a metaphor for modern American dating is actually ancient and universal, explains Rabbi Aron Moss, who teaches Kabbalah and Talmud in Sydney, Australia. In a Chabad.org article titled “A Man’s Deepest Secret,” Moss wrote that “every man has a wall built around his heart. Men create elaborate defenses to hide any sign of weakness or vulnerability, and fiercely guard their deepest secret: that inside, they are sensitive and meek, simple and soft.
“But a wise woman can pierce this defensive wall,” Moss wrote. “If she surrounds her husband with the protective aura of her love, if she envelops him with affection, and if she makes him feel that he is the anchor, the center, the focal point of her life, then he can feel safe and comfortable. When that happens, the walls protecting his heart come tumbling down. Then she has conquered him — all of him.”
Of course, women also have protective walls around their hearts and a man has to make his wife feel that she is the focal point of his life. To that end, some couples choose to split the circling. This is quite common in same-sex ceremonies, Kalisch reports. People circle one another three times each and do the seventh circle together while holding hands. That more egalitarian interpretation is how Gruenberg and his wife performed circling at their 2003 wedding. “As you circle the other one, you are meshing your individual selves and the last circle is the new creation: the sum of your parts,” he says.
The last circle is less of a do-si-do and more of a disco turn, Gruenberg explains, and it takes some practice to execute. In fact, the entire ritual is practiced before the ceremony. What needs configuring is the bridal gown and its train. If the train is long, the bride’s mother may be enlisted to hold it and actually circle the groom with her daughter. Kalisch believes that traditionally, the bride didn’t complete the circles alone, the symbolism being that a woman — ideally, her mother — would always be behind her, offering help and support.
The groom isn’t alone, either — God is with him. Taking wedding vows is a holy exercise, a mitzvah performed with the deepest commitment and sincerity. That’s why traditional communities believe that God “stands” with the groom while the bride makes her sacred circles, Gruenberg explains. “The groom would pray while the bride circled,” he says. “People gave the groom the names of sick people and he’d pray for them because it was a time where he was particularly close to God.”
Not one for mysticism, Kalisch prefers to sing Hebrew songs while the bride circles. She’s not much for “conquering,” either, making clear that the modern interpretation of circling positions the bride and groom as equals. Perhaps, she suggests, they are building new walls — around the two of them. “They are beginning their marriage by protecting one other,” she says, “and they will nurture and respect one another within that marriage and the family they create.”
It’s definitely marking your sacred space together, Gruenberg agrees. “The bride and groom come separately to the chupah, which is supposed to represent their new home,” he says. “Then, the circling creates the intertwining of their lives in that home. They come down the aisle as two, but leave as one. It’s a very powerful statement.”
Melissa Jacobs is a nationally published author who writes about Jewish rituals for Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Simchas, a Jewish Exponent publication.