The Wedding Ring in Judaism

Jewish wedding ring ceremony
Dan Porges/Getty Images

In Judaism, the wedding ring plays a major role in the Jewish wedding ceremony, but after the wedding is over, many men don't wear a wedding ring and for some Jewish women, the ring ends up on the right hand. 

Origins

The origin of the ring as a wedding custom in Judaism is a bit shaky. There isn't a specific mention of the ring used in wedding ceremonies in any ancient works. In Sefer ha'Ittur, a collection of Jewish legal rulings from 1608 on monetary issues, marriage, divorce, and  (marriage contracts) by Rabbi Yitzchak Bar Abba Mari of Marseilles, the rabbi recalls a curious custom from which the ring as a wedding necessity might have arisen.

According to the rabbi, the groom would perform the wedding ceremony over a cup of wine with a ring inside, saying, "You are hereby betrothed to me with this cup and all of which is inside it." However, this wasn't recorded in later medieval works, so it's an unlikely origin point. 

Rather, the ring likely originates from the basics of Jewish law. According to Mishnah Kedushin 1:1, a woman is acquired (i.e., betrothed) in one of three ways:

  • Through money
  • Through a contract
  • Through sexual intercourse

Theoretically, sexual intercourse is a given after the marriage ceremony, and the contract comes in the form of the ketubah that is signed at the wedding. The idea of "acquiring" a woman with money sounds foreign to us in the modern period, but the reality of the situation is that the man isn't buying the wife, he's providing her with something of monetary value, and she is accepting him by accepting the item with monetary value.

In fact, because a woman cannot be married without her consent, her acceptance of the ring is also a form of the woman consenting to the wedding (just as she would with sexual intercourse).

The truth is that the item can be of absolutely the lowest value possible, and historically had been anything from a prayer book to a piece of fruit, a property deed or a special wedding coin.

Although dates vary —anywhere between the 8th and 10th century — the ring became the normative item of monetary value given to the bride.

Requirements

The ring must belong to the groom, and it must be made of a plain metal with no gemstones. The reason for this is that, if the value of the ring is misconstrued, it could, theoretically, invalidate the wedding. 

In the past, the two aspects of the Jewish wedding ceremony often did not take place on the same day. The two parts of the wedding are:

  • Kedushin, which refers to a sacred action but is often translated as betrothal, in which the ring (or sexual intercourse or contract) are presented to the woman
  • Nisuin, from a word meaning "elevation," in which the couple formally begin their marriage together

Nowadays, both parts of the marriage happen in quick succession in a ceremony that usually lasts about a half-hour. There is a lot of choreography involved in the full ceremony, which you can read about here.

The ring plays a role in the first part, kedushin, underneath the chuppah, or marriage canopy, in which the ring is placed on the right hand's index finger and the following is said: "Be sanctified (mekudeshet) to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." 

Which Hand? 

During the wedding ceremony, the ring is placed on the woman's right hand on the index finger. An obvious reason for using the right hand is that oaths —both in Jewish and in Roman tradition —were traditionally (and biblically) performed with the right hand.

The reasons for placement on the index finger vary and include:

  • The index finger is the most active, so it is easy to display the ring to onlookers
  • The index finger is actually the finger that many used to wear the wedding ring on
  • The index finger, being the most active, would not be the likely place for the ring to end up, so its position on this finger shows that it is not just another gift but that it represents a binding act

After the wedding ceremony, many women will place the ring on their left hand, as is the custom in the modern, Western world, but there are also plenty who will wear the wedding ring (and engagement ring) on the right hand on the ring finger.

Men, in most traditional Jewish communities, do not wear a wedding ring. However, in the United States and other countries where Jews are the minority, men tend to adopt the local custom of wearing a wedding ring and wearing it on the left hand. 

Note: For the ease of composing this article, "traditional" roles of "bride and groom" and "husband and wife" were used. There are varying opinions across the Jewish denominations about gay marriage. While Reform rabbis will proudly officiate at gay and lesbian weddings and Conservative congregations varying in opinion. Within Orthodox Judaism, it must be said that although gay marriage is not endorsed or performed, gay and lesbian individuals are welcome and accepted. The oft-quoted phrase goes, "God hates the sin, but loves the sinner."