Seven is one of the greatest power numbers representing creation, good fortune and blessing. In Gematria (Jewish numerology) the Hebrew word “gad” for luck equals seven, and the other word for luck, “mazel” equals seventy-seven. There are also many matters of Torah and mitzvot which reflect the importance of the number seven: from the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer, to the seven years of the Shemittah [Sabbatical year] cycle. And then, of course, Jacob had to work another seven years to marry Rachel.
The number seven figures prominently in a Jewish wedding as well. One of the most intriguing parts of a Jewish wedding ceremony is when the bride circles the groom under the huppah. Traditionally, the bride circles the groom seven times; some brides circle only three, and in modern ceremonies, the bride and groom often circle each other at the same time. So here are seven explanations for the seven circles.
First, circling demonstrates that the groom is the center of the bride’s life and “her protective care of her husband.” (One can see how this meaning doesn’t sit well with many modern Jews.) Another explanation refers to the seven times Joshua had to walk around the ancient city of Jericho before the walls fell. “So, too, after the bride walks around the groom seven times, the walls between them will fall and their souls will be united.” (I always think of the final scene of “It Happened One Night”).
Then there is the “spiritual power and mystical significance of the number seven” in the Jewish religion. Another explanation is that the circles also represent a “seven-fold bond which marriage will establish between the bride and groom and their families.” And just as a man wraps his Tefillin straps around his arm seven times to bind himself in love to G-d, so to he binds himself in love to his bride.
The number seven also represents the completion of the seven day process in which earth was created. And finally, during these seven days, “the earth revolved on its axis seven times and marriage reenacts the creative process, the bride’s circling symbolizes the repetition of these seven earthly rotations.”
The second “seven” are the seven blessings, the sheva brachot, the heart of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The blessings are taken from the pages of the Talmud (Ketubot 8a). “They begin with the kiddush over wine and increase in intensity in their imagery and metaphors.” Once again the number seven brings to mind the seven days of creation and the blessings are filled with themes of creation and paradise as well as the yearning to return to Jerusalem. The final blessing culminates with imagery of the entire community celebrating with the couple, reminding all present that the couple standing under the huppah is a link in the chain of Jewish continuity.
And how about seven reasons, traditional and modern, for the final and most recognizable act of the ceremony, the breaking of the glass by the groom. As with many symbolic acts in Judaism, there are multiple reasons offered to explain why this is done. Most convey the idea that joy must always be tempered. This is based on the Talmudic story where Mar, son of Ravina, was making a wedding for his son. When he saw that the guests were becoming overly joyful and boisterous, he took an expensive glass and broke it in front of them—tempering their joy. The message? The couple should endeavor “to engender sobriety and balanced behavior.”
The most common explanation is that breaking the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and reminds the bride and groom of their commitment to each other in difficult as well as happy times.
For those committed to social action, a broken glass can symbolize what is broken in society.
A more mystical explanation is that the glass represents the couple and that, just as the glass enters a state that from which it will never emerge, it is the hope of the community that this couple will never emerge from their married state.
Breaking the class can also symbolize the fragility of relationships and how easily they can be broken—reminding the couples to treat their marriage with special care. Once the glass is broken there are multiple shards of glass. These shards can represent the hope for abundant happiness in life, or abundant children. Interfaith couples have suggested that, for them, “breaking the glass symbolizes breaking down barriers between people of different faiths and cultures.”
Couples can ask their officiant to mention the interpretation that resonates with them, write about it in a wedding program or even create one specifically meaningful to them.
While there are many beautiful traditions in a Jewish wedding, more and more weddings reflect the personality and relationship of the couple. Yet the sevens circles and seven blessings remain powerful symbols of a Jewish marriage.
Sources: Jewish Wedding Directory.com, My Jewish Learning.com
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.