Last spring when my partner and i got married, we didn’t use just two wedding rings. We used four. And that wasn’t because we were trying to upset convention any more than we already had — with two brides of two faiths under a huppah. To the contrary, we were following a venerable Jewish tradition, in use as long ago as the 14th century, in which Ashkenazi grooms placed ornamental rings shaped like houses on the index fingers of their brides. (Obviously we didn’t follow the “groom” part!) The ring signified the sharing of a home and offered an opportunity for the couple’s new domestic relationship to be blessed, though there was no added liturgy. The rings were often oversized because they were not intended to actually be worn; they were for the purpose of ceremonial “witnessing.” The giving and accepting of a ring is the central legal act, along with the recital of the vow, of a Jewish wedding.*
House rings were generally borrowed by the nuptial couple from their Jewish ecclesiastical community. Historically, most Jews were too poor to own rings, and there was not yet a tradition of wearing them for the duration of a marriage. During the ceremony the house ring would be placed on the bride’s index finger, not the conventional wedding-ring one, because the pointer is best suited to holding a ring aloft for all to see. There was also a folk belief that a special artery ran directly from one’s index finger to the heart.
Today, few jews have heard of house rings, and the custom of referencing domestic sharing in this way has fallen by the wayside. If you visit an art museum with a Judaica collection, however, there’s a good chance you will see some. A 2008 exhibit in London at the Wallace Collection, called “Treasures of the Black Death,” featured exceptionally beautiful Jewish house rings from Colmar, France, and Erfurt, Germany. The 14th century was probably the most perilous era for Jews prior to the Holocaust; they were blamed for the Black Death and often murdered en masse. (In the 13th century, Colmar was a refuge for Jews expelled from other towns, but in 1349 all the Jews living there were burned at the stake.) It was well-known that Jews often buried their valuables when they were forced to flee; they intended to return at a later, safer time to reclaim their possessions. Often, though, Jews were killed in pogroms, and neighbors were quick to dig around greedily in the hopes of unearthing buried treasures.
Surprisingly, the cache in the London exhibit from Erfurt, Germany, wasn’t found until 1998 — 650 years after it had been hidden! It was in the wall of a house that once stood close to the town’s 11th-century synagogue, and was discovered during excavation for a new block of flats. The trove from Colmar, France, lay buried until 1863, and was uncovered in a wall during renovations of a corner house on the former Rue des Juifs [Jews Street]. It is variously said that the “houses” on Jewish rings imaginatively render the Temple in Jerusalem (invoked during Jewish weddings when grooms and/or brides smash a glass); the oft-mentioned biblical “Beit Yisrael” [House of Israel]; and/or the home that the nuptial couple will make together. Both the German and French rings in the Wallace Collection exhibit were engraved with the words “Mazal Tov.” Sadly, luck did not find its way to their owners.
My family is unusual in that we have our very own house ring, and while no one in my extant family knows its exact provenance, it has been a cherished heirloom. We believe that my Uncle Ted bought it, following in his father’s footsteps. My German-Jewish grandfather, Zalman Schocken, was an avid collector and connoisseur of Jewish manuscripts, books, artwork and antiquities. Born into a poor family in Poland, he quickly became a self-educated business pioneer, establishing (with his brother) a chain of department stores throughout Germany prior to World War II. He did very well, and used his wealth to promote the history and culture of Jews living in the Diaspora. Over the years, my grandfather amassed and preserved thousands of works of Jewish art and literature, as well as religious documents, most of which were donated to what became the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Schocken Institute for Jewish Research in Jerusalem. He also founded two publishing houses, Schocken Publishing House in Israel and Schocken Books in New York, and bought the progressive Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, now run by my cousin in Jerusalem.
While many of my grandfather’s offspring were, and still are, involved in publishing, his legacy as a collector also had a significant impact on the family. In the 1960s, Uncle Ted bought the antique Jewish house ring and stored it in a small leather box. He was the Keeper of the Ring, loaning it to whomever in the family was getting married. The groom would present it to the bride, in addition to exchanging simple wedding bands, and after each ceremony, the ring would go back into the box to be stored until the next wedding.
Ted was a meticulous record keeper, and he maintained a small card with the ring, listing each couple that used it and the date. By the time I got around to getting married (surprisingly late in life), there were 13 other couples on the list. My three older brothers all used the ring, and with my name added, that made all four of us siblings, in our respective seasons, borrowers of the family house ring.
After Ted died, his eldest daughter Miriam took over the role of Keeper of the Ring, and then when Miriam died, her sister Eva asked Miriam’s widower Jerry if she could assume the responsibility. Jerry was amenable, of course, but when he went to look for it, it was nowhere to be found. The family became worried. When it finally turned up, in the corner of a forgotten cabinet, a miracle, it seemed, had occurred: there was not one ring, but two. The second was nearly identical to the original family house ring, but no one in the extended family had any idea where it had come from.
While i’m not much of a believer in the supernatural, the appearance of a second ring in time for my same-sex marriage seemed wondrous to me, a sign of unconditional acceptance from my parents, uncles and grandparents, none of whom was alive to attend my wedding. They had started this family house ring tradition many years ago, and now they made it possible for us to continue to carry it out properly — with two rings for two brides. I can’t ask for a better blessing from my ancestors, still very much with us in spirit.
I couldn’t help but think back to the buried rings of Colmar and Erfurt with the words “Mazal Tov” tragically engraved on their roofs. Our rings said “Mazal Tov,” too, and when my wife Eileen and I exchanged them, we hoped that they would symbolize freedom and equality for couples such as ours, in houses everywhere, and for nuptials in the centuries to come.
Abigail Rome is a freelance writer, environmental professional and advocate of marriage equality. She hails from a family that has long been active in progressive issues, both Jewish and secular.
* There is rabbinic discussion about marrying with a borrowed ring, as the groom is enjoined to give the bride an article of value. The Shulkhan Arukh suggests that a borrowed ring is acceptable if all know that it is borrowed. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century) notes that marrying with a borrowed ring is controversial, but that, alas, it has become the custom. “Fictive giving” (like that of a lulav which we are halakhically enjoined to own, but which can be “given” by a synagogue to an individual, then ritually used, then “given back”) might have been the principle by which these borrowed house rings were deemed acceptable to use.