Lure of the rings

If you want to know why Jews wear wedding rings, thank occupation.

No direct references in the Torah or Talmud require Jewish women or men to wear wedding rings. Rabbinic tradition stipulates only that a bride accept an object of a certain value from her groom. But historians suspect that when Jews in the land of Israel lived under Roman rule, the ring started to become the adopted — and preferred — offering.

Today, when it comes to wedding rings, Israelis are making amends for their assimilating ways.

Jewelry designer Eli Cohen first noticed it when he brought his wares to a jewelry expo in the United States.

“Americans love more kitsch,” he says, explaining that unlike the local trend anything ordinary- or classic-looking was gobbled up. “Israelis place more value on the artistry.”

The majority of Israeli women, agreed half a dozen designers, reject the traditional thin, shiny gold band.

Following suit, rows of local jewelry stores boast rings of every size, color, shape and texture; most far from classic. Even a costume jewelry store on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Dizengoff, sandwiched between fancy jewelers, reported the popular sale of a big, textured imitation silver ring as a wedding band.

Most designers say the artier and funkier stuff sells best.

“Taking into consideration the size of Israel, I would say that we have more artists than any other country, and it affects the fashions in Israel” says jewelry designer Shlomo Yashai, explaining that Israeli women look for rings that are unique, fun, casual and suitable for everyday wear.

A tourist might not notice the trend, since there is often no way to distinguish a wedding band here from any other ring.

One designer asked a young woman browsing if the thin, silver, engraved band she was wearing on the middle finger of her left hand was a wedding band, a question that would never even be considered abroad.

Israeli men are usually better than foreigners at sniffing out wedding rings.

Michal, a young hip Tel Aviv beauty who is used to attracting attention, was recently having lunch in a cafe when she noticed a handsome man staring at her. But when he started making his way toward her, she quickly raised her hand to scratch her cheek. The simple gesture was enough to turn him on his heels.

To him it was obvious she was married: On her left middle finger, she wears a fat and wide amorphous gold band inscribed with Egyptian-looking symbols.

Legend has it that Europeans started wearing wedding rings on the third finger of the left hand because of an ancient pagan belief that the vena amoris or so-called love vein in this finger leads directly to the heart. In the West wedding rings are usually worn on this finger, which is called “the ring finger.”

But Jewish grooms place the ring on the bride’s right index finger during the ceremony — and later any finger goes.

“I don’t know if I wanted to wear a ring, but I wanted to have one to balance the agreement of marriage,” says Michal’s husband, Meir, who wears a matching ring only on whim, and switches fingers each time. “Men are not required to wear a ring, but the [Orthodox] rabbi let us use it in the ceremony as long as no blessing was said over it.”

Ayala, a 32-year-old manager, searched for months for a unique ring and then decided that the whole pressure of a ring symbolizing a marriage was “stupid.”

“It didn’t feel right to spend [$665] on a beautiful ring and I didn’t feel it could really symbolize my marriage,” she says after settling for a wide, silver band with raised flowers that cost less than $45.

“Now I joke to my husband, ‘Honey I love you, but I hate the ring.’ There is no way that I would ever love one piece of jewelry all my life. Anyway I don’t even like wearing rings.

“It’s the problem of all secular people, you need to find other symbols and ceremonies that have meaning to you. I like the fact that I am free to do what I want, but sometimes when there is a guide [like Judaism] it’s easier. Being secular means making small, stupid decisions about what has meaning and at times it is uncomfortable to make so many decisions.”

While Judaism doesn’t actually require either husband or wife to wear a ring, and in Israel going without doesn’t raise eyebrows, Ayala, who now goes ringless, felt self-conscious last time she left the country.

“My husband wears a traditional wedding ring so in these small Muslim villages in Turkey it looked like I was starting a romance with a married man — that was uncomfortable.”

Next time she goes abroad she’ll be sporting the ring she hates — not to symbolize her commitment, but rather to advertise it and match the local custom.

Though Israelis more or less make up the practice here as they go along, when it comes to rings, most — including the self-defined secular — buy only kosher. Designers say that even the majority of secular customers inquire if the ring meets the requirements of Jewish law, whether or not they know themselves exactly what the rules are. According to halachah, the ring must be a perfect circle and boast no stones nor perforations. Some rabbis also rule that inscriptions are traif (non-kosher).

“Israelis are not classic dressers; they like the more casual, fun and unusual looks [and this is reflected in the rings]; but they don’t want non-kosher,” says a manager at the Miller fine jewelry chain on Dizengoff.

“They will push the line, but not go over it.”