At a traditional Jewish wedding, after the processional but before the actual start of the ceremony, the bride will circle clockwise around the groom seven times. Circling, or “hakafot” in Hebrew, is one of a number of public affirmations performed to attest to one’s consent, in this case, to be married. Other publicly observable acts involved in the wedding ceremony include the exchange of rings, sipping of wine from a Kiddush cup, acceptance of a handkerchief or napkin during the Ketubah signing (“kinyan”), and the breaking of the glass.
Circling takes on a special meaning in that seven is a “magic” number in Jewish tradition. The creation story reported in the Torah teaches that God formed the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. Seven, therefore, symbolizes completeness and perfection. Perfection, completeness and fulfillment—what an inspiring notion to associate with a marriage! By circling, you “magically” create, in full display of your relatives and invited guests, a new Jewish family.
Circling is a familiar practice in Judaism. Jews circle while carrying the Torah on the festival of Simchat Torah, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Jews also circle with the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, the festival of booths/fall harvest festival. In the case of a wedding, however, the act of circling becomes a personal affirmation performed publically, as opposed to a communal act involving everyone. Circling at your wedding demonstrates your commitment to separating yourself as a couple from the community, while at the same time joining the community as a married couple!
Why circle? Circling is a tradition that is both dramatic to watch—offering a bit of pageantry to your wedding, but also an act that is tender and loving in intention. Your guests will watch in suspense as you circle about, and your spouse-to-be will sneak a loving glance when your eyes meet with each rotation, and will blush with love and delight.
Still, seven turns around your partner can be a lot. Some couples have adjusted the number, reducing it to three or even one hakafah (singular of “hakafot”). Others have elected to share in the “labor”—the bride circles, and then the groom circles around the bride the same number. My favorite combination is where the bride circles three times, the groom then circles three times and, finally, the couple grasps hands and circles together, under the chuppah, one final time. 3 + 3 + 1 = 7, but also symbolizes give and take, compromise and unity. No matter how you choose to parse it, by circling you’re creating a sacred space and affirming your love for each other.
Circling is also the first Jewish part of your ceremony. Brides and grooms will often give lots of thought to the processional: Who will march down the aisle? What will the members of the wedding party wear? To what music will the various members of the wedding party march? Similar thinking will often go into the recessional, when the newly married couple and wedding party make their way out. The processional and the recessional serve as bookends to your ceremony, but they are purely secular in nature. (You might select Jewish music to accompany your walk down the aisle, which makes for a dramatic transition between the secular and the sacred.) Circling, on the other hand, is the first opportunity to insert some Judaism into your ceremony and—it’s completed by you, the celebrants, and not by your officiant. What a wonderful way, in front of family and friends, to declare your love and your new standing as a married couple!