While the marriage ring appears to have an ancient tradition, there is no specific reference to it in the Talmud. Saadiah Gaon cites as a possible origin the phrase in Nehemiah 7:46 be’nei tabbaot (children of the rings). He considered them to be children of those who cohabited while only betrothed (with the ring) but not yet married. Contemporary scholars believe that tabbaot was simply a family name. Maharshal cites references to indicate that the ring is a Palestinian custom that only later was accepted in Babylonia practice; one scholar posits that it was introduced into Palestine in the seventh century and into Babylonia in the ninth century. The author of ha-Ittur records a strange custom that may have been a transitional practice that ultimately led to the use of the ring: The groom performed the betrothal over a cup of wine with a ring inside the cup, saying, "You are hereby betrothed unto me with this cup and all that which is inside it." (This practice does not appear in the major medieval codes of Rif or Maimonides.)

The law, unlike history, is clear and unequivocal. The ring is a money equivalent, shaveh kessef, which is one of the original three legal acts of acquisition and the one that is exclusively practiced today. Rema writes, "It is the correct custom to betroth with a ring." The Halakhah established the following practices regarding this central object of the wedding ceremony:

1. The ring should be of plain metal, preferably gold, and with no precious stones. The reason for this is the avoidance of possible misrepresentation on the part of the groom—for example, using costume jewelry that the bride believes is genuine. This might invalidate the marriage because she accepted the proposal on false premises, and might not have willingly. consented to marry under those conditions. The bride has to be aware only that the ring is worth a minimum of a pe’rutah, a low-valued coin.

2. The ring must belong to the groom. He may borrow it from someone on condition that he return it after the wedding, and if the bride knows about it, the marriage is valid. It is not good practice, however, to borrow his bride’s engagement ring for the wedding!

3. The bride should not put the ring over a glove. To do so does not invalidate the marriage, but it is preferred that there be no obstruction between her finger and the ring.

4. The ring should be placed by the groom on the bride’s index finger, not her "ring finger." Abudarham says the pointing finger is used so that she will more easily be able to show the witnesses that she received the ring. Maharam Mintz says that the index was once the ring finger; even though this is no longer so, we retain that custom. In any case, because it is the most active finger, it may serve as a symbol that the ring is not accepted as just another gift but as an act sealing the most important transaction in life.

5. The groom must first propose by reciting the marriage formula, and only after that may he place the ring on her finger. It is her silent consent after the proposal that clinches the matter. Silence after receiving the ring does not indicate her assent to marry.

6. The witnesses must be specifically assigned as witnesses, to the exclusion of everyone else. They must be assured that the ring has the minimal requisite value, and they must clearly see the action of the groom, hear what he says, and be satisfied that the bride accepts it with willing consent. There is a wise custom that at this moment the bride momentarily lifts her veil so that she may see the ring clearly and so that the witnesses may know with certainty that it is she who is the bride and that she accepts the groom’s proposal. Some customs, notably Hasidic, insist that the veil remain lowered throughout the service until after the nuptials.

In summary, the procedure is as follows:

(1) The groom, or best man, gives the rabbi the ring;

(2) the groom specifies the witnesses;

(3) the rabbi shows the ring to the witnesses to ascertain minimal value;

(4) the rabbi asks the groom if the ring belongs to him and if it is of this minimal value;

(5) the bride lifts her veil, if it covers her eyes;

(6) the groom takes the ring and recites the proposal;

(7) he then places the ring on her index finger in the presence of the witnesses (she may place it on her ring finger after the ceremony); and

(8) the bride replaces the veil.

The mystical reason for the ring’s use in the wedding ceremony is difficult to comprehend. Rema says, "It is the correct custom to betroth with a ring, and the reason is given in Tikkunei ha-Zohar, [the major work of Jewish mysticism]." Arukh ha-Shulchan refers the reader to chokhmat ha-nistar the "hidden wisdom" of the Kabbalah. The mystical reason quoted is: "From the secret of marriage there dawns on the woman the secret of enveloping light."

We offer one insightful comment of contemporary writer Kohren Arisian on the nature of the wedding ring. The circle was considered to be the most perfect of all forms in nature. The Greeks attributed such mystical qualities of perfection to the circle that when they discovered that this perfect form in its dimensional relationship produced an irrational number, they concealed this fact. Yet the Greeks knew that perfection implied imperfection; the rational, the irrational. Just so, the perfect marriage symbolized by the circle of the ring must always contain the imperfection of the parties to that marriage, since the parties to it are only human.