Wreaths are not a major motif in Judaism, but Jews used wreaths as holiday decorations and wedding accessories even in antiquity, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Although today wreaths are strongly associated with Christmas, Jews made wreaths for Shavuot and other festive occasions before the birth of Jesus. And as a symbol, the wreath image plays a small but notable role in Jewish mysticism’s attempt to deal with the destruction of the Temple.
These days wreaths are riding high in popular culture. Crafters are making wreaths from all kinds of materials, like spring flowers and seashells, so they work as home décor all year round. Wreaths are also trending as a wedding motif. They can be found on invitations, as floral decorations and–significantly for this blog post—as hair accessories for brides.
Since brides wearing wreaths is one of the earliest and longest running wreath-related themes in Jewish culture, this seems like a good time to explore wreaths as a Jewish decoration and symbol.
First, let’s start with the wreath as a Shavuot decoration…
Shavuot festival decorations
In ancient Israel people used wreaths as decorations during the spring festival of Shavuot. Today, we celebrate Shavuot mainly to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Shavuot was an important agricultural festival. Jews from across Israel brought a portion of their harvest to Jerusalem to donate to the Temple.
For the procession to the Temple, according to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, pilgrims to Jerusalem decorated their baskets of offerings with wreaths made from the seven species. The seven species are grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, dates, wheat, and barley. These fruits and grains are native to Israel and symbolize God’s promise to provide food in abundance.
In addition, during the Shavuot procession the ox that was to be sacrificed wore a wreath of olive leaves on its horns.
Garlands for grooms and brides
In ancient Israel it was a widespread practice for grooms and brides to wear garlanded wreaths on their heads. “The bridal pair wore crowns of roses and myrtles and olive branches, intertwined with salt-stones and pyrites amid threads of gold and crimson,” according to Israel Abrahams in his book, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. The wreaths were typically made by students and scholars to honor the wedding couple.
Wearing garlands was probably customary for grooms long before it was for brides, Abrahams suggests, since a passage in the Torah alludes to a groom wearing a garland but a bride wearing jewelry:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, God has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols suggests that the custom of the groom wearing a garland of olive branches may have been adopted from Greek and Roman cultures’ association of olive branches with fertility. But Jewish tradition itself associates olive branches with fertility, as well as beauty, among its many symbolic meanings. Here from Psalm 128:3 are blessings for a “man who fears the Lord”: “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table.”
Myrtle has many symbolic meanings in Judaism, including beauty, sweetness, good luck, and hope. Myrtle branches also stay green and look fresh for a relatively long time, which the former event planner in me likes for wedding greenery.
Roses, which would clearly add a note of beauty to a wedding garland, also symbolize love in Jewish mystical teachings (here’s more on the rose as a Jewish symbol).
After the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., rabbinic leaders forbade wedding couples from wearing crowns as a sign of mourning for the lost Temple. They also forbade grooms from wearing wreaths. However, brides were still permitted to wear floral wreaths.
In the Middle Ages, wreaths of myrtle again became popular hair accessories for brides, according to Abrahams. In continued observance of the loss of the Temple, however, the rabbis prohibited the addition of gold or silver trim.
According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish symbols, in some Sephardi communities today the groom wears a wreath of olive branches. I wasn’t able to find additional details about this modern practice, and unfortunately don’t have personal experience with this tradition, but if you do, please get in touch. I would love to update this post with more information.
Garlands for scholars
In ancient Israel, scholars wore wreaths on the day of their ordination, according to The Jewish Encyclopedia. The garland was called a “crown of hakam,” hakam meaning a person who is wise or learned in Jewish law.
A wreath of prayers
Judaism’s mystical tradition postulates that our prayers are delivered to God by an angel who weaves them into a wreath that is placed on God’s head. The angel’s name is Sandalphon. This teaching goes back to at least the Middle Ages and perhaps to antiquity.
Rabbi Arthur Green, Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, explains in his book, Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism, that the placing of this wreath on God’s head each day is a kind of daily coronation of God by God’s people. The act replaces the Temple sacrifices that had to be discontinued after the Temple was destroyed. “The ascent of prayer to form God’s crown replaces the earlier ascent of sacrificial smoke and bears with it both the loyalty of Israel as subjects in the Kingdom of Heaven and an assertion of their special power as God’s chosen beloved on Earth,” Green writes.
The idea of prayer replacing sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple is widely known in contemporary Judaism, even if the narrative of the angel Sandalphon is less well known. Still, Sandalphon did make their way into the traditional Sukkot liturgy, in this context accepting from God a crown made from God’s head tefillin.
To inspire you further, here’s a video, created by Tara Whittaker Photography, showing you how to make your own floral wreath crown:
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[Images: Top: “A Flower and Fruit Wreath” by Abraham Mignon, between 1665 and 1679, Source/photographer https://skd-online-collection.skd.museum/Details/Index/351403 via WikimediaCommons | Shalom Wreath Challah Cover by Maria Bywater for Sew Jewish | Screenshot of Etsy maker site | “Myrtus communis Common Myrtle მვორსინი: Taken in Jerusalem” by Lazaregagnidze, 2014 via Wikimedia Commons | “How to make a flower crown” video by Tara Whittaker Photography, 2015 via YouTube]