The marriage ceremony is conducted under a marriage canopy, known in Hebrew as a chuppah (literally, “covering”). It consists of a square cloth, usually made of silk or velvet, supported by four staves, and ordinarily held by four men.
The chuppah is mentioned in the Bible in association with marriage: “As a bridegroom goes forth from his chuppah.” Elsewhere it is stated: “Let the bridegroom proceed from his chamber and let the bride go forth from the chuppah.”
The chuppah symbolises the new home to which the bridegroom will take his bride. In this context, the appearance of the bride and groom together under a chuppah before an assembly who have come to witness the event is in itself a public proclamation by them that they are now bonded together as man and wife. It is a prelude to intimacy, and thus a significant element in marriage.
The cloth chuppah was originally draped around the bride and groom but was later spread out over their heads. In some places, a tallit was draped over the couple or held above them. The single cloth under which the couple are joined thus symbolises both the new household they are forming and represents the public recognition of their new status as man and wife.
The canopy is considered an object of Jewish ceremonial art, and in accordance with the Jewish concept of hiddur mitzvah (embellishing the precept), considerable attention is often lavished on it to create attractive chuppot.
The sages find a reference to the chuppah in the Talmudic passage in Avot, referring to the house which is open on four sides.
The Jerusalemite R. Yosi ben Yohanan urges, “Let your house be wide open,” and compares the chuppah to the tent of the patriarch Abraham that, according to Jewish tradition, had entrances on all four sides to welcome wayfarers, so that no traveller, no matter from which direction he came, need be burdened searching for an entrance door.
The chuppah, with four open sides, is thus a symbol of the Jewish home filled with chesed (acts of lovingkindness), an important component of which is hachnasat orchim (hospitality to strangers), a mode of conduct that the newly married couple is expected to establish in their home in emulation of their patriarchal forebear, whose hospitality to strangers was legendary.
It is preferable for the chuppah to be outdoors, under the stars, symbolising the hopes that the couple will be blessed with a large family, in conformity with God’s blessing to Abraham: “I will greatly bless you, and I will exceedingly multiply your children as the stars in heaven.”
The chuppah in the open air is also reminiscent of the succah, a temporary structure erected during the holiday of Succot. Like the succah, the chuppah reminds bride and groom that they are protected by God alone, and that God is their only haven and support.
The sages find an allusion to weddings being held outdoors in biblical times in Jeremiah’s reference to “the sound of the bridegroom and the sound of the bride … in the cities of Judea and in the courtyards of Jerusalem”.
Strong reservations have been raised in some circles about holding weddings in synagogues because irreverent revelry might result in the profanation of the sanctity of the synagogue. Nevertheless, it was customary in many areas for weddings to be held in the courtyard of synagogues. Indeed, many synagogues in Germany were constructed with a built-in treustein, or “marriage stone”, at a corner of the structure facing the inner synagogue courtyard, which bore the initial Hebrew letters of the above verse from Jeremiah. In these communities, the culmination of the marriage ceremony was marked by the groom throwing a glass goblet and shattering it at the treustein.
Some synagogues and wedding halls have a skylight that opens to allow the chuppah ceremony to be conducted under the sky.
My Jewish Learning
Reprinted with permission from Love, Marriage, and Family in Jewish Law and Tradition, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.