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the Chuppah at a Jewish Wedding

The Chuppah at a Jewish Wedding

    Everybody knows that if it’s a Jewish wedding, there’s got to be a chuppah.  Taken from the Hebrew word “chophaif”, meaning to cover or separate, the chuppah is the canopy that the chattan and kallah and the other members of the wedding party stand under during the marriage ceremony.  Although the form and substance of the chuppah varies greatly from place to place, its presence at the Jewish wedding is universal.  Let’s take a look at the origin and meaning of this beautiful custom.
    In order to appreciate where the chuppah comes from and the role it plays, we first need to have a little bit of background.  According to the Torah, there are two distinct ceremonies that are necessary in order for a couple to fully become husband and wife. The first, called kiddushin, is performed when the chattan gives the kallah something of value and she agrees to be married. The second, called nesuin, is a bit more complicated and involves the couple being alone together for a brief period of time.  It’s with respect to this second ceremony of nesuin that the chuppah plays a significant role.  

    Actually, there are several opinions among the halachic authorities as to the exact nature of nesuin and how it should be performed.  Rabbi Yosef Caro writes in the Shulchan Aruch that nesuin is performed through “chuppah” and “chuppah” is taken to mean when the couple is alone together for the purpose of marriage. This is also known as yichud. The Rema in his commentary brings three other opinions as to what chuppah means.  The first is that it refers to when the chattan brings his kallah from her father’s house or domain into his own house or domain. The second is that it refers to the spreading of a cloth over the couple at the time of kiddushin. The third is that it refers to the time when the chattan places a veil over the kallah.

    There is a common thread that runs through each of these opinions - each reflects the chattan in the act of performing certain of his marital obligations for his kallah. By performing yichud, the couple is showing that they are ready for intimacy. By either bringing his kallah into his house or placing a veil on her, the chattan is engaged in activities which provide for her needs. The Rema ends his comments by explaining that the custom today is to fulfill all the  opinions of what constitutes chuppah.  First, the chattan places the veil over the kallah during the bedekken service.  Second, the chattan receives the kallah into his domain under the canopy formed by suspending a talis or cloth over the couple using four poles.  At this point, kiddushin is then performed as the chattan gives the kallah the ring.  Finally, the couple leaves the canopy and is escorted to a private room where they spend some time alone together, thus fulfilling yichud and hence, the final opinion of what constitutes “chuppah”.
    Of course, today, by general consensus, the term “chuppah” has specifically come to mean the beautiful canopy that shelters the couple as they stand to be married on their wedding day.  It’s fascinating that even our simple custom of beautifying the chuppah with flowers has its source in halacha. The Aruch Hashulchan brings an opinion that chuppah is when the father brings his daughter to a house that has been specially built or decorated with something new specifically for the sake of chuppah. He explains that, for this reason, some people place roses or myrtle on the chuppah. While we don’t generally follow this opinion today, what it demonstrates is that there is a special reason in the Halacha, itself, to beautify the chuppah.
    Many communities are careful that the chuppah should be set out under the stars. This custom has its source in the writings of the Maharam Mintz, Rabbi Moshe Halevi Mintz (1415–1480) who explains that when God blessed Avraham Avinu, He promised him that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the heaven. As a prayer for success in having a family, the chuppah is held under the stars so that the couple can benefit from this bracha.  Indeed, there are many wedding halls that go to great lengths to provide this, some actually constructing the roof with a retractable opening above the chuppah.  In pre-war Europe it was common to have the chuppah outside in the courtyard of the synagogue. This was done because many halachic authorities maintain that the chuppah has to belong to the groom. Having the chuppah in the courtyard fulfills this requirement because the chattan, as a member of the synagogue, can be said to “own” a portion of the courtyard and hence the chuppah that is placed there.
    As we’ve seen, there’s more to the chuppah than meets the eye.  As it turns out, the humble little wedding canopy we all know and love is only a mere outward physical symbol of a large, sophisticated body of halachic concepts and opinions that have grown up around it and have come down to us through the ages.   One lesson we learn from reviewing this rich history is an appreciation of the fact that, wherever possible, our Rabbis strove to incorporate as many of the various opinions on a subject as possible when they established normative Jewish practice.  With some mitzvoth, such as this one of chuppah, they clearly felt that it was better for us to go out of our way to do more to achieve this goal than with some other mitzvahs.  May our deeper understanding of this mitzvah enhance our appreciation of it and of all the others as well.   

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas