What is a chuppah, and what does it symbolise?

Chuppah as part of Jewish Wedding

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 (also commonly spelled huppah) 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 is a tapestry attached to the tops of four poles. The word chuppah means covering or protection and is intended as a roof or covering for the bride and groom at their wedding.

The chuppah is not merely a charming folk custom, and a ceremonial object carried over from a primitive past. It serves a definite, though complicated, legal purpose: It is the decisive act that formally permits the couple’s new status of marriage to be actualized, and it is the legal conclusion of the marriage process that began with the betrothal. Together these two kinyanim (acts of acquisition) are called chuppah ve’kiddushin.

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What the Huppah (Chuppah) Symbolizes

The bridal canopy is a multifaceted symbol: It is a home, a garment and a bed covering. Its openness recalls the tent of the biblical Abraham, a paragon of hospitality, who kept his tents open on all sides so that visitors would know they were welcome. The tabernacle built in the desert to house the presence of God is described as a bridal canopy. According to Midrash, God created ten beautiful chuppahs for the marriage of Adam and Eve. (The word is often pluralized, according to Hebrew style, as huppot or chuppot.)

The huppah (also commonly spelled chuppah ) is a symbol of God’s presence at a wedding and in the home being established under the canopy. It was said the divine Name hovers above it, sanctifying the space below; after the ceremony, some rabbis invite couples to stand inside to recall — or anticipate — their own weddings.

A chuppah symbolizes the groom’s home and the bride’s new domain. More specifically, the chuppah symbolizes the bridal chamber, where the marital act was consummated in ancient times.

The tapestry canopy that we know as chuppah was first identified by Rabbi Moses Issereles (Rema) in the sixteenth century, and we must assume that it was relatively new in his time. The concept, however, is ancient, and the Talmud considers it biblically required for marriage.

What exactly is chuppah? Although we do know that originally it was the groom’s home or an addition to his father’s home into which the new couple moved, we cannot know, in precise halakhic terms, what the symbol of that chuppah is supposed to be today. (Psalm 19:6 speaks of the bridegroom emerging from his chuppah, while Joel 2:16 says, “Let the bridegroom emerge from his chamber [chedro], and the bride from her chuppah.”)

The chuppah symbolizes 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 nissuin [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 [prayer shawl] was draped over the couple or held above them. The single cloth under which the couple are joined thus symbolizes 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.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 pilgrims, 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 love), an important component of which is hachnasat orhim (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, symbolizing 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 sukkah, a temporary structure erected during the holiday of Sukkot. Like the sukkah, the chuppah reminds the 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 Judaea and 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.

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Huppah (Chuppah) History

Starting in the 16th century, probably in Poland, a portable canopy held aloft by four poles came into use. In some European communities, the embroidered Torah ark coverings (parochet ) were used as the covering. Still, over time it became the custom to marry under a tallit (prayer shawl), which was frequently a gift from the bride’s family to the groom. The tzitzit (ritual fringes) on the prayer shawl hanging above the couple’s heads were a reminder of the mitzvot (commandments) they represent and regarded as a talisman against evil spirits. According to gematria, a numerical system in which every Hebrew letter has a number value, the 32 bunches of tzitzit correspond to the letters in the word lev, which means “heart.”

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Construction of Chuppah

The construction of the chuppah is simple: a cloth or tallit is spread over four poles. Care should be taken, if at all possible, that the cloth is fastened to the top of the poles (rather than to their sides), which serve as legal separation and wall. Legally, this constitutes a private domain in regard to the laws of the Sabbath, and it transforms the chuppah, technically into the groom’s private home.

What sort of cloth should be used for a chuppah? Historically, the chuppah was a desirable object of art, which everyone sought to decorate—after all, it also symbolized the covenantal marriage of G‑d and His people. The medieval community often used a parokhet (an Ark covering), although it was felt to be inappropriate to apply an object of sanctity to the bridal chamber. Considering the suggestion that the cover is affixed to the top of poles, a floral chuppah is not desirable, although it is perfectly acceptable to cover and decorate the tapestry chuppah with a canopy of flowers. Perhaps genuine beauty resides in simplicity. How much more elegant is the symbol of a tallit attached at the top of four portable poles held by four friends!

Use of Chuppah

The chuppah is required only for the nuptials, but with today’s elaborate chuppot, one cannot help but have the entire service, even the betrothals, under the chuppah. That is perfectly acceptable, but it would be more significant, and also more instructive to an unknowing audience, to raise a portable chuppah after the reading of the ketubah, in time for the seven blessings of the nuptials.

The bride and groom must stand under the chuppah. Rabbi, cantor, witnesses, or parents doesn’t need to be under the canopy. If their presence were a requirement, the other symbols of chuppah—veil, tallit, clothing, privacy—would not be effective without them.

The chuppah is a legal instrument, but the fact that only this canopy symbol survived makes a statement to the couple. First, it teaches that this simple, fragile roof, which is now common to both partners, launches the marriage. In the words of William Henry Channing, it teaches them “to live content with small means: to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy not respectable, and wealthy, not rich.” Second, it affirms the teaching of Ha-manhig that the chuppah sets the couple apart from the crowds, to avoid it appearing as though they were “marrying in the marketplace,” which was considered gross and indelicate in the extreme. Marriage is the establishment of a home, an island of sanity and serenity “far from the madding crowd.”

Different Types of Huppahs (Chuppahs)

The only rule about the construction of a huppah is that it be a temporary structure made by human hands. Other than that, it’s yours to create.

Most synagogues and some caterers own huppahs, which they loan to marrying couples; often, these are made to fit on a stationary frame. These kinds of huppah covers might be embroidered, quilted or woven and decorated with familiar Jewish icons such as Kiddush cups, Stars of David, scenes of Jerusalem and texts and images from the seven marriage blessings (sheva brachot). Heavenly bodies represent the hope for future generations as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

The use of a large prayer shawl is still a popular choice and affirms a commitment to a shared Jewish life. Using a grandparent’s tallit or a family-heirloom lace tablecloth connects your past and your future and makes for a good story to share with your guests. Because any fabric can serve, huppahs can celebrate diverse family cultures with an Indian sari, Scottish tartan, lace mantilla, African textile or Native American blanket.

Making Your Own Huppah (Chuppah)

Making your own huppah is a mitzvah; the gift of one is priceless. Huppahs have been created with batik, silkscreen, embroidery and needlepoint, woven wool, a cat’s cradle of ribbons. An elaborate pieced-quilt huppah can become a family treasure, as can a linen cloth with children’s handprints stamped in fabric paint.

When a huppah is handheld, it can be used in the processional, carried by four friends or relatives who also hold it aloft during the ceremony and represent the community that will support you in years to come.

Huppah poles should be long enough to stand on the ground and can be made of any material; wooden dowels can be cut to length; bamboo is both lightweight and handsome. According to ancient custom, on the birth of a daughter parents would plant a cedar tree, on the birth of a son a cypress, in anticipation of harvesting their branches for a huppah. Poles can be carved, painted or wrapped in ribbons or flowers and greenery. The sky’s the limit on creativity: One couple fastened their huppah over brightly coloured helium balloons.

After the wedding, a huppah can become a wall hanging or a bedspread. Some couples loan theirs for weddings of family and friends, and some have raised their huppah for a baby-naming or brit milah ceremony.

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Significance of the Chuppah

The chuppah literally means covering or safety and security. In reality, the chuppah is the word to describe the roof or covering where the bride and groom stand during the wedding ceremony. Generally, the chuppah has four poles with a tapestry forming the roof. However, many couples choose to use the chuppah as a means for personalizing their own wedding by crafting a unique chuppah shelter. This can range from an intricate weave of plants and flowers to groomsmen holding up four poles with a prayer shawl draped over the top.

Not only is the chuppah a tangible object, but the word is also used to describe the wedding ceremony. So don’t get confused when a wedding guest approaches and asks, “So… when are they gonna get rolling with the Chuppah?”! The chuppah also serves a legal purpose within the marriage ceremony. It is the final act that legally permits the Jewish couple to be officially married, which is known as chuppah ve’kiddushin.

Now we know what the chuppah is, but what does it represent? The chuppah serves as a reminder that the bride and groom are creating a new home amongst themselves. The physical roof, even if it is more symbolic than functional, serves as a safe place where the couple can commit to one another and embark on a life together. And the makeshift chuppah reminds us that no matter how rich or poor, the bride and groom will make a home together with the smallest of means as long as they stay true to their commitment!

The wedding canopy can be seen as representing the protective blanket of God, and the love and presence of special people who have died and/or simply could not make the wedding. During the ceremony, introducing the huppah can be a good time for offering a moment of silence to remember these people. Again, ask your clergy for their preference and advice here.

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