Why Are Jewish Weddings Under a Chupah Canopy?
Everyone knows that Jewish weddings take place under a chupah under the open skies. But no one I ask seems to know why. Is there a reason for this?
How Long Have We Been Using It?
The word “chupah” appears as far back as the Bible, although it referred to a canopy or chamber designated for either the bride or groom before the wedding.1 Later, in the Mishnaic period, the word “chupah” came to refer to the marriage itself.2 And for the last 500 years or so, the word “chupah” has come to refer to the conventional canopy that is made of cloth and held up by four poles, as well as the ceremony that takes place beneath it.
The Double Meaning of the Chupah
A Jewish wedding is the sublime joining of two souls, but it is also an intricate legal transaction, by which bride and groom enter a mutually binding commitment. Many components of the wedding have both a legal as well as a spiritual aspect to them.
Chupah as Place
On a legal level, the chupah’s function is for the bride and groom be brought to a specially designated place (of unique appearance3) expressly for the purpose of marriage, thus effecting the phase of marriage known as nisuin.4
The chupah has taken on various forms throughout the millennia.
For example, at one point there was a custom to construct a hut-like structure made out of flowers and myrtle as the chupah under which the marriage would take place.5
Chupah as Action
According to other halachic sources, an action demonstrating the intention to designate the bride as a wife is sufficient to fulfill the legal mandate.
Based on this, a custom developed to drape both the bride and groom with a cloth or a tallit6 during the blessing of the marriage ceremony. This is similar to what we find in the book of Ruth that Ruth tells Boaz to “spread your robe over your handmaid . . .”78
Alternatively, just the bride would be covered with a veil,9 following the ancient practice that is first recorded in the Bible regarding the marriage of our ancestors Isaac and Rebecca: “And she took the veil and covered herself.”10
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