We take so many things for granted, and when planning a wedding we tend to push a lot of stuff that seems less important, into the background. For example, the chuppah – “oh let’s worry about that later…” – well, we’ve got news: it needs to be thought about, planned, decided on, ordered…and added as another “action” item to your already excruciatingly long list.
Don’t panic, help is here…that’s OUR job. But – before you decide on a chuppah from our range, it would be good to know a little of its history. Like so many things in Judaism, the chuppah has deep and very important significance. So come with a us on a quick journey through the chuppah time tunnel…
The Jewish wedding ceremony is traditionally held under a chuppah – and not always in the Beit Knesset (Shul). This was one thing we found very different when we came to Israel. Most weddings where we came from in South Africa were held in shul on a Sunday afternoon! Here, they take mainly place under the open sky and often at night. It’s also become common practice to get married on a beach as the sun sets over the horizon. Beautiful! With the spectacular sunsets in Israel, it’s easy to understand this choice.
But today, we are discussing the history of chuppot – where did the tradition arise, and how were they used over the centuries?
The chuppah has taken on various forms throughout the ages. The word “chuppah” appears in the Bible where it referred to a canopy or chamber set aside for the bride or groom before the wedding. It was customary to construct a hut of flowers and branches as the chuppah under which the marriage would take place. A custom also developed to drape both the bride and groom with a cloth or a tallit during the marriage ceremony blessings. This is based on Ruth’s request to Boaz to “spread his robe over his handmaid” (Rut - Ruth - Chapter 3)
Alternatively, just the bride would be covered with a veil, following the ancient practice that is first recorded in the Bible regarding the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca: “She took the veil and covered herself.” (Bereishit - Genesis - Chapter 24).
Some artists have created fanciful depictions of an ancient Jewish wedding using a rather modern-looking chuppah, but there is no actual evidence that this is what a wedding looked like in those days.
As we know it today, the portable canopy held aloft on poles by four strong friends, was first identified by Rabbi Moses Isserles in the mid-16th century in Poland and was probably a fairly new practice in his time. In some European communities, the embroidered Torah ark coverings (parochet) were used, but over time it became the custom to marry under a tallit.
The word “chuppah” came to refer to the marriage ceremony itself. It is still used colloquially: “What time is the Chuppah?”.
The chuppah’s actual – and legal – function is as a special place to which the bride and groom are brought for the purpose of marriage. The chuppah symbolizes a designated room—with four doorways — into which the groom invites his bride; the marriage home symbolizing their commitment to build a household that mirrors the tradition of goodness and kindness as practiced by Abraham and Sarah. So passionate where they about the mitzvah of “hachnasat orechim – welcoming guests” that they built a special tent with an opening on each side to indicate that ll guests were welcome, no matter from which direction, tribe, community or kingdom they were arriving.
After the wedding, a chuppah can become a wall hanging or a bedspread. Some couples loan theirs out for weddings of family and friends, and some have raised their chuppah for a baby-naming or brit milah ceremony. A chuppah can also be used to celebrate a renewal of vows in a special anniversary or even to welcome a new Torah to a congregation. (see Heritage Chuppot on our website).
The chuppah is a desirable object of art, which everyone seeks to decorate—after all, it also symbolized the covenantal marriage of G-d and His people. It is actually only required for the nuptials, but with today's elaborate chuppot, one cannot help but have the entire service, the reading of the ketubah and the seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) under the chuppah. While the bride and groom must stand under the chuppah, it is not necessary for rabbi, cantor, witnesses, or parents to be under the canopy, although this has become common practice.