WHY FOUR POLE HOLDERS?
Here's the answer to this surprising question.
When we tell prospective wedding couples in Israel that the chuppah they are hiring comes together with the four poles to keep it aloft, they always express surprise. “Why isn’t it on a free standing frame?” they ask. Other comments range from:
“You mean I have to find four people to hold it?”
“I don’t want to ask anybody to hold up our chuppah.”
“It’s going to be difficult to find someone to do that.”
Well, here’s the thing:
Among the Ashkenazi communities where we come from (South Africa, Zimbabwe), being a Pole Holder (upper case intended) at a wedding is considered a mighty high honor. They are part and parcel of the retinue, as important in the ceremony as the Best Man, Maid of Honor, bridesmaids, flower girls and page boys. I recall that when my wife and I got married in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) there was an article about the wedding in the newspaper the next day…and the Pole Holders (or “canopy bearers” as they were called), got mentioned in dispatches as well, among the names and duties of the entire retinue.
The Pole Holders are usually extremely close friends or family members, and being asked to be a Pole Holder is considered a huge compliment. Because, you see, the tradition of being a Pole Holder signifies that you are held in high esteem by the bride and groom, close enough to them as they enter their new life together; signifying your willingness – and their trust in you – to be there for them throughout their lives, being part of the foundation of their home, which is symbolized by Chuppah itself. If desired, the Pole Holders don’t actually have to hold the poles if a free standing frame is used: but they can stand by each corner, as “guardians” or “sentinels”, watching over the wellbeing of the bride and groom.
The Chuppah being open on all four sides, as was the tent of Abraham open to all comers, represents hospitality to one’s guests. This “home” initially lacks furniture as a reminder that the basis of a Jewish home is the people within it, not the possessions. In a spiritual sense, the covering of the Chuppah represents the presence of G-d over the covenant of marriage.
It is believed that when the bride and groom stand under the chuppah on their wedding day, they are especially close to G-d.
Historically the construction of a Chuppah was as simple as a Tallit (prayer shawl) spread over four poles. However in more modern times the Chuppah has become a desirable object of art, which brides and grooms can ornately decorate in celebration of their nuptials. The Chuppah is considered a basic element of a Jewish wedding.
The openness and temporal nature of the chuppah remind us that couples need to feel free to openly express their feelings to each other, and that new marriages require the support of friends and family. Traditionally, most of the entire retinue, including the Best Man and Maid Of Honor, gathers under the Chuppah, symbolizing the closeness the couple feel to all their helpers and supporters.
Holding the poles of the Chuppah should therefore not be considered a chore, or a duty handed out to volunteers or bystanders at the wedding. It is an honored responsibility, an important role and those chosen should feel especially proud of the part they have been asked to play – both in the wedding ceremony itself, and in the lives of the couple into the future.