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 appearance 3) 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 hutlike 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 tallit 6 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 . . .” 7 8 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 The Conventional Chupah Sometime around the 16th century, and perhaps a bit earlier, there emerged the present day custom of getting married under a canopy of cloth held up by four poles, 11 which serves as a designated room—with four doorways 12—into which the groom invites his bride.13 This combines both the “special place chupah” and the “special action chupah” (since the couple is covered by a cloth). The canopied ceremony is also preceded by the groom covering the bride with a veil, so that that element is there as well. 14 After getting married under the canopy, the bride and groom seclude themselves together—yet another form of chupah. 15 (Each element is integral and should not be discarded. After all, the new Jewish home must be founded upon the strongest possible Torah foundation.) Why Outside The custom is that the chupah be placed outdoors under the open sky, symbolizing that the couple should receive the blessing that God gave our forefather Abraham: “I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore . . .”16 17 On a Spiritual Note The canopy held up by four poles forms a chamber with four oversized doorways, one on each side. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham and Sarah were so passionate about the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, inviting guests, that they built a special tent with an opening on each side. That way, guests could walk straight in regardless of which direction they were coming from. When a bride and groom are forming the foundation of their future life, they do so under a canopy with four “doorways,” symbolizing their commitment to build a household that mirrors this tradition of goodness and kindness. FOOTNOTES 1. Joel 2:16, Psalms 19:6. 2. See, for example, Ethics of Our Fathers 5:22. 3. See Beit Yosef on Tur Even Haezer 61:1 citing the Orchot Chaim Hilchot Ketuvot 4 and Sefer HaIttur Birchat Chetanim 2 4. See Derishah on Tur Even Haezer 61:1. 5. See HaIttur Birchat Chetanim 2, cited in Beit Yosef Even Haezer 61. 6. Kol Bo 75 and Yam Shel Shlomo, Kesuvot 1:17. One of the reasons for this is that the Torah mentions the Mitzvah of Tzitzit right before the Mitzvah of marriage, see Deuteronomy 22:1213 7. Ruth 3:9 8. Levush, Even Haezor 54:1. 9. Derisha Even Haezor 65:1. 10. Genesis 24:65. 11. See Rama Even Haezer 55:1 and Levush 54:1 that stress that “now” the custom has become to use a cloth or tallit on four poles. 12. What kind of chamber has no walls? Without complicating things, in Jewish law, there are instances when instead of an actual separating wall, you can have what is called a “tzurat hapetach,” literally the “form of a doorway,” basically a doorframe with two standing poles and a pole (or string) across the top. This same notion is applied to the laws of eruvin and sukkah. 13. Eizer Mikodesh, Even Haezer 55:1. 14. Bach on Tur Even Haezer 61:1. 15. See Rama Even Haozer 55:1. 16. Genesis 22:17. 17. Responsum Maharam Mintz 109; Rama Shulchan Even Hoezor 61:1.