The Chuppah  [1]

1. Structural Elements

A chuppah, in its simplest form, is a canopy under which a Jewish couple stands during their wedding ceremony. Its basic elements include a sheet, sometimes a tallit, stretched and supported atop four poles, being open on all sides. While a Jewish marriage is considered valid in the absence of a chuppah, it is still widely considered a basic requirement for a Jewish wedding. It has been said that it provides a focal setting for the most solemn portion of the ceremony, and depending upon the style and ornamentation, reflects the emotional environment and tone desired by the couple. This term is taken from the Talmudic stipulation that a marriage does not take legal effect until the bride has entered the chuppah. Its importance is so significant that the wedding ceremony itself has historically been referred to as “ the chuppah”.

2. Symbolic Relations

The chuppah symbolizes the first home of the new family. Just as the tent of Abraham and Sarah was open for hospitality, a chuppah is open on all four sides. This physically reflects the couple’s commitment to establish a household that will always be graciously receptive to friends and family.

The groom enters the chuppah first to represent his establishment of the home on behalf of the couple, and publicly acknowledges his new responsibilities toward his partner. Upon the partner entering, the couple openly demonstrates their physical independence from their family through creation of a new family unit. This home initially lacks furniture as a reminder that the basis of a Jewish home is the people within it, not the possessions. The structure itself is light and delicate, even fragile, representing that a home is built on the love within, not the physical walls around it.

3. Spiritual Roots

In a spiritual sense, the covering of the chuppah represents the presence of G-d over the covenant of marriage. As the kippah serves as a reminder of the Creator being above all (also a symbol of separation from G-d), the chuppah was erected to signify that the ceremony and institution of marriage has divine origins. There is an acute awareness of the awesome magnitude of the moment. The Divine Presence graces every chuppah ceremony and thereby makes it holy. Joining the Divine Presence are the deceased parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the bride and groom, who are believed to descend from their heavenly abode to join the wedding celebration.

At this auspicious moment, the prayers of the bride and groom have particular power. They have been freshly forgiven for all their sins, and are currently the beneficiaries of immense divine powers and blessings. It is an appropriate time for the bride and groom to wordlessly beseech G-d to bless them with the ability and strength to establish a G-d respecting Jewish household.

4. Related Traditions

As the groom prepares himself for the chuppah, he removes any jewelry he may be wearing and empties his pockets of any money or valuables. The bride too may choose not wear any jewelry to the chuppah. The symbolism behind this custom expresses the couple’s commitment to marry each other for who they are, not for what they may possess. At this most fateful moment in their lives, when bride and groom need to establish the values upon which their home will be built, they carry absolutely nothing of physical value. Their lasting legacy will not be determined by the balance of either’s bank account, but by the good deeds they perform and the values that pervade their home and are instilled within their family. Contemporary observation of these traditions may consist of limited symbolic items.

In preparation for the chuppah, the bride and groom untie any knots in their clothing, such as shoelaces, neckties, and bows. By doing so, the couple represents that they are entering the marriage unbound and unrestrained. Upon completion of the marriage ceremony, the knots are tied once again. This symbolizes the bond that now holds them together. Alternatively, the tradition can be observed by symbolically untying and tying a single item.

After both partners have entered the chuppah, the bride circles the groom [three or] seven times. This signifies the emotional walls of their new life together and the creation of a new family circle.

Finally, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the groom crushes a glass (often wrapped in cloth for safety) with his right foot. Historically, this tradition has symbolized many things, including the destruction of the Holy Temple and the permanent transformation of the lives of the couple just married. It also serves as a reminder of how fragile life and love can be.
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[1] http://www.rentchuppahs.com/ChuppahsAreUs/Preserving_Traditions.html