Many modern Jews have reinterpreted traditional understandings to be more egalitarian, and they might understand the huppah to represent the home that bride and groom are establishing together, rather than the one to which the groom takes his bride, as is described below.
The marriage ceremony is conducted under a marriage canopy, known in Hebrew as a huppah (literally, “covering”). It consists of a square cloth, usually made of silk or velvet, supported by four staves, and ordinarily held by four men.
The huppah is mentioned in the Bible in association with marriage: “As a bridegroom goes forth from his huppah.” Elsewhere it is stated: “Let the bridegroom proceed from his chamber and let the bride go forth from the huppah.”
The huppah symbolizes the new home to which the bridegroom will take his bride. In this context, the appearance of the bride and groom together under a huppah before an assembly who have come to witness the event is in itself a public proclamation by them that they are now bonded together as man and wife. It is a prelude to intimacy, and thus a significant element in nissuin [marriage].
The cloth huppah was originally draped around the bride and groom but was later spread out over their heads. In some places, a tallit [prayer shawl] was draped over the couple or held above them. The single cloth under which the couple are joined thus symbolizes both the new household they are forming and represents the public recognition of their new status as man and wife.
The canopy is considered an object of Jewish ceremonial art, and in accordance with the Jewish concept of hiddur mitzvah (embellishing the precept), considerable attention is often lavished on it to create attractive huppot.
The sages find a reference to the huppah in the talmudic passage in Avot, referring to the house which is open on four sides. The Jerusalemite R. Yosi ben Yohanan urges, “Let your house be wide open,” and compares the huppah to the tent of the patriarch Abraham that, according to Jewish tradition, had entrances on all four sides to welcome wayfarers, so that no traveler, no matter from which direction he came, need be burdened searching for an entrance door. The huppah, with four open sides, is thus a symbol of the Jewish home filled with hesed (acts of love), an important component of which is hakhnasat orhim (hospitality to strangers), a mode of conduct that the newly married couple is expected to establish in their home in emulation of their patriarchal forebear, whose hospitality to strangers was legendary.
It is preferable for the huppah to be outdoors, under the stars, symbolizing the hopes that the couple will be blessed with a large family, in conformity with God’s blessing to Abraham: “I will greatly bless you, and I will exceedingly multiply your children as the stars in heaven.” [The huppah in the open air is also reminiscent of the sukkah, a temporary structure erected during the holiday of Sukkot. Like the sukkah, the huppah reminds bride and groom that they are protected by God alone and that God is their only haven and support.]
The sages find an allusion to weddings being held outdoors in biblical times in Jeremiah’s reference to “the sound of the bridegroom and the sound of the bride… in the cities of Judaea and in the courtyards of Jerusalem.”
Strong reservations have been raised in some circles about holding weddings in synagogues because irreverent revelry might result in the profanation of the sanctity of the synagogue. Nevertheless, it was customary in many areas for weddings to be held in the courtyard of synagogues. Indeed, many synagogues in Germany were constructed with a built-in treustein, or “marriage stone” at a corner of the structure facing the inner synagogue courtyard, which bore the initial Hebrew letters of the above verse from Jeremiah. In these communities, the culmination of the marriage ceremony was marked by the groom throwing a glass goblet and shattering it at the treustein.
Some synagogues and wedding halls have a skylight that opens to allow the huppah ceremony to be conducted under the sky.
Reprinted with permission from Love, Marriage, and Family in Jewish Law and Tradition, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.