Arriving at the Huppah, or Wedding Canopy

A procession leads the groom and then the bride to the huppah, where the bride traditionally encircles the groom three or seven times.

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Light is associated with joy in Jewish tradition. The Jews are described in the Book of Esther as having "light, joy, happiness, and honor." The joyous Sabbath and Jewish festivals are ushered in with lighted candles. At Israel's most joyous occasion, its "wedding" with God at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the mountain was surrounded by fire and flashes of lightning. So, too, are Jewish brides and grooms accompanied by light and fire at their weddings. Braided havdalah candles [usually used to mark the separation between Sabbath or festivals and weekdays] are used, because their torch-like flickering lights are thought to most resemble the lightning at Sinai.

The Talmud says that the Hebrew words for man, ish, and woman, ishah, are identical, except for the letter yod in ish, and the letter hay in ishah. The two letters, yod and hay, together make up a name of God. This indicates, says the Talmud, that when there is love and harmony between a man and his wife, God is between them. But when there is dissonance and discord, God's name is removed, and what is left after the removal of the yod and hay is aish, fire. The lighted torches at the wedding are a reminder to the bride and groom, the sages teach, that if God's name is removed from them as a result of disharmony, their relationship will be as painful as fire. They should make every effort always to maintain a loving and harmonious relationship.

The gematria (numerical value) of the word ner (candle) is 250, and since two candles are carried, the sum of the two is 500. The biblical blessing to have children, p'ru u-r'vu, "Be fruitful and multiply," also has a gematria of 500. The candles, therefore, symbolize the hope that the couple will have a fruitful marriage.

Bride Encircling the Groom

Among many Jews, it is customary for the bride to be escorted around the groom under the huppah three times or seven times. Many consider the customs to relate to an eschatological passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet speaks of a time in the future when relationships between men and women will be reversed and "the woman will court the man." The Hebrew term employed in the passage for "will court" is t'sovev, literally, "will encircle."

Others see in the custom of the bride circling her groom a symbol of the wife creating a metaphoric wall around her husband to guard against him from outside desires and influences. This is in keeping with a passage in the Song of Songs referring to a woman as a wall, and a talmudic teaching that "whoever lives without a wife lives without a [protective] wall." The sages comment that a man's wife is like a wall, protecting him from external temptations. After her circling, the bride, by stepping into the symbolic circle she has created, marks the couple's new status in society as a married couple; she has created a community of two, around which there is an intimate wall of privacy, independent and shielded from the rest of society.

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Dr. Michael Kaufman studied at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath, Telshe Yeshiva, Brookyn College, and the University of Louisville. His books include The Art of Judaism, A Timeless Judaism for Our Time, and A Guide to Jewish Art. He lives with his family in Jerusalem.