The Symbolism of the Huppah or Wedding Canopy
Creating reshut hakallah--the domain of the bride.
Reprinted with permission from JOFA,The Jewish Orthodox feminist Alliance.
We know that the Jewish wedding ceremony is laden with meaning, both on a legal and metaphoric level. What then does the huppah represent? Most people intuitively understand the huppah as representing a home that the groom (hatan) and bride (kallah) will build together.
The Huppah: The Groom's Domain
In fact, according to the halakhic sources the huppah does represent a home--but the home belongs to the groom--and its role in the ceremony is to mark the transfer of the woman from her father's house to that of her husband. However, the midrash provides a different understanding of the bride's entry into the huppah, in which the huppah is symbolic of the beginning of a mutual and equal relationship between the bride and the groom, who are poised to establish a home together.
The dominant view in halakhic sources is that the huppah is the reshut, or domain, of the groom, and this is why he enters it first, and then brings the bride into his home. According to the Shulkhan Arukh the nissuin has only taken place once the bride has entered his house, which in the halakhic sources is the symbolic purpose of the huppah. Other halakhic sources are more explicit in their language and clearly refer to the huppah as the "reshut ha-ba'al," the domain of the groom.
This symbolism seems to be further reinforced by the minhag, or custom, (which my husband and I followed at our own wedding) for the groom to enter the huppah, and then come back out when the bride arrives, in order to accompany her into the huppah. This custom is widely understood as representing the woman's leaving the domain of her father and entering the domain of her husband. It is as though the groom, being a good host, greets the bride and says "welcome to my home."
This interpretation of the custom can be extracted from certain midrashim as well. The midrashim on the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) compare the arrival of B'nei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai, to the arrival of the bride at her huppah. Exodus 19:17 reads "Moshe took the nation out of the camp to meet [likrat] God." On the words "to meet," the midrash says that Moshe told B'nei Yisrael to leave the camp and go to the mountain because God, the hatan, is waiting to meet the people, his bride, so that He may accompany them into the huppah.
This understanding of the word likrat, as a meeting between the bride and the groom is also expressed in the refrain from Kabbalat Shabbat (traditional Friday night service to welcome Shabbat) - L'cha dodi likrat kallah, come my beloved to meet the bride. The fact that the groom in these sources comes out to meet the bride, clearly supports the custom of the bride and the groom entering the huppah together. However, they do not offer an alternative insight into this minhag. Like the halakhic sources, they do not portray the meeting at the huppah as a mutual meeting, but rather as the groom's welcoming the bride into his house.
A Perspective from Song of Songs and the Midrash
One must look at Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) and the midrashim which base themselves upon it, for an alternative perspective on the role of the bride at the huppah. The book is an allegory for the loving relationship between B'nei Yisrael and God, and so naturally it is used as a prooftext for comparing B'nei Yisrael to a bride. Chapter four consists of three songs in which the dod (beloved), who is understood to be God, sings to his bride, the people. The word "kallah," or "bride," appears here six out of the ten times it is used in the whole Bible, and so it is a useful source in understanding the meaning behind wedding imagery.
In the third of these songs the bride is described as a locked garden (4:12), which contains pleasant fruits and fragrant spices. However, the song finishes with the bride singing, "Awake, O north wind, and come south; blow [haphikhi] upon my garden [gan], so that [the smell] of the spices may flow out. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat from its choicest fruit [pri]. I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride." Much of the wedding imagery found in this section is based on the language of parshat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), since the creation of Adam and Eve is the archetypal marriage, as several of the seven traditional wedding blessings (the sheva berakhot express.
The word "garden" of course calls to mind the original garden, Eden. Moreover, the bride says, "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruit [pri]." In Eden the fruit grows on trees that are called, "pleasant to the sight and good for food." In both sources the fruits are described as select and ripe, and the use of this language is an allusion to fertility, an important aspect of marriage.
Furthermore, the bride, in an attempt to entice her beloved to join her in her garden, beseeches the wind to "blow [haphikhi] upon my garden, so that [the smell] of the spices may flow out." Similarly, when God blows the breath of life into Adam's nostrils, a word deriving from the same root, "vayipakh," "and he blew," is used. The midrashim on the Garden of Eden also borrow the imagery of the garden as a huppah from the Song of Songs when it says that God made 10 huppot for Adam in Eden.
The Gan as a Shared Space
In the Song of Songs text, the garden or huppah is described as a space, which is shared by the bride and the groom. The bride refers to the garden first as hers (my garden), and then as his (his garden). Only in response to the bride's's offer does the beloved accept her overture and call the garden his own. Moreover, it is the bride who is in the huppah first, awaiting the arrival of her groom.
Based on the verses in the Song of Songs, the midrash makes a statement which is radically different from the perspective in the halakhic sources on the huppah: Rabbi Hanina says, the Torah teaches you appropriate behavior [derekh eretz], that the groom should not enter the huppah until the bride gives him permission [reshut], as it says "Let my beloved come to his garden' (Shir Hashirim 4:16) and afterwards it says "I have come to my garden'.
If the midrash had understood the huppah as representing the relocation of the bride from her father's home to interpretations of this custom. From the halakhic material, one may derive a more traditional view of the huppah, as symbolic of the reshut ha-ba'al, the husband's domain. However, for those of us whose natural inclination is to view marriage as a joint endeavor, in which both individuals participate and share responsibilities, the midrash and Shir Hashirim offer an approach which is more acceptable.
Far from representing the woman's transfer from one domain to another, the huppah in these sources signifies a home built on joint consent and mutual involvement.
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