The Symbolism of the Huppah or Wedding Canopy

Creating reshut hakallah--the domain of the bride.

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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 hatan (groom) and kallah (bride) will build together.

The Huppah: The Hatan's DomainHuppah, the doman of a Jewish bride and groom

In fact, according to the halakhic sources the huppah does represent a home--but the home belongs to the hatan--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 kallah's entry into the huppah, in which the huppah is symbolic of the beginning of a mutual and equal relationship between the hatan and kallah poised to establish a home together.

The dominant view in halakhic sources is that the huppah is the reshut, or domain, of the hatan, and this is why he enters it first, and then brings the kallah into his home. According to the Shulkhan Arukh the nissuin has only taken place once the kallah 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 hatan.

This symbolism seems to be further reinforced by the minhag, or custom, (which my husband and I followed at our own wedding) for the hatan to enter the huppah, and then come back out when the kallah arrives, in order to accompany her into the huppah. This minhag is widely understood as representing the woman's leaving the reshut of her father and entering the reshut of her husband. It is as though the hatan, being a good host, greets the kallah and says "welcome to my home."

This interpretation of the minhag can be extracted from certain midrashim as well. The midrashim on Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) compare the arrival of B'nei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai, to the arrival of the kallah 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 kallah, so that He may accompany them into the huppah.

This understanding of the word likrat, as a meeting between the hatan and kallah 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 kallah. The fact that the hatan in these sources comes out to meet the kallah, clearly supports the minhag of the hatan and kallah 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 hatan's welcoming the kallah into his house.

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Karen Miller Jackson is working toward her PhD in rabbinic literature at NYU.