The Symbolism of the Huppah or Wedding Canopy

Creating reshut hakallah--the domain of the bride.

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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 kallah 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 proof text 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 kallah, the people. The word kallah 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 kallah 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 sheva berakhot express.

The word gan of course calls to mind the original gan, Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). Moreover, the kallah says, "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruit [pri]." In Gan 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 kallah, 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 Gan Eden also borrow the imagery of the gan as a huppah from Shir Hashirim when it says that God made 10 huppot for Adam in Gan Eden.

The Gan as a Shared Space

In the Shir Hashirim text, the gan or huppah is described as a space, which is shared by the hatan and kallah. The kallah refers to the garden first as hers (my garden), and then as his (his garden). Only in response to the kallah's offer does the beloved accept her overture and call the garden his own. Moreover, it is the kallah who is in the huppah first, awaiting the arrival of her hatan.

Based on the verses in Shir Hashirim, 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 hatan should not enter the huppah until the kallah 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 kallah from her father's home to interpretations of this minhag. From the halakhic material, one may derive a more traditional view of the huppah, as symbolic of the reshut ha-ba'al. 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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Karen Miller Jackson is working toward her PhD in rabbinic literature at NYU.