The Chuppah

Whether you spell it chuppah, chupah, chupa, huppa, huppah, or hupa, it all refers to the wedding canopy.  The chuppah  represents a home that the new couple enter into for thenesuin aspect of the wedding ceremony. The chuppah may be constructed of a tallith or other cloth held spread over poles. The poles may be held by four people or mounted in place. It is the custom of some Sephardim and Yekkes (Jews of German extractions) to lay a tallith over the couple during the chuppah. That practice appears consistent with the view of chuppah being constituted by draping an article of clothing referred to in the section on badekin. When the chuppah used is a permanent structure, it is often decorated with floral arrangements. I haven’t seen an authoritative source referring to placing flowers on the chuppah, but it would fit with the wedding ceremony’s evocation of the experience of Israel at Mount Sinai.
The Sages learn from the verse vayithyatzvus bethachtith hahar (Exodus 19:17) describing the people of Israel as encamped at the foot of the mountain that they were , in fact , under the mountain: chapa aleyhem har kegigis [G-d held the mountain over their heads like a roof or canopy] (Tractate Shabbath 88a). Though the mountain was located in the desert, it is said to have miraculously bloomed with grass and flowers when it was honored as the place where the Torah was given. This Midrash, which I’ve found ascribed to Medrash Talpiyos Os Dodoim , is often quoted as the explanation for the custom of decorating the home and synagogue with flowers on the holiday of Shavuouth. But it is possible that decorating our chuppahs with flowers reminds us of the blossoming Mount Sinai at the wedding, as well.

The chuppah is the quintessential symbol of the Jewish wedding.  The traditions associated with it allude to the history of the Jewish people and Biblical texts, as well as the values that form the basis of the marriage.
As we recall the destruction of the Temple even at the moment of our greatest joy (which is also the reason why we break a glass at the chuppah) it is customary to place ashes on the groom's head before he enters the chuppah.  The groom, as well as the bride, remove all jewelry (though the bride typically retains her headpiece) before proceeding the chuppah. 
 One reason for that practice is given in the book Ta'amey Haminhagim [The Reasons for Customs]. The wedding day evokes Yom Kippur, and just as the high priest would only enter into the Holy of Holies in the all white linen garments rather than the garments of  gold, the bride enters into yichud with her husband without her extra adornments.  Another reason, advanced by Rabbi Zev Cinamon in his book,Beyom Chasunaso, is to show that the couple is not marrying for material status but "because of admiration and love that exists between them" (p. 46).
 Some grooms don their kittels  before walking down the aisle, while others opt to only don it upon arriving at the chuppah.  Members of Chabad wear a black coat over their kittels.  Though they do have outdoor chuppahs, the reason for the coat is not the weather but an attempt to cover the kittel.   Sephardim do not have the custom of  wearing a kittel at the chuppah, so perhaps the Chabad custom is some type of compromise position of wearing it but not overtly showing it. 
Traditionally, candles are held by the parents of the couple while walking down the aisle. (To safeguard them from blowing out, they may be enclosed in hurricane lamps.) The candles are a reminder of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, which was accompanied by the sounds of thunder and flashes of light. The verse in Song of Songs that mentions "yom chasunaso" [his wedding day] is also taken as a reference to the celebration of the bond between G-d and his people enacted on the day the Torah was given.
The groom proceeds to the chuppah accompanied by his parents and is followed by the bride who is flanked by her parents.  (Hasidim will instead have the groom accompanied by his father and his bride's father, while the bride is escorted by her mother and the groom's mother.)    It is a nice reflection of the parental involvement, and equal treatment for the groom and the bride.  In contrast to having only a father figure for the bride who "gives her"  in marriage, the traditional Jewish procession gives mothers an equally active role for their sons as well as their daughters.
Some people arrange for their siblings, grandparents, nieces, and nephews to also walk down the aisle, but that is more a matter of personal preference than customary requirement. Some people's practice is for the groom to escort the bride (without her parents) for the final steps to the chuppah.  As he would have arrived before her, he takes some steps over to return with her.  Some may find that romantic, but one really should check if the custom is within the family before adopting practices.
The chuppah, with its sheltering roof, represents the home that the bride and groom are entering into together upon marriage. While some people prefer to have the chuppah under the stars, that is not mandated by all customs.  I've been to weddings that held outdoor chuppahs even on freezing winter days and chuppahs held indoors.  Still, many halls will place the chuppah under a skylight to satisfy those who want to have their chuppah under the sky.
Upon arriving at the chuppah, the fathers usually find some place to go, though the two mothers usually stay in the circuit, in a quite literal sense, accompanying the bride as she circles the groom.  In most communities the bride circles the groom 7 times, though some do only 3, and Sephardic brides do not circle their grooms at all. Those who interpeet the bride's circuit as a sign of submission -- an illustration of the fact that she is making her husband the center of her existence -- are simply projecting their own interpretation onto the ritual.  Such a view is not based on authoritative sources.   Actually, the circuit demonstrates women's strength and significance.
The bride's circle is alluded to by a biblical verse referring to a woman going around a man (Jermiah 31:22).  Now if the bride were circumscribed by a circle made by her husband, one may interpret it as signifying the contrast between the man's freedom of movement and being fixed in place.  But that clearly is not the case.  Rabbi Cinamon  quotes the Talmud's statement, "'whoever lives without a wife lives without a wall' The Marhasha explains that this is because a wife protects her husband from sinning" (p. 47).  So the bride in circling the groom is actually shown as a capable individual who protects her husband.  The praiseworthy woman is also described as having the properties of a wall inSong of Songs (8:9).  
In Made in Heaven: A Jewish Wedding Guide (New York: Moznaim, 1983) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the number 3 corresponds to the number of obligations the Torah sets for a husband toward his wife:  "food, clothing, and conjugal relations."  In a footnote, he also suggests the number "relates to the three methods of contracting kiddushin"  (p. 159).   The number 7 is a very significant one in Jewish thought, which is central to the Seven Blessings at the center of the wedding celebration (to be addressed in another post). Seven is not only the number of days in creation, but also the number of "shepherds of Israel"  -- Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David -- as well as the number of "prophetesses" enumerated by our Sages -- Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther.   While the bride circles her groom, she evokes their merit in her prayers for a successful marriage (p. 161).  Evoking the prophetesses through the bridal circuit is an affirmation of the distinguished roles women have had in Jewish history. 
 Though a couple is not technically married by the rabbi in Jewish law, there is a Mesader Kiddushin, someone who is an expert on the laws pertaining to weddings,  present to direct the proceedings of the ceremony.  It begins with theMesader Kiddushin reciting the blessing for the Erusin [betrothal] over a cup of wine.  The Erusin orginally was  be done at the time of engagement.  The couple was united by the ceremony, though they only moved onto full marriage after the completion of the wedding, which was usually a year later.  
However, already in the time of Rashi -- Rabbi Shlomo Yitzcahki, (1040-1105)  the Erusin  was set to take place the day of the wedding.  In Made in Heaven: A Jewish Wedding Guide (New York: Moznaim, 1983) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains one of the reasons was very practical.  Having two separate ceremonies called for two separate feasts.  Combining them cut down on expense because  only one feast had to be served.  This became necessary as people had less money while expenses for the celebration were escalating.   Another motivating factor was not to have the couple feel that they were set to enter into a complete married state from the erusin alone; they were only permitted to live together after the completion ofNesuin  (p. 166).

The Mesader Kidushin recites the blessing on erusin while holding a cup of wine.  The cup of wine is then passed to the groom and bride, who each take a sip. This is followed by the kiddushin --the marriage bond, which is demonstrated by the groom giving something to his bride. It is a long-established custom to use a ring for the kiddushin

The Reason for the Ring

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