The most distinctive feature of any Jewish wedding is the "huppah." This term is taken from the Talmudic stipulation that a marriage does not take legal effect until the bride has entered the "huppah." We are all of course familiar with the object being referred to. It is a canopy-like structure consisting of a piece of cloth, sometimes a talit, that is held aloft on four posts, and beneath which the couple stand during the religious wedding ceremony.
While this might be obvious to us today, the definition of the huppah was not always so clear. As one reads through medieval works of Jewish religious law it becomes evident that our rabbis entertained serious uncertainties about what precisely the Talmud was thinking of when it spoke about the huppah.
According to many authorities the huppah was the groom's house, or at any rate an actual room or building other than the bride's parental home. By entering it the woman was declaring her official independence from her family and accepting the protection of her husband. Various rabbinic scholars debate whether for this purpose an actual house is required, or whether the requirement can be fulfilled through some sort of symbolic structure or act.
Much of that original function of the huppah has now come to be embodied in a separate portion of the marriage procedures that we call "yihud," ("isolation") which involves leaving the newly-weds alone in a room together after the conclusions of the public celebrations, so as to visibly demonstrate their new status as a couple.
In most early sources it was this secluding of the bride and groom that was designated the "huppah," and attention used to be paid to ways of physically indicating the groom's "ownership" of the chamber, often through special ornamentation. R. Isaac ben Abba Mari or Marseilles, writing in the twelfth century, relates that it was customary to decorate the designated room with colourful cloths and tapestries, or to fashion a kind of sukkah adorned with myrtle leaves and roses.
Rabbi Isaac also mentions another custom--one of which he disapproves--namely that of spreading a cloth or a talit over the heads of the couple during the recitation of the marriage blessings. This closely approximates our current practice, though R. Isaac did not consider it acceptable. By the sixteenth century we encounter the earliest references to the four-posted huppah with which we are now familiar. Initially it was accepted with some reluctance, but it is now in universal use among Ashkenazic Jews.
In addition to its technical function in the formalizing of the marriage the huppah was endowed with many beautiful symbolic associations. For example, the midrash relates how the very first wedding in history was accompanied by a huppah--in fact, according to one legend, God himself made ten huppahs for Adam and Eve, each of them fashioned of gold and precious gems, while the angels entertained the first couple in song and dance.
There was one event in Jewish history which was considered the paradigm of all weddings: the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the biblical account of the marriage between God and the people of Israel our sages also discovered allusions to the presence of a huppah, whether in the enveloping cloud of darkness that hovered over the people, or in the fact that the Israelites, about to enter into their marriage with God, were made to stand "beneath the mountain"--just as the bride stands beneath the sheltering huppah on her wedding day.
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