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The Chuppah: What’s Happening Underneath?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016| Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Of all the traditions we have in Jewish life, the one I believe is full of the most meaning yet is the least understood and appreciated is the ceremony that takes place under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. The bride and groom will spend months preparing the right hall, caterer, band, and dress for their big day, but many times they give little thought to the aspects of the ceremony itself. I wasn't pleased with this, so before I perform a wedding ceremony, I always invite the couple to join me in learning what is actually go on under the chuppah.

I also use treat the chuppah ceremony itself as a teaching moment. I ask couples if they are okay with me giving very brief explanations of various parts of the chuppah as they happen. Nearly all couples are delighted at the opportunity of having their guests appreciate the customs of the chuppah and not have to sit through another boring Jewish ceremony. Invariably I’ll receive positive feedback from the people in the audience, and quite surprisingly the people who enjoy the ceremony the most are often non-Jewish guests who, in most cases, are experiencing a Jewish wedding for the first time.

When writing my book Will Jew Marry Me? I decided to add a chapter outlining some of the beautiful and ancient customs we perform under the chuppah. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Chuppah

The Chuppah is a public display that the bride and groom are now becoming husband and wife by symbolizing the home the couple are about to build together.

If the chuppah represents the Jewish home, wouldn't it make more sense for the chuppah to have four walls like any regular home? Instead, the walls are removed and four poles hold up Chuppah canopy. This design comes to remind us of the original Jewish couple from the Bible, Abraham and Sarah. We are told that Abraham and Sarah lived in a tent. Although in their day people were living in stone structures, despite being very wealthy Abraham and Sarah decided to live in a more portable structure so they could keep moving around to different population centers. They did this so they could fulfill the incredible mitzvah of hachansat orchim, welcoming guests into their home. It was for this reason they kept their tent open on all four sides, so that passing travelers traveling from all directions knew they were welcome into the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Jewish couples recreate this tent at every wedding to reimagine themselves as the first-ever Jewish couple, opening their homes to the needy.

The Wine

Wine is used as part of the ceremony at many Jewish lifecycle events, and the chuppah is no exception. (White wine is generally used under the chuppah, since red wine could stain the brides dress, which is never a good thing!)

Wine represents change. An eight-day-old baby boy at his brit milah, or ritual circumcision (often called a bris), is given wine, as he is about to enter into the Jewish covenant. We welcome in the Shabbat with wine, as the week is changing from the mundane to the holy. On Passover we drink four cups of wine as we celebrate the change the Jewish people went through from slaves to free people. Under the chuppah, the wine represents the bride and groom’s transition from single to married.

Why is wine chosen for this—why not water, orange juice, or coffee? Well, we like wine! But furthermore wine itself contains within it the greatest change: at one point the grapes sat on the vine basking in the sun, before they were plucked, and crushed. An outsider would wonder why such a beautiful thing as a grape would be given such harsh treatment. However after tasting the result of the crushing in the delicious wine it produces, we understand that the suffering the grape had to endure was truly worth it.

Relationships are the same. We go from our single, independent lives into the sometimes challenging environment of sharing every part of our lives with another person. For many people this can be an extremely challenging transition. The wine teaches us that the grape is wonderful on the vine, but through some challenge and a little pressure, an even greater life awaits it in the future.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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