Under the Wedding Canopy
By Avi Lazerson
Have you ever attended a Jewish wedding and watched the bride and groom who were standing under the wedding canopy? It seems so beautiful under the wedding canopy, the perfect effect for a wedding. Perhaps you have wondered what is the reason for the canopy, is it just for appearance or maybe there is some other reason for it?
To understand why Jewish weddings always have a canopy, we must first understand a small bit of history.
Back in the old, old days, when a man married, he took possession of his wife by taking her from her father's premise into his premise; his premise being his house or tent. But it needed to be an enclosed that gave them seclusion and privacy that a husband and wife need. Of course, this was not quite as simple as all that.
First we must realize that to his 'taking' his wife there had to have been an agreement; this is not just a caveman kidnapping a girl and dragging her into his cave but her hair! First there was a process that is called in Hebrew the irusin. Some people translate this as the 'engagement' but there is a great difference between the two.
The engagement is an announcement of two individuals intention to get married; there is not yet any legal binding between them. If they decide to cancel (break) the engagement they can since an engagement is not legally binding between the two parties. If they decide not to get married, they just dissolve their agreement on the spot.
At the irusin there is a legal action which changes the status of the girl to a married woman. At this point the couple does not live together; rather they begin to prepare for that part of married life in which they will live together. She would continue to live in her father's house and he in his father's house. They did not have sexual relations at that time, yet the irusin is binding. She is considered married and is forbidden to another man under the penalty of Jewish law. If she were to have relations with another man, she would be considered an unfaithful wife and forbidden to her husband to be. If they decide to separate, the husband must give her a get.
After they procured all the necessary items to begin a married life together, they come together a second time. This time it is called the nisu'in, or what we today would call the marriage. (Nisu'in comes from the Hebrew word no'say which means to carry; meaning that the husband was now carrying the burden of the bride, not her father.) She would leave her father's house and go to her husband's home. At this point in time, the husband's place of residence was called the chuppah, it could have been a house or a tent, but it was a place that the bride and groom could be secluded by themselves.
In this chuppah the bride and groom would dwell for seven days these are the seven days of the marriage celebrations and festivities. All of their families and friends would come there to their chuppah to join them in their seven days of celebration. They would eat there and sing and enjoy themselves there in the chuppah.
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Times have caused changes in how weddings are done. We no longer have the long period between the irusin and the nisu'in; we are afraid of problems that come from the period between the irusin and the nisu'in. Instead we do both at the time of the chuppah. First comes the irusin ceremony which is followed by the reading of the ketuba and then the nisu'in, which is the climax of the ceremony. The ketuba is read after the irusin to make a short interruption between the irusin and the nisu'in.
When the couple met and decided between themselves to get married some people call it the irusin, but it is incorrect; others call it the shadducin, meaning that they intend to get married. Although there is no legal obligation on the man or the woman at this point other than they give their word (which should not to be broken) this is actually the engagement. At this point many people may get together to make a le'chaim, but still the women is not considered as a married women as she would have been in ancient times.
Now since things have changed and the groom and his bride no longer entertain all of their friends in their 'chuppah' rather they opt for a wedding hall for one night. So what becomes the ancient tradition of the chuppah?
The answer is that there are diverse opinions to this matter (as there always are in Jewish Halacha). Some Rabbis are of the opinion that a canopy is still necessary to indicate that the groom brings the bride into his premise, the chuppah being the premise of the groom. Others say that it is necessary that the chuppah provide privacy which our modern chuppah certainly does not give. Therefore after the chuppah ceremony the groom leads the bride into a small room off of the wedding hall in which they seclude themselves for several minutes. This seclusion is long enough to have sexual relationship although it is certainly not required nor done; they only seclude themselves for the time necessary and eat some food together. This seclusion shows everyone that they are now husband and wife; for only a husband secludes himself with his wife (unmarried men and women are forbidden to seclude themselves together).
The wedding hall now takes the place of the chuppah in regards to the festive meal, the singing and dancing that used to take place at the ancient chuppah. Even though the wedding hall is only for one night as opposed to the customs during the early times of our nation when they rejoiced at the chuppah for seven full days, never the less, after the wedding night the festivities continue in the homes of friends and family for the duration of the seven days.
So you see, the beautiful canopy that the bride and groom stand under is not merely a decorative piece at the wedding, but rather an intricate part of the wedding itself and of Jewish history.
from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine