As two souls merge, the chuppah elevates the experience
Every Jewish ceremony is replete with different customs and layers of meaning. The chuppah is no exception.
Technically a cloth held up by four poles, the chuppah represents a house. It’s customary to beautify the chuppah in honor of the Shechinah that rests upon it.
Rav Aryeh Kaplan ztz”l explains that the chuppah is open on all four sides, like the tent of Avraham Avinu was, in hope that this couple will likewise build a home predicated on chesed.
The chuppah also reflects the marriage of Hashem and the Jewish People at Har Sinai. Then, the mountain was suspended over Bnei Yisrael, similar to the way a chuppah covers the chassan and kallah.
Avraham Avinu was brought outside and told that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the Heaven. As a propitious sign, we conduct the chuppah outside, in the hope that this couple will have a fruitful relationship and produce numerous offspring. Some have a custom to hold the chuppah in a shul, since this is the place where the Shechinah dwells, and erect the chuppah under a skylight, so the stars and skies are visible.
The chassan and kallah are escorted to the chuppah since they’re likened to a king and queen, who are always surrounded by their attendants. The idea of two chaperones mimics the two malachim that escorted Adam to his chuppah, as well as the two Luchos that accompanied Hashem when He came down to Har Sinai.
The chassan approaches the chuppah first. Netai Gavriel notes that there are many differing customs with regards to who the escorts are. Some parents escort their child, other times the fathers escort the chassan, and the mothers, the kallah. Many hold that the escorts should themselves be married with children.
There are some who are noheig to carry braided candles as they walk to the chuppah. Minhag Yerushalayim is to keep the candles lit throughout the entire chuppah. These torch-like candles remind us of Maamad Har Sinai, when the mountain was filled with fire. Furthermore, the numerical value of “peru u’revu” is the same as the word “ner” and “ner”; once again a sign that the marriage should be fruitful.
The chassan starts walking with his right foot, as a sign of putting his best foot forward. The Shelah Hakadosh suggests that the chassan should have the pasuk “ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem” in his mind as he walks to the chuppah.
The Yom Kippur Parallel
Taamei Minhagim suggests that the wedding ceremony has a lot of parallels to the Yom Kippur avodah. The chassan and kallah fast and daven an Erev Yom Kippur Minchah. The chuppah itself is akin to the Kodesh Hakodoshim, and the intimate relationship between the Kohein Gadol and Hashem is mirrored in the intimacy we hope will be created between the chassan and kallah. On Yom Kippur, the Kohein Gadol was continuously accompanied by two people, the Segan and Rosh Av Beis Din, just like the chassan, who has two escorts.
The chassan’s white kittel resembles the white bigdei kehunah the Kohein Gadol wore when he entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim. The Chidah explains that the music played as the chassan and kallah walk down the aisle mirrors the songs the Levi’im sang while the Kohanim completed their avodah.
Under the Chuppah
It’s customary for the chassan and his attendants to come a few steps forward to greet the kallah. Rashi notes on the pasuk that describes Moshe Rabbeinu taking the people to greet Hashem that the Shechinah came forward to meet them, and so the chassan does similarly.
In Ashkenazic tradition, the kallah, along with her chaperones, walk around the chassan either three or seven times. Chazal teach us that a man who lives without a wife lives without a wall. When encircling the chassan, the woman is symbolically creating a “wall” of protection around her husband, protecting him from external temptations.
Seven is a sign of strength, hence the kallah’s seven circuits, which parallels the walls of Yericho that Bnei Yisrael surrounded for seven days. Rav Kaplan notes another parallel to the Seven Nevios (Sara, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chuldah, and Esther) and the Seven Shepherds (Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon), a sign we’re asking them to protect the couple in their new marriage.
Netai Gavriel notes that some would count the seven circuits around the chassan using the same expression the Kohein Gadol used when counting the blood sprinkling during his seder ha’avodah: “achas v’achas, achas v’shteyim” to once again remind us of the intensity of the ceremony under the chuppah.
The source for encircling the chassan three times is the words “I will betroth you,” found three times in Sefer Hosheia (2:21–22), which represents the commitment between husband and wife.
A deeper understanding of the chassan’s encirclement can be inferred from a beautiful insight of Shvilei Pinchas on the interrelationship between the roles of the chassan and kallah. The Midrash teaches that the Torah was created as black fire on white fire. The black fire is the letters of the Torah, which men are instructed to learn. The white fire is the parchment, representing the role of the woman, which is to create an atmosphere that enables the man’s learning to thrive.
When a sofer begins to write on a parchment, he needs to verbalize that this will be used for something holy. Similarly, when the chassan states “harei at mekudeshes li,” he’s symbolically designating “his parchment” for this kadosh role. The torches that escort the chassan and kallah are also a reminder of this black and white fire.
Based on this, in encircling the chassan, the kallah, wearing white, is creating a “poel dimyoni,” an image of wrapping the parchment around a “letter of the Sefer Torah” — i.e., her chassan, who embodies a letter of the Torah. She’s escorted by the two mothers, who are metaphorically transmitting Toras imecha to her.
Under the chuppah, the kallah stands to the right of the chassan. The source for this is the pasuk in Tehillim (45:10), “nitzvah sheigal limincha,” which means the queen stands to the right. The mesader kiddushin stands across from them, as the brachos need to be recited “face to face,” similar to the way Bircas Kohanim is recited.
The chassan and kallah should use this time to daven to be zocheh to build a bayis neeman and for upright future generations. It’s customary for them to recite Tehillim, especially “Shir hamaalos, esa einai” as a segulah for protection. Since the Shechinah is present at the chuppah, it’s an auspicious time for everyone present to daven, particularly that the couple will build a home filled with Torah and yiras Shamayim.
Breaking the Glass
Another custom that carries the themes of Har Sinai, Yom Kippur, and a siman tov, is the breaking of the glass under the chuppah. Chiddushei Harim notes that the minhag in Yerushalayim is to break the glass before the sheva brachos are recited, since Eretz Yisrael is closer to the epicenter of redemption, while in other places, the custom is to break the glass after the sheva brachos are recited. The Rema notes that breaking the glass is to remind us of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and therefore the chassan says the pasuk “Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim…” before doing so.
Rav Aryeh Kaplan quotes the idea that the breaking of the glass is to offset the ayin hara; indeed, the words kos and Elokim, Hashem’s name that represents the middah of judgment, have the same numerical value.
Igra D’bei Hilula Mili explains that two cups are found at the chuppah; one with which to make the brachos and one to break. These remind us of the two goats used in the Yom Kippur avodah: one was given as a korban to Hashem and one the Kohein sent over the cliff. (Interestingly, a cup of wine is used for the brachah of eirusin, and then the cup is used again for the sheva brachos, which parallel the sprinkling of the goat’s blood, one upward and seven downward.)
Yam shel Shlomo writes that the broken glass parallels the Luchos that were shattered. We know that as a result of the Luchos being broken, forgetfulness once again existed in the world. Rav Elimelech Biderman suggests that this is a message to the young couple: A successful marriage is when one knows how to forget what happened and doesn’t dwell on past foibles.
The Tolna Rebbe, in his sefer Kosi Revayah, quotes an old sefer that mentions the sources of many customs we have. He explains that when Rochel Imeinu had Yosef Hatzaddik, she said, “Hashem has gathered my disgrace.” Rashi notes that until then if a glass broke, or if food mysteriously got eaten, a woman had no one to blame but herself; now that she had a child, Rochel Imeinu could blame any mishaps on him. Hence, we break the glass as a simana tava that the couple will have many children on whom to “blame” all the broken things in the house and sing “mazel tov” after the breaking of the glass.
Another insight into this is offered by Rav Kaplan. An acronym of the first letters of the verse “me’ish lukachas zos,” which describes Adam’s first meeting with Chavah, is “mazel.” We also are familiar with the pasuk that declares that he who finds a wife finds “tov,” goodness. When we say “mazel tov,” we wish this chassan that his new wife should be “tov” for him.
It’s customary for those assembled at the chuppah to stand in deference to the holiness of the occasion. At Har Sinai, it clearly states that “they stood at a distance,” and this is a mini Maamad Har Sinai. The seventh brachah of the sheva brachos is really a brachah for all those assembled, and it’s customary to stand when being blessed.
Clearly, in appreciating that this is a time akin to maamad Har Sinai and to Yom Kippur, with the Shechinah resting on the chuppah, all those gathered should stand in awe and take advantage of the enormity of this occasion by awakening themselves to do teshuvah.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 793)
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