Reshut HaKallah: The Symbolism of the Wedding Canopy

by Karen Miller

We know that the Jewish wedding ceremony is laden with meaning, both on a legal and metaphoric level. What then does the chuppah represent? Most people intuitively understand the chuppah as representing a home that the chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) will build together. In fact, according to the halakhic sources the chuppah does represent a home—but the home belongs to the chatan—and its role in the ceremony is to mark the transfer of the woman from her father’s house to that of her husband. However, the midrash provides a different understanding of the kallah’s entry into the chuppah, in which the chuppah is symbolic of the beginning of a mutual and equal relationship between the chatan and kallah poised to establish a home together.

The dominant view in halakhic sources is that the chuppah is the reshut, or domain, of the chatan, and this is why he enters it first, and then brings the kallah into his home. According to the Shulkhan Arukh1 the nissuin has only taken place once the kallah has entered his house, which in the halakhic sources is the symbolic purpose of the chuppah. Other halakhic sources are more explicit in their language and clearly refer to the chuppah as the ”reshut ha-ba’al,” the domain of the chatan.2 This symbolism seems to be further reinforced by the minhag, or custom, (which my husband and I followed at our own wedding) for the chatan to enter the chuppah, and then come back out when the kallah arrives, in order to accompany her into the chuppah. This minhag is widely understood as representing the woman’s leaving the reshut of her father and entering the reshut of her husband. It is as though the chatan, being a good host, greets the kallah and says, ”welcome to my home.”

This interpretation of the minhag can be extracted from certain midrashim as well. The midrashim on Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) compare the arrival of B’nei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai, to the arrival of the kallah at her chuppah. Exodus 19:17 reads ”Moshe took the nation out of the camp to meet [likrat] God.” On the words ”to meet,” the midrash says that Moshe told B’nei Yisrael to leave the camp and go to the mountain because God, the chatan, is waiting to meet the people, his kallah, so that He may accompany them into the chuppah. 3 This understanding of the word likrat, as a meeting between the chatan and kallah is also expressed in the refrain from Kabbalat Shabbat (traditional Friday night service to welcome Shabbat) - L’cha dodi likrat kallah, come my beloved to meet the kallah. The fact that the chatan in these sources comes out to meet the kallah, clearly supports the minhag of the chatan and kallah entering the chuppah together. However, they do not offer an alternative insight into this minhag. Like the halakhic sources, they do not portray the meeting at the chuppah as a mutual meeting, but rather as the chatan’s welcoming the kallah into his house.

One must look at Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) and the midrashim which base themselves upon it, for an alternative perspective on the role of the kallah at the chuppah. The book is an allegory for the loving relationship between B’nei Yisrael and God, and so naturally it is used as a proof text for comparing B’nei Yisrael to a bride. Chapter four consists of three songs in which the dod (beloved), who is understood to be God, sings to his kallah, the people. The word kallah appears here six out of the ten times it is used in the whole Bible,4 and so it is a useful source in understanding the meaning behind wedding imagery. In the third of these songs the kallah is described as a locked garden (4:12), which contains pleasant fruits and fragrant spices. However, the song finishes with the bride singing,

Awake O north wind, and come south; blow [haphikhi] upon my garden [gan], so that [the smell] of the spices may flow out. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat from its choicest fruit [pri]. I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride...

Much of the wedding imagery found in this section is based on the language of parshat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), since the creation of Adam and Eve is the archetypal marriage, as several of the sheva berachot express. The word gan of course calls to mind the original gan, Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). Moreover, the kallah says, ”Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruit [pri].”5 In Gan Eden the fruit grows on trees that are called, ”pleasant to the sight and good for food.”6 In both sources the fruits are described as select and ripe, and the use of this language is an allusion to fertility, an important aspect of marriage. Furthermore, the kallah, in an attempt to entice her beloved to join her in her garden, beseeches the wind to ”blow [haphikhi] upon my garden, so that [the smell] of the spices may flow out.” Similarly, when God blows the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, a word deriving from the same root, ”vayipakh,” ”and he blew,” is used.7 The midrashim on Gan Eden also borrow the imagery of the gan as a chuppah from Shir Hashirim when it says that God made ten chuppot for Adam in Gan Eden. 8

In the Shir Hashirim text, the gan or chuppah is described as a space, which is shared by the chatan and kallah. The kallah refers to the garden first as hers (my garden), and then as his (his garden). Only in response to the kallah’s offer does the beloved accept her overture and call the garden his own.9 Moreover, it is the kallah who is in the chuppah first, awaiting the arrival of her chatan.

Based on the verses in Shir Hashirim, the midrash makes a statement which is radically different from the perspective in the halakhic sources on the chuppah:

Rabbi Hanina says, the Torah teaches you appropriate behavior [derekh eretz], that the chatan should not enter the chuppah until the kallah gives him permission [reshut], as it says “Let my beloved come to his garden’ (Shir Hashirim 4:16) and afterwards it says “I have come to my garden’.10

If the midrash had understood the chuppah as representing the relocation of the kallah from her father’s home to that of her husband, then why is her consent necessary? The need for the permission (reshut) of the kallah, as it is expressed in the midrash, suggests that the chuppah need not be viewed exclusively as the reshut, or domain, of the chatan, but rather as a shared, mutual dwelling for the bride and groom, which they are both about to enter into together for the first time.

Now, based on Shir Hashirim, and the midrash’s understanding of it, one can interpret the minhag of the chatan meeting the kallah and accompanying her into the chuppah, in an entirely different way. The concept that the consent of the kallah must be granted, before the wedding ceremony in the chuppah begins, alters the symbolism of this custom. The minhag is no longer about the transferal of the woman from one man’s space to another, but rather is representative of the voice of the kallah, who is ready to enter into and share a new home with her chatan. Instead of representing the striking absence of a role for the kallah at the chuppah, it symbolizes her noteworthy presence.

There is only one halakhic source, to my knowledge, which mentions the concept of needing the consent of the bride. The Likutei Maharikh suggests that the reason the kallah enters the chuppah after the chatan is so that it is clear that she has given her consent to the marriage.11 While this source still views the chuppah as the domain of the chatan, at least it gives the kallah a somewhat active role in the ceremony by requiring her permission before it may begin. 

What becomes clear from these sources is that there can be different interpretations of this minhag. From the halakhic material, one may derive a more traditional view of the chuppah, as symbolic of the reshut ha-ba’al. However, for those of us whose natural inclination is to view marriage as a joint endeavor, in which both individuals participate and share responsibilities, the midrash and Shir Hashirim offer an approach which is more acceptable. Far from representing the woman’s transfer from one domain to another, the chuppah in these sources signifies a home built on joint consent and mutual involvement.


1. Even Ha’Ezer 55:1.

2. HaGra, Even Ha’Ezer 55:9 and Arukh Hashulkhan, Even Ha’Ezer, 55:18.

3. Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 41. A similar idea is found in the Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael on Exodus 19:17.

4. Shir Hashirim Rabbah, chapter 4.

5. Shir Hashirim 4:17.

6. Genesis 2:9.

7. Genesis 2:7.

8. Bava Batra 75a, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 11.

9. This transition in noted by the Da’at Mikra commentary.

10. Pesikta deRav Kahane, chapter 1. This phrase is used in several other midrashim. They are: Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 9, Bemidbar Rabbah, chapter 13, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, chapter 4, Pesikta Rabbati, chapter 5, and Midrash Tanhuma, parshat Naso, siman 20. In these midrashim the statement appears in the names of different rabbis, Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Nechunya, and Rabbi Abahu.

11. Likutei Maharikh 3:131b.

 

Karen Miller is working toward a PhD in Rabbinic Literature at NYU. She teaches at the Drisha Institute and is a member of the JOFA board of directors.

 

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