Reshut Hakallah: The Symbolism of the Chuppah

June 14, 2010
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Karen Miller Jackson

The chuppah, or marriage canopy, is often likened to the home that the chatan and kallah, the groom and bride, are embarking on building together. However, not all traditional sources support this view. Halakhic sources depict the chuppah as a home, but it is a home that belongs to the chatan, and its role in the ceremony is to mark the transfer of the woman from her father’s house to her husband’s house. One must look to the aggadic sources for a view on the symbolism of the kallah’s entry into the chuppah that is more in line with our modern sensibilities. Within the aggadah, the chuppah represents the beginning of a mutual and equal relationship between the chatan and kallah, who are on the verge of establishing 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 Shulchan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 55:1) the marriage has only taken place once the bride has entered his house, which in the halakhic sources is the symbolic purpose of the chuppah. This symbolism seems to be further reinforced by the minhag (a custom in which my husband and I partook at our own wedding) that the chatan enters the chuppah and then comes back out when the kallah arrives, in order to accompany her inside. This minhag is widely understood as representing the woman’s leaving the domain of her father and entering the domain of her husband. It is as though the groom, being a good host, greets the bride and says, “Welcome to my home.”

This interpretation of the chuppah can be extracted from certain aggadic (non-legal narratives) as well. When bnei Yisrael were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, the midrash states that Moshe told the people to leave the camp and go to the mountain because God, the chatan, was waiting to meet His kallah, the people, in order to accompany them into the chuppah (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 41). A similar image can be found in the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat, “L’cha dodi likrat kallah,” “Come, my beloved, to meet the bride.” Like the halakhic sources, these aggadic texts portray the encounter at the chuppah not as a mutual meeting, but rather as the bridegroom’s welcoming the bride into his house.

The Song of Songs and the aggadic sources that expound upon it provide a different perspective on the role of the bride at the chuppah. The book in and of itself is understood by most commentaries as an allegory for the loving relationship between the nation of Israel and God, in which Israel is portrayed as the bride and God the groom. In Chapter 4, the bride sings out to her husband:

Awake O north wind, and come south;
blow [haphichi] 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.
I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride…

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. Moreover, it is the kallah who is in the chuppah first, awaiting the arrival of her chatan.

Based on these verses, the midrash makes a statement that is radically different from the perspective found in the halakhic sources:

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 afterward it says, “I have come to my garden” (Pesikta deRav Kahane, Chapter 1).

The need for the permission (reshut) of the kallah, as it is expressed in this midrash, suggests that the chuppah need not be viewed exclusively as the reshut of the chatan. Rather, it is a shared, mutual dwelling into which they are both about to enter for the first time. One can then 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 minhag. The minhag is no longer about the transfer of the woman from one man’s space to another’s, but rather is representative of the voice of the kallah, whose message is that she 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.

These sources make clear that different interpretations of the minhag can be drawn by different communities. From the halakhic material, one may derive a more traditional view of the chuppah as symbolic of the husband’s domain and the bride’s movement from her father’s to her husband’s house. The midrash and Shir Hashirim, on the other hand, offer a view of marriage as a joint endeavor, in which both individuals participate and share responsibilities. 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.

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Karen Miller Jackson is a Jewish educator who lives in Ra’anana, Israel. This essay is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the JOFA Journal of JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Allinace (Spring 2003).

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