The following explanatory note is necessary in order to have a basic understanding of the chupah ceremony proceedings:
According to Torah law, marriage is a two-step process. The first stage is called "kiddushin," and the second step is known as "nisu'in." Both kiddushin and nisu'in are accomplished successively beneath the chupah. Kiddushin is commonly translated as betrothal, but actually renders the bride and groom full-fledged husband and wife. After this point, if, G‑d forbid, they decided to part ways, a "get" (Jewish divorce) would be required. However, the bride and groom are not permitted to live together as husband and wife until the second stage, the nisu'in, is completed.
While there are several ways to effect a kiddushin, the common custom is to do so with a ring -- the customary wedding band. The nisu'in is accomplished through "chupah" -- the husband uniting with the wife under one roof for the sake of marriage.
Brief outline of the chupah ceremony:
The groom betroths the bride by giving her the ring. This is preceded by a blessing recited by the officiating rabbi. In order to make a distinction between the kiddushin ceremony and the nisu'in which follows, there is a minor pause in the action, during which time the ketubah (marriage contract) is publicly read. The nisu'in then commences, with the recitation of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Benedictions). The chupah then concludes with the groom breaking a glass.
"With this ring, you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel"The mitzvah of marriage is performed over a cup of wine. The rabbi holds a cup of wine and first recites the hagafen, the standard blessing on wine, and then the kiddushin blessing, which thanks G‑d for sanctifying us with the mitzvah of betrothal before consummating marriage. After concluding the two blessings, the groom and bride both are given to sip from the cup.
After the bride and groom sip from the wine, the groom places the wedding band on the bride's right index finger. While putting the ring on her finger, the groom says in Hebrew and the vernacular: "With this ring, you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel."
The kiddushin must be witnessed by two kosher witnesses. These witnesses stand beneath the chupah and must see the groom placing the ring on the bride's finger, and hear him utter the betrothal words.
The bride must not give the groom a ring beneath the chupah. If they so wish, this may be done at a later time. See Is a "double ring" wedding ceremony okay?
Officiating rabbi: A Jewish marriage is effected by a man, a woman, and two witnesses. The rabbi is there only to facilitate the process, and to ensure that all proceedings conform to Jewish law.
Wine: "Wine cheers man's heart." Those mitzvot which are associated with joy are accompanied by a ceremonial cup of wine. Examples of such mitzvot include circumcision, pidyon haben (the redemption of a firstborn son), and the Shabbat kiddush. There is no mitzvah which is more joyously celebrated than a wedding, hence the prominence of wine at this occasion. (See also the Kabbalistic Meaning of the Grace after Meals section for a deeper insight on the connection between wine and marriage.)
The blessing: The betrothal blessing has two purposes: a) every mitzvah requires the recitation of a blessing beforehand. In this case the mitzvah is the commandment to marry. b) This blessing expresses thanks to G‑d for bringing about this joyous occasion.
Truthfully, it is the groom's right and obligation to recite this blessing. However, because the groom is ordinarily nervous and tense at this moment, we are worried that he will muddle the words and/or won't be able to recite the blessing with appropriate concentration. The rabbi, therefore, acts as the groom's "agent" when reciting the blessing.
Ring: Technically, the kiddushin can be transacted through the groom giving the bride anything of value. Nonetheless, marrying with a ring is an ancient Jewish tradition. Aside for the kabbalistic reasons for this tradition, there is also a practical explanation -- a ring serves as a constant and highly visible reminder of the couple's wedding commitment.
Using a ring to transact the marriage, assures that the item will belong exclusively to the wifeAdditionally, most possessions owned by husband or wife end up belonging to the "family" and are enjoyed by all members of the household. Using a ring to transact the marriage, assures that the item will belong exclusively to the wife.
Index finger: Many have questioned the rationale of putting the ring on the index finger, as opposed to the ring finger where rings are normally worn. Several answers have been suggested, most of them based on the greater dexterity of the index finger.
The theme of the wedding is to surround. A veil surrounds the bride. The bride encircles her groom. The chupah surrounds them both. The ring, too, is perfectly round. And soon the guests will dance in circles around them.
In the teachings of kabbalah, the circle represents the ohr makif, the encompassing light that frames our reality; the supra-natural, supra-rational manifestations of Divine light. We call these miracles, existential mysteries, and mind-blowing experiences.
The soul of man, which was created in the image of G‑d, also emits an encompassing light; supra-rational and supra-natural powers which defy the constraints of physics and reason and even the axioms of self-interest and self-preservation.
Marriage is the most supra-rational and supra-natural endeavor undertaken by man. For two individuals to become one flesh is to violate all the laws of ego and identity, to overcome the basic existential rule that one and one makes two. Marriage thus requires the activation of the encompassing powers of all those involved. There are three partners to a marriage -- man, woman and G‑d -- and each party contributes the supra-existential dimension of its existence.
Marriage requires the activation of the encompassing powers of all those involvedAs mentioned in the previous section, the number seven represents completion in the natural realm. The seven times the bride circles the groom represents the total union of their revealed and natural soul powers. These circles are done beneath the encompassing chupah -- which represents the presence of an element which transcends the seven natural soul powers; the unification of the essential soul powers of the bride and groom.
The act of betrothal is called kiddushin -- sanctification -- signifying the uniqueness of the Jewish marriage where G‑d Himself dwells in the home and the relationship is elevated to a new level of holiness. The transcendent divine dimension symbolized by the chupah permeates every moment of their lives from this moment on.
The transcendent light's permeation of the couple's marriage is symbolized by the wedding band. It, too, is round, signifying the encompassing light, yet it becomes part of the bride's wardrobe; a very real part of her life.