Everyone knows that Jewish weddings take place under a chupah, often under the open skies. But no one I ask seems to know why. Is there a reason for this?

How Long Have We Been Using It?

The word chupah appears as far back as the Bible, although it referred to a canopy or chamber designated for either the bride or groom before the wedding.1 Later, in the Mishnaic period, the word chupah came to refer to the marriage itself.2 And for the last 500 years or so, the word chupah has come to refer to the conventional canopy that is made of cloth and held up by four poles, as well as the ceremony that takes place beneath it.

The Double Meaning of the Chupah

A Jewish wedding is the sublime joining of two souls, but it is also an intricate legal transaction, by which bride and groom enter a mutually binding commitment. Many components of the wedding have both a legal as well as a spiritual aspect to them.

Chupah as Place

On a legal level, the chupah’s function is for the bride and groom to be brought to a specially designated place (of unique appearance3 ) expressly for the purpose of marriage, thus effecting the phase of marriage known as nisuin.4

The chupah has taken on various forms throughout the millennia.

For example, at one point there was a custom to construct a hut-like structure made out of flowers and myrtle as the chupah under which the marriage would take place.5

Chupah as Action

According to other halachic sources, an action demonstrating the intention to designate the bride as a wife is sufficient to fulfill the legal mandate.

Therefore, a custom developed to drape both the bride and groom with a cloth or a tallit6 during the blessing of the marriage ceremony. This is based on Ruth’s request to Boaz7 to “spread [his] robe over [his] handmaid.”8

Alternatively, just the bride would be covered with a veil,9 following the ancient practice that is first recorded in the Bible regarding the marriage of our ancestors Isaac and Rebecca: “She took the veil and covered herself.”10

The Conventional Chupah

Sometime around the 16th century, and perhaps a bit earlier, there emerged the present-day custom of getting married under a canopy of cloth held up by four poles,11 which serves as a designated room—with four doorways12—into which the groom invites his bride.13

This combines both the “special-place chupah” and the “special-action chupah” (since the couple is covered by a cloth). The canopied ceremony is also preceded by the groom covering the bride with a veil, so that that element is there as well.14 After getting married under the canopy, the bride and groom seclude themselves together—yet another form of chupah.15

(Each element is integral and should not be discarded. After all, the new Jewish home must be founded upon the strongest possible Torah foundation.)

Why Outside

Ashkenazi custom is that (for first-timers) the chupah be placed outdoors under the open sky, symbolizing that the couple should receive the blessing that G‑d gave our forefather Abraham: “I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore . . .”16 17

On a Spiritual Note

The canopy held up by four poles forms a chamber with four oversized doorways, one on each side.

According to Jewish tradition, Abraham and Sarah were so passionate about the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, inviting guests, that they built a special tent with an opening on each side. That way, guests could walk straight in regardless of which direction they were coming from.

When a bride and groom are forming the foundation of their future life, they do so under a canopy with four “doorways,” symbolizing their commitment to build a household that mirrors this tradition of goodness and kindness.