When John Welles’s best friend, Sam Feldman, invited him to a party Sam’s mother was hosting, John was not at all enthused. Sam, who always had a girlfriend on his arm, wanted John to run interference for him as he dodged the girl his mother wanted him to meet. Little could either young man have predicted how captivating Abigail Cohen, called Babby, would prove to be. Not only was Babby beautiful, the young school teacher was intelligent, articulate, and poised. John began to rethink his opinion about dating Babby, but not in time. By the end of the party, Sam and Babby hit it off exactly as Sam’s mother knew they would. John did not begrudge Sam his good fortune. Rather, he and Claude Willoughby were the best men at Sam and Babby’s wedding.
Being Jewish meant Sam and Babby took their vows under a chuppah. A chuppah is a Jewish wedding canopy with four open sides. There are many traditions surrounding the chuppah, and they have changed throughout the years depending on an orthodox or modern interpretation.
The chuppah is usually a square of cloth supported by four poles. The fabric can be as elegant as silk or velvet, as simple as cotton or linen, or as important as an heirloom piece of lace or tallit belonging to a family member. The poles can be free-standing or held in place by friends of the couple. Either way, the poles should touch the ground. It is a great honor to be asked to hold the chuppah poles, and this role is often given to people very close to the couple.
Many couples like to decorate the chuppah poles and tops to match the theme of their wedding. Whatever material is chosen, be sure that it will withstand unpredictable weather conditions if the ceremony is outdoors. Ruining a family heirloom or the collapse of an unsteady chuppah will definitely spoil the wedding.
The purpose of the chuppah is to symbolize the new home the couple will create. At one time, the cloth chuppah was draped around the bride and groom but was later spread over their heads. Ancient rabbis compared the chuppah to Abraham’s tent during Biblical times. Abraham was famous for his hospitality, and since his tent was open on all four sides, travelers could enter from any direction.
The bride and groom are brought to the chuppah by both parents. The space inside the chuppah should be big enough for the couple, clergy, and a small table for ritual items such as wine and glasses. The bride will also need enough room to circle her groom without tripping or snagging her dress. Don’t forget to make the chuppah tall enough for the tallest person to stand under without hitting the fabric where it will drag in the center. Family and friends in the wedding party, including parents, often stand outside the chuppah. Afterward, the new couple can receive guests in their chuppah as a symbol of the love and openness of the home they will build together.