The Chuppah: Private, yet Permeable

Artwork by Jess Craven.
Artwork by Jess Craven.

In the weeks and months after marrying my wife, Alex, people asked me the same question: Do you feel different? The question gave me pause. No magical cloak of marriage had suddenly enshrouded us. We stood under the chuppah, we danced, we ate pie; yet, the basic elements of our lives remained unchanged. We had already been sharing our home and finances, and we had already addressed the big questions about sharing our lives together before marriage. What specific threshold did we cross as we stood under the chuppah?

Traditional representations of marriage in American culture elicit the image of the groom carrying the bride, still in her wedding dress, across the doorway of their new home, signifying their departure from their respective families and community to form the nuclear family that is the foundation of our society.

Jews have our own version of the marriage threshold, the chuppah, erected as a canopy for the couple to stand under during the wedding ceremony. Instead of crossing over into a private and permanent space, we enter into marriage under a temporary structure, with our loved ones watching.

Our chuppah was built by a friend who brought it to a small town near Lake Ontario, where my wife’s family has a home. On the day before the wedding, he erected the canopy with the help of our families. We draped the chuppah with my dad’s tallit and decorated it with flowers.

On the day of our wedding, as we circled one another and stepped inside the chuppah’s frame with our backs to our guests, it was as if we had stepped into a private room in the middle of a sprawling park. Our focus on one another was intense. As the ceremony began, friends and family rotated in and out of the chuppah to offer us the sheva brachot, the seven betrothal blessings. This dance between partner, self, and community was a reminder of our commitment to each other, devotion to ourselves, and need to participate in the world around us.

The chuppah’s open sides allow for continual movement: wedding guests enter and leave as they participate in the ceremony — just as they will participate in our shared life. The chuppah’s fragile, temporary structure also reminds us just how vulnerable our lives are. We stand under it because we acknowledge that our relationships are always changing, constantly improving, redecorating — even rebuilding. We need open pathways for others to easily come in and out, to offer us advice and companionship, or simply to witness.

Jews have long been accustomed to liminal spaces — those deeply uncomfortable, transitional places where we are at the margins of certainty. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the years wandering in the desert, the mezuzah that marks the transition into and outside of the home — these are all thresholds we cross as Jews as we perform the rituals built into our lunar cycle and our daily routines.

A marriage, by all standards, is supposed to be a time for certainty. But the chuppah at the center of the wedding ritual reminds us of our limitations in knowing what will be. Even as we cannot prepare for everything, the chuppah reassures us we can choose the people we invite into our spaces and the values and traditions that will form the foundation of our lives.

It has been said that your wedding day is to the rest of your life as Shabbat is to the rest of the week: a taste of what can be and a reminder of what we strive to build. So, what changed, that day? It wasn’t some new revelation, new legal status, or new feeling of strengthened commitment. It was a subtle change — an integration of our relationship with the most important people in our lives.

Marriage is not a finish line we cross. Today, marriage is not even necessary for having a family, or security, or happiness. When we crossed into the chuppah — a structure both private and permeable, we acknowledged the privilege of having a community to witness and uphold something greater than two people. That threshold marked the beginning of that journey — just one really good day to set the tone for all the unknowns that follow.


Anna Goren

Anna Goren

Anna Goren is a writer and communications consultant in Seattle, Wash., where she works with nonprofits to help them tell their stories.

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The Chuppah: Private, yet Permeable

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