The Chuppah: Canopy of Kings & Queens

The following article is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Barbara P. Billauer

So, you’re getting married. Mazal Tov!

You, like your mother and grandmother and her mother and grandmother before her, will be married under a Chuppah – the marriage canopy which represents the Jewish Home, open on all sides as was the tent of Avraham, a sign the Jewish home is always open to visitors and travelers. But the Jewish wedding ceremony wasn’t always like that. In biblical times, the marriage was consecrated in the house of the groom and the tent stood for what it was, the home:

Bereishis Pereck 24

67 And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. {P}

סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק, הָאֹהֱלָה שָרָה
אִמּוֹ, וַיִקַח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְהִי לוֹ - -
לְאִשָה, וַיֶאֱהָבֶהָ; וַיִנָחֵם יִצְחָק,
אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. {פ}

The first actual reference to the word Chuppah comes from Tehilim 19:5

6 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.

ו וְהוּא - -כְחָתָן, יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָתוֹ;
יָשִיש כְגִבּוֹר, לרוּץ אֹרַח.

In the time of David HaMelech, the term Chuppah represented the premises of the groom, where the bride would ultimately sojourn. Later, it appears that the word refers to the abode of the bride, which she would leave to begin her new life with her husband:

Joel 2:16: "Let the bridegroom emerge from his chamber [chedro], and the bride from her chuppah.")

16 Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts; let the bridegroom go forth from his chamber, and the bride out of her pavilion.

טז אִסְפוּ עָם קַדְשׁוּ קָהָל, -
קִבְצוּ זְקֵנִים - -אִסְפוּ --
עוֹלָלִים, וְיֹנְקֵי שָׁדָיִם: יֵצֵא
חָתָן מֵחֶדְרוֹ, וְכַלָה מֵחֻפָתָהּ.

By the time of the Talmud, the word Chuppah was used to mean the room where the marriage was consecrated. But we also find reference to the canopy as a symbol of the marriage rite in Gittin 57a, (Talmud Bavli) :"It was the custom when a boy was born to plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born to plant a pine tree, and when they married, the tree was cut down and a canopy made of the branches". 

The Medrash also relates that Mt. Sinai was held over the heads of Bnei Yisroel at the time of Mattan Torah. Like “a chuppah” of a bride and groom, HKBH was consecrated to his bride, B’nei Yisraoel. The Rosh held that in the days of the Talmud the decorated hand-carried coach that transported the bride to her wedding served as the Chuppah.

By the early Middle Ages customs varied from community to community. In some communities, the Chuppah referred to the veil of the bride. In others, couples were married under a tallit, or the robe of the groom spread over the couple, or a cloth draped over them (as you can see in the illustration below). Only in the 16th century do we begin to see the Chuppah in a form we would recognize today.

Wedding, Nuremburg, 15th Cent. Without a Chuppah
but with musical accompaniment.

The tapestry or cloth canopy that we know today as a Chuppah was first identified by Rabbi Moses Issereles (Rema) in the sixteenth century, but the earliest illustration I could find dates to 1695.

Wood cut of a wedding in Amsterdam, 1695

R’ Isserles notes (before he composed his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch) that the portable marriage canopy was widely adopted by Ashkenazi Jews as a symbol of the chamber within which marriages originally took place. Other scholars believe that the form originated from the weddings of the Catholic Church (see Joseph Gutman, The Jewish Life Cycle, p.16). It appears more likely that the Chuppah (and the Catholic adaptation of the concept, as well) derived from the concept of the bride and groom considered as King and Queen. It is just too coincidental that the Chuppah almost exactly resembles the Monarchial design of the Baldachin.

The word Baldachin derives from Baldac, a Medieval Latin term for Bagdad, from where fine silks and tapestries were transported to Europe. Merriam Webster defines Baldachin as: 1) a cloth canopy fixed or carried over an important person or a sacred object, 2) a rich embroidered fabric of silk and gold, or 3) an ornamental structure resembling a canopy used especially over an altar. Its use signified the elite status of the individual it covered.

The Solemn Entrance of Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, and of Alessandro Cardinal Farnese into Paris in 1540.  By Zuccari

The first baldachins were used as bed canopies, although the idea of a “Canopy of State” which accompanied the regent, dates back to the Egyptian times and Neo-Assyrians in Athens. By the late 5th century the parasol of the ‘elite’ women filled the same role.

“The Dream of St Ursula” by Carpaccio, c. 1500 (from “Baronial Bedrooms” by Barbara Billauer Bailey) (Notice how similar the scalloped edges on the canopy are to the chuppah in the woodcut seen earlier.)

Over the years baldachins became more elaborate and their uses expanded. These canopies were made of anything from muslin to heavy brocade. Transportable ones were constructed of less flexible materials, and supported by poles, whether affixed to a carriage, or carried by people walking on each side. By the mid 1800’s the baldachins had become spectacular structures, commanding awe that might have even surpassed that lavished on the Kings and Queens they were supposed to grace.

The Bedroom of the tragic Maxmillian and Carlotta in Miramare (from “Baronial Bedrooms” by Barbara Billauer Bailey) Max and Carlotta abandoned this incredible room so he could go to Mexico and be Emperor. There he was killed and Carlotta went insane. (She had a really nice bedroom though – just not as grand as this.)

The Travelling Baldachin
Baldachins were later placed over thrones and carried over the monarchs. As the monarchs themselves became more mobile, the travelling baldachin came into use (as you saw previously). We find these on route to war, or in processions such as royal entrances, coronations and funerals.

Wedding, Germany, 19th Cent. under Tallit and hand-held Chuppah.
The Couple wear wedding belts.

So, how did I come to know so much about Baldachins?
It all started when my husband told me our bedroom resembled a palace. Nice Yeshiva girl that I am, I had no idea what he was talking about. Especially since our room was decorated using smoke, mirrors, paper and cardboard (I kid you not about the last three items). 

So, I started researching what palatial bedrooms looked like. And I found they were all the same. Then how come they all look so different? – you ask. Much of it was just a matter of the colors and textures they chose (it’s amazing how much) and a couple of other ‘tricks’ that can be easily and cheaply copied. 

I learned so much about bedrooms (and baldachins) that I decided to write a book which was just published, "Baronial Bedrooms: The Kama Sutra of Grand Design". In it I share both what I learned (it’s amazing what you find out about Kings and Queens when you limit your searches to "bedrooms") and the techniques I used to copy the ‘Beauty of the Baronial Bedroom” on bubkes. You can order this paperback on Amazon

Barbara Pfeffer Billauer (Bailey) is a lawyer, science-educator, historical researcher and popular Torah-teacher. She is a research Professor at The Institute of World Politics by vocation and a designer by avocation. She lives in Zichron Yaakov where she is giving Shiurim and researching an upcoming book on Aaron Aaronsohn and a children’s book on Dona Gracia HaNasi.

Her design history and how-to book, “Baronial Bedrooms” can be ordered from or from Westphalia press. It will be available on Kindle shortly.

All pictures reprinted with the permission of Barbara P Billauer
Copyright Barbara P Billauer 2013

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