A Panoply of Canopies
The Bible tells of the marriage between Amram and Yocheved, and the subsequent birth of their son Moshe (Ex. 2:1-10). The Gemara (Sota 12a, Bava Batra 120a) explains that before this marriage described in the Torah, Amram and Yocheved had previously been married, but divorced from each other as a result of Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish baby boys. Their eldest child, Miriam, complained to her father that by separating from his wife he was actually worse than Pharaoh, because Pharaoh’s decree only affected the male babies while Amram’s actions also precluded the existence of female Jewish babies. As a result of Miriam’s rebuke, Amram remarried Yocheved in the marriage mentioned in the Torah. The expression used by the Gemara to describe Amram remarrying Yocheved is “he seated her in an apiryon”. What is an apiryon?
The word apiryon also appears in the Bible itself — as a hapax legomenon (that is, a word which appears only once within a given text) — also in conjunction with what appears to be a wedding: “King Solomon made for him an apiryon from Lebanese wood. Its pillars made of silver; its covering, gold; its seat, purple; and its interior decked with love from the daughters of Jerusalem. Go out and gaze upon the King Solomon — O daughters of Zion — with the crown that his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and the day of his heart’s gladness” (Song of Songs 3:9-11).
Regarding Amram and Yocheved’s wedding, Rabbi Pheobus Meir Parenzo (1500-1575) in his glosses printed in the 1566 Venice edition of Yalkut Shimoni (Ex. §165), and the Maharsha (1555-1631) both explain that an apiryon is a chuppa (wedding canopy). Nonetheless, as we have previously explained, no two words mean exactly the same thing in Hebrew, so there must be some difference between these two words. Moreover, there is another, more familiar word which essentially means the same as apiryon and chuppa: succah. How can we differentiate between these various words for canopy?
Rashi (to Succah 2a) writes that the defining characteristic of a succah is its sechach (covering). This means that a succah is a type of canopy or hut whose main source of shade comes from its upper covering. However, the word chuppa too is derived from the verb chofeh/mechapeh (cover), which refers to covering something in a physical way (e.g., a tablecloth “covers” the table), and in a figurative way (e.g., a robber’s friend might “cover” for him by helping supply an alibi). So what’s the difference between these two words?
Rabbi Tzvi Mordechai Libber of Milwaukee answers this question by first pointing to another passage of Rashi (to Ex. 35:12), where he explains that the word sechach refers to a protective covering. Therein lays the difference between a succah and a chuppa. The word succah denotes a booth whose main objective is to protect and shield one from the elements. The word chuppa, on the other hand, simply recalls the fact that a canopy is covered on top, but does not at all imply that the purpose of the canopy is to serve as shelter. According to this explanation the words succah and chuppa might actually refer to the same sort of edifice, but the former focuses on its protective role, while the latter simply means that it is covered on top.
The Mishnah (Sota 9:14) records that during the Hadrianic Persecutions (circa. 2nd century), the Rabbis decreed that a bride may not travel in a city inside an apiryon, but they later rescinded that ruling for reasons of modesty. This passage suggests that an apiryon is not simply a canopy, but a mobile enclosure within which a woman might travel. So what does apiryon mean?
Some argue that the word apiryon is related to the Sanskrit word paryanka which means palanquin or sedan chair in English. This refers to a covered litter for one passenger, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles carried by four or six human bearers. Such vehicles are used by important persons in India and other Eastern cultures. In the context of the above-cited Mishnah a bride would lead her processional entourage from inside such a celebratory box. The Rabbis first outlawed this practice because they felt that the excessive joy of the bride’s “parade” was inappropriate during the Hadrianic Persecutions, but they later lifted the prohibition for reasons of modesty.
According to this, when the commentaries cited wrote that “apiryon is a chuppa” they did not mean that the word apiryon means the same as the word chuppa. Rather, in the context of Yocheved’s marriage to Amram, the sedan chair in which she was seated assumed the halachic role that a chuppa serves in a regular Jewish wedding.