The mother of a bride was adamant that their rabbi perform a traditional Jewish wedding. When the rabbi asked what she meant by “traditional,” she replied, “The groom must break the glass.” While there are many other beautiful aspects to a traditional wedding service, the breaking of the glass has become the universal symbol of a Jewish wedding. But what exactly does it mean?
Well, there is no one answer. One common explanation is that breaking the glass is a symbol of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say that breaking the glass can remind a marrying couple that life holds sorrow as well as joy.
The custom of breaking a glass at the chupah is based on an event mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 30b) where Mar, the son of Ravina, was making a wedding for his son. When he saw that the guests were becoming overly joyful, he took an expensive glass and broke it in front of them, thereby tempering their joy.
But if this is simcha what’s wrong with being happy at a wedding?
There are two basic reasons given for Ravina’s desire to dampen their joy. One is based on the verse “rejoice in trembling” which reveals that a Jew, even at a time of joy, should not be carried away to the extreme, which might cause one to forget “oneself” and come to sin (Ran, Berachot). The other reason, to recall the destruction of the Temple, is based on the verse, “I shall elevate Jerusalem above my greatest of joys” (Kol Bo, Rema Ev. HaEz. 65).
If the breaking of the glass is intended to temper the joy and recall the destruction, why is it followed by such an outbreak of joy? It certainly seems inappropriate to rejoice in memory of the temple’s destruction. Rabbis, also expressing that concern, concluded that people have become confused, thinking that the breaking of the glass is itself a joyous custom (Chupat Chatanim 6:3). There are even those who assert that the custom of saying mazal tov at the breaking is a mistake in the first place (Siddur Beit Oved). But like so many customs—the tradition continues as an integral and expected part of every Jewish wedding ceremony.
The tradition of breaking the glass has other meanings as well—some more modern, some more mystical. A broken glass can symbolize what is broken in society especially for those couples involved in social action.
One mystical explanation is that the glass represents the couple and that just as the broken glass “enters a state from which it will never emerge”—the community hopes that this couple will never emerge from their married state. This custom can also remind the couple of the fragility of relationships, implying that they need to treat their marriage with special care.
Even the shards of glass themselves are symbolic. As the shards are plentiful, they represent the hope for abundance in life or abundant children. However, another mystical reason for the breaking of the glass is directly related to the ensuing outbreak of “mazal tov!” When a couple is married they become spiritually elevated. The breaking of the glass deflects this “judgment” and sends it towards the glass. Now that the couple has emerged “unscathed” the couple is blessed with “mazal tov!” However, the idea of the “evil eye” that resonates within that explanation isn’t something that most people find appealing.
But my favorite mystical explanation is the one that says before you were born, you and your soulmate were one, a single soul. Then, as your time to enter this world approached, G-d shattered that single soul into two parts. These two half-souls were then born into the world with a mission to try to find each other and reunite.
With marriage, the two halves are reunited. And as if to further signify that, today’s couples can use the shards of the broken glass to create a lasting piece of art as beautiful as they hope their marriage will be. And that’s something to celebrate!
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004
Modern Takes On
An Ancient Tradition
Traditionally, the act of breaking the glass at a wedding ceremony symbolizes the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (and all subsequent sufferings of the Jewish people). However, today many new interpretations have been attributed to this dramatic “step.” Here are a few interesting ones to consider.
λ It is thought by some that this is the last time the groom ever gets to put his foot down.
λ It symbolizes the breaking down of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths. After the glass is broken everyone yells “Mazel Tov,” which means good luck.
λ The sound of the breaking glass is said to frighten away evil spirits who might spoil this joyous occasion with their mischief.
λ The fragility of the glass suggests the frailty of human relationships. The glass is broken to protect this marriage with the implied prayer: “As this glass shatters, so may your marriage never break.”
λ At the conclusion of the ceremony, we are breaking the glass together—as a reminder that working through the challenges and celebrating the successes of life is best done together.