Why Do We Break a Glass at a Jewish Wedding?
You have probably watched this scene a hundred times on television and in the movies: the familiar wedding scene of a groom stomping on a glass which is followed by a profusion of hugs and kisses and a cacophony of shouts of “Mazel Tov” from the celebrants. It is shorthand; in a few short moments we conclude that this is not only a wedding ceremony but, specifically, a Jewish wedding ceremony and an occasion of unfathomable joy.
Let us consider a little more closely this rather strange Jewish wedding tradition. Because, it is a little odd. We are at a wedding. We are all happy. There is music and dancing and food and drink and happy people and love is in the air. In fact, love is the theme of the party: a lifetime of love and commitment. Why in the world would you smash a glass at this most auspicious moment when the Jewish couple, standing under the wedding canopy have publicly, legally and spiritually entered married life. Does this wedding ritual of broken glass, in essence, seal the deal?
Well, the answer to this, is a resounding no. It is a Jewish custom, but not in any way, Jewish law. So, what is the significance of this wedding ritual performed by the Jewish groom and nowadays, very often, by the Jewish bride?
As often is true of Jewish traditions and customs throughout Jewish history, there isn’t one explanation for why we smash a wine glass at the wedding ceremony. It is performed at just about every Jewish wedding ceremony: Ashkenazy, Sephardic, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform… However, there are several different explanations. And, we are free to choose which one might most appeal to us.
A Few Reasons Why We Should Smash a Glass on The Wedding Day
Here are a few interpretations, all of them valid and wonderful to keep in mind (as if you don’t have enough to think about!) when that moment finally comes.
Commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple
The most prevalent explanation for why we break the wedding glass at the wedding ceremony is that even in joyous occasions the Jewish people must never forget the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and later the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For this reason, Psalm137:5 is recited just before the breaking the glass:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [her cunning].
There are those who would like to do away with all ensuing cries of “Mazel Tov” after the shattering of the wedding glass. If the destruction of the two Temples is, in fact, the explanation for the ritual, it is indeed entirely inappropriate to yell for joy at this particular moment- the one that immediately follows the symbolic shattering of the glass to commemorate the Jewish people’s most mournful historical junctures. The timing is completely off. However, wedding customs have a life of their own—changing and continuing and losing their original intent…which is also a prominent Jewish theme.
Scaring the Demons Away
Some say that in Eastern Europe, the breaking of the glass in a Jewish marriage ceremony was done to confuse the demons who were always attracted to attend happy occasions, such as weddings or celebrations of births, in order to dispense their evil. By shattering a glass, the loud nose would either scare the evil spirits away or confuse them into thinking it was a moment of mourning. (This particular theory is a favorite of mine).
The breaking of the two halves of the soul, now reunited
This idea is more on the romantic side, kabalistic, and more metaphorical as well. There is an often-spoken-of idea in Jewish thought that a Jewish couple actually originated as one soul, and those two halves have spent their time on this earth searching for each other–to be reunited under the Chuppah. This wonderful interpretation describes a cyclical bond—one that is broken, but can be re-formed.
Don’t get too carried away with your merrymaking
Though the destruction of the Holy Temple is the favored theory for the breaking of the Jewish wedding glass, the first time this ritual was mentioned in Jewish literature actually predates the destruction of the Second Holy Temple.
The Talmud briefly describes a wedding that one of the Sages, Mar Bar Rabina, was hosting in honor of his son. Once, he saw that the celebratory mood was becoming too light, he took an expensive goblet and smashed it. Needless to say, this put everyone in a more somber mood immediately. The thought behind this was that it is important to stay balanced throughout every stage in life. In times of celebration, we know that life can take more somber turns as well; and in difficult times of loss or mourning, we know that we can and will yet experience celebration and happiness, in time.
Accepting and honoring the fragility of life
Maybe, the most all-encompassing of explanations is that we need to recognize the fact that our lives are fragile and this simple ritual exists in order that we be mindful of this. Certainly, marriage is a strong step in taking on that very thing. By way of their union, the couple brings strength and purpose to each other’s lives, rejoicing together, but also supporting one another through the harsh times that they may face.
By breaking a wedding glass in their final moments under the chuppah, they are in essence acknowledging and declaring that they will see each other through celebration and difficulty, through life’s happy times and life’s sorrow.
This also explains to why a glass is broken and not some other delicate material. Glass has the property of being able to be melted down and re-formed anew. Its breakage need not be permanent and may be restored or transformed. Yes. Life has its fragile nature, but we must always go on.
Many couples, today, have taken this metaphor a step further, by collecting and transforming their shards of glass into beautiful keepsakes. (i.e., mezuzahs, table sculptures…).
Smashing a glass at a wedding is a custom that actually speaks much of the Jewish approach to life cycle events: being careful to keep everything into perspective, binding our times of joy and struggle as one, and being mindful of our history and our future. This has been the Jewish experience across the ages.