Is there any Jewish custom that is as recognized as the breaking of the glass? The obligatory wedding ritual seems to be the punchline to any film or TV wedding montage. But what is it? And why does the Jewish tradition end the occasion with an act of destruction?
So first off, what happens exactly? At the end of the ceremony the choson (groom) steps on a glass shattering it. It can be an old glass, a new glass, even a light bulb. It is usually wrapped, because who wants to get a glass shard in their foot on their wedding day, often in velvet or satin pouch. Prior to the ending of the ceremony, a ritual of seven blessings are recited over a cup of wine. Traditionally couples have used that wine glass for the breaking. But some rabbis argue that that violates the mitzvah of bal tashchit, the prohibition of needlessly wasting. Others however, argue that the ritual itself is of great importance and so bal tashchit doesn’t apply.
Jerusalem If I Forget You…
The most often cited reason of why we break the glass is a reference to the destruction of the Temple. Colloquially, a Jewish house of worship is often referred to as temple. But in observant communities that location is never referred as temple. As far observant Judaism is concerned, there was only one Temple (which was destroyed and then rebuilt… then destroyed again.) The loss of the Temple (or the Beit Hamikdash) is the biggest tragedy to happen to the Jewish people. Things like pogroms, the Holocaust, and the 2,000 years of exile wouldn’t have happened if the Temple still stood. It is a loss that we are never supposed to forget, so even in an occasion of such joy as a wedding, we remind ourselves that we are still lacking something crucial.
The Talmud lists another reason for the custom. It notes two separate stories of big rabbis who were celebrating the weddings of their sons. The hosts observed that other rabbis attending the service were becoming far too “boisterous in their joy.” So Mar ben Ravina smashed a cup worth an exorbitant amount grabbing everyone’s attention. The other story noted Rabbi Ashi did something similar. The lesson being that even though we should enjoy ourselves, Jews must always be an example, a light unto the nations. God forbid a holy wedding celebration devolve into a Mardi Gras ruckus. So as an act of caution, we continue the tradition.
Breaking to Build
The ideas mentioned above are somber and sobering, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t joyous and uplifting sides to the custom. After the chuppah, these two lives will change. For years they have lived one way, whether that was in the parents’ house, with roommates, or in a one bedroom apartment in Westwood. The stomping of the glass is a recognition that those lifestyles are over. Expectations, behaviors, routines, and more will be shattered much like the glass. But now the couple has the task of building a new home together. So it makes sense that the breaking of the glass functions to end the wedding.
The Spiritual Dimension
There is a story found in the Zohar which tells that when God created the world, he created a special light. The vessels (in Hebrew kelim) couldn’t hold this holy light and they shattered, so God hid the light away for the righteous to be held at the end of days. It is a bizarre story which leads to many questions, what was this special light? Was this before the creation of the world as we know it? What are these vessels and if God made them why couldn’t they hold this light?
I’m sure there are volumes of books dedicated to answering these questions. Over the years, I’ve thought of it as a metaphor for our character building. As we strive to develop better character traits, we often fail. But if we pick ourselves up and try again, we do a little better and a little better each time. If the soul is light, then our bodies would be a vessel to hold the soul. By trying, failing, but then trying again, we are improving the vessel that is our body to eventually hold the soul we know we have the potential to become. That’s why when we come back to something (piano, working out, a language) even if there has been a long lapse, it doesn’t take long to get back to the level at which we stopped.
The Talmud says the righteous man falls seven times. Now we have a connection to the story that says the special light was for the righteous. When a person builds their vessel so much that they are considered righteous, now they can hold the light of their full potential. With the knowledge of this story, it is hard not to make the connection between the broken glass at the end of the chuppah and the broken vessel from the Zohar. But what is the meaning of that connection? I can only speculate. But here are a few of those ideas.
When dating starts there is intense love (if not infatuation). That intense emotion can’t last forever. Much like this intense light Hashem brought into the world which had to be hidden away, so too, the love of a marriage is a different form from the original craziness that started it. The love can only grow if the relationship is properly nurtured. A new vessel must be built between the couple to create a proper home so they can appreciate a sincere, full, and mature love that is far more robust than the initial attraction.
Another idea is that marriage will have many levels or stages in the union. The honeymoon phase, hopefully a child or two or three, new jobs, new homes, the list goes on. Each step of the way is a new opportunity for responsibility and growth… a new light. If the couple takes on those responsibilities together, this new light will be shared and a new vessel can be built. If one of them falls, they both will. But to have someone to help rebuild the vessel is a categorically different experience than trying to shoulder recovery on one’s own.
A more esoteric idea (so follow me if you can) is that this hiding away of the light can be understood as God restricting His full brilliance. This restriction is a Kabbalistic concept known as tzimtzum. I’m really not going to delve into it other than to say that God, as it were, created space for us. When we get married, we have to learn to put someone else first, to restrict our will to some degree. In doing so, we allow the other to thrive and grow. That way both partners have a share in building the new vessel of their home, family, love, and life.
Handle with Care
The last idea is to recognize how fragile everything can be. Especially if the guy isn’t watching where he’s going. Not to say that in a marriage the spouses need to walk on eggshells (God forbid). But mindfulness and sensitivity will be crucial and that our actions can have far more destructive power than we realize. So be sure to take great care moving forward or you may be left picking up the pieces.