The unexpected history behind why the couple stomps on a piece of glass in a Jewish wedding

Photo credit: Ian Sbalcio

The Jewish wedding is a finely detailed process, with hundreds of different customs and traditions.

One of the most iconic ones is breaking a glass.

At some point during the marriage ceremony (the exact point varies between different traditions, but usually during the end), a glass wrapped in cloth is placed on the ground under the chuppah, or bridal canopy. One member of the couple stomps on it, and the congregation shouts "mazal tov!" in congratulations.

The reason Jews break a glass during the wedding ceremony is to remember two of the most important and tragic events of Jewish history: the destruction of the Jewish temples. In an otherwise joyous occasion, it's a ritual that tempers that happiness and allows for a moment of reflection.

"We perform a number of actions to keep the Temple in our collective consciousness," writes Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff in his book on dating and relationships. "One of them is breaking the glass under the chuppah."

The tradition dates back to at least the fourth century CE.

The oldest reference to breaking glass during a wedding in Jewish literature is in the Talmud, an important Jewish legal text. In an esoteric discussion among rabbis about happiness and solemnity during prayer, there's a story of a rabbi who hosts a wedding for his son.

During the wedding, he sees the attending rabbis are excessively joyous, so he gets an expensive cup, breaks it in front of them, and they become sad.

It's a cryptic story. Why make the wedding guests sad? One explanation offered in the Talmud is to make sure they don't get too carried away in their merriment and end up sinning.

The more generally understood reason is that it all refers to a verse from Psalm 137, often recited before breaking the glass, which values keeping "Jerusalem in memory even at the happiest hour."

The memory isn't a happy one.

Two of the most important events in Jewish history are the destructions of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

In Judaism, the temple is supposed to be the physical focal point of faith and worship. The first one was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. It was replaced by a second temple at around 530 BCE, while Jerusalem was occupied by the Persian Empire, and then destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman army. Now, the only accessible remains are a small section of its outer western wall.

Breaking the glass is supposed to recall the destruction of the temples. It's a way of remembering the tragedy of Jerusalem "even at the happiest hour" — that is to say, your wedding.

Breaking the glass also recalls breaking the tablets.

There's another Biblical reason for breaking glass, according to Hajioff.

In the Jewish tradition, G_d giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is understood to be a kind of metaphorical marriage ceremony, where G_d is married to the Jewish people.

In that context, breaking the glass resembles the passage in Exodus when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and, seeing the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf, broke the first set of tablets G_d gave him.

"Since the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people was the marriage between G_d and the Jewish people, the breaking of the glass recalls this first-ever tragedy that occurred to our people at Mount Sinai," Hajioff writes.

For some Jews, breaking glass was used to keep demons away.

In Eastern Europe, the idea of demons associated with different sins became popular in Jewish life. People were thought to be particularly susceptible to demonic possession and curses during rites of passage, like circumcision ceremonies and weddings.

Shattering glass, some scholars suggest, would keep demons away. It would frighten them with a loud noise, or otherwise confuse them into thinking it was an event of mourning, not of celebration.

Glass itself is deeply symbolic.

Anything that's fragile could be shattered, so why glass?

Hajioff writes that glass is shattered rather than, say, ceramic or fine china because it can be remelted and reblown.

"Similarly, we humans can have moments where we are 'broken' or even 'shattered,'" Hajioff writes. "Like glass we can reform as new beings if need be. So we break glass because it recalls our mortality but also the divine promise of immortality of the soul.”

Usually the actual glass the couple crushes is a cup used earlier in the ceremony, when a blessing is said over a glass of wine.

Sometimes a plate is used as the glass. It's thought to be a reference to a separate tradition of breaking a plate when a binding contract is sealed, symbolizing its irreversibility. It's also traditional to break a plate following an engagement agreement between the couple.

After the plate is broken, people shout "mazal tov!" — but that's become controversial in recent years.

Right after the glass is broken, the congregation yells out "mazal tov" to wish the couple congratulations, bringing the wedding out of its moment of somberness.

But in the past few years, the custom of saying "mazal tov" following breaking the glass has been criticized. In particular, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the most influential Jewish legal scholars in the past one-hundred years, said in 2010 that the practice should be eliminated altogether "if not for the weight of Jewish tradition."

The reason, he said, is because many Jews are unaware of the reasoning behind breaking the glass — to remember the destruction of the temples — and therefore treat the moment with levity instead of sorrow.

During the happiest day in a couple's life, it's a moment to remember the weight of history that brought them there in the first place.




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