The end of the public wedding ceremony is marked by the
breaking of a glass, usually a thin glass wrapped in a napkin to contain the
fragments. It is smashed under foot by the groom after the seven benedictions,
or after the rabbi’s address if it follows the benedictions. Some customs placed
it after the betrothals, but our western tradition is to perform it at the very
Ancient custom designated that one of the wine cups be
broken, although there was a difference of opinion as to which of the two wine
cups. Maharil held that it was the nuptials cups, because the breaking
immediately followed the nuptial blessings. Rema and most others held
that it was the betrothal cup, and for good reason: Breaking the nuptials cup,
over which the seven benedictions were recited, is a gross symbol when great
concern at this moment is for making the marriage, not breaking it. However,
once the nuptials are recited the betrothal has been accomplished, and the
breaking of that cup signifies that the nuptials have been satisfactorily
completed. The author of Match Moshe held that it may be any glass at all.
Originally, the blessing was recited over a glass cup which was then smashed.
But when silver cups began to be used, any other glass was used for breaking.
One commentator held that smashing either of the wine glasses was not an
auspicious sign and that another glass should be used.
The general custom that prevails today at traditional
weddings is the use of a prepared glass or bulb. However, this robs the ceremony
of its historic beauty and significance. Therefore, it is preferable to use a
glass goblet for the betrothals and a silver kiddush cup for the
nuptials. Immediately after the seven benedictions, the rabbi can pour the
remaining wine from the glass into a prepared bowl, wrap it in a cloth napkin
and have the groom place it on the floor and crush it.
Some rabbis were bothered by the problem of bal tashchit,
the formidable principle of not wasting material needlessly, and also of
bizayon kos shel berakhah, the "shaming" of the "cup of blessing" by
smashing it. But the response was that it is neither waste or shame because the
very breaking conveys important moral ideals. What are these ideals?
First, we should note that much has been written on the
mythology and also the psychology of the ceremony. Some of the scholarship is
erudite, some is trivial popularizing, and little of it is of immediate
relevance to the theme of this book. Many scholars find the roots of every
Jewish observance or idea in an alien theology or primitive rite. We are
concerned here with the symbol as it lives today, and the significance we can
derive from its practice.
The source for the custom is related in the Talmud. Mar,
son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son, and when he noticed that some
of the rabbis became boisterous in their joy, he brought a precious cup worth
four hundred zuz, and smashed it before them. This quieted them down
immediately. Rabbi Ashi also made a wedding feast for his son, and when he
noticed that the rabbis were boisterous, he brought a cup of white glass and
smashed it before them and immediately they sobered. Rashi said the
breaking was of a white wine cup and that only that kind of glass could be used
for the ceremonial breaking; the Tosafists derived from this the
prevalent custom of breaking any glass utensil at every wedding service.
What is the reason? From the Talmud it would appear that
breaking the glass served to engender sobriety and balanced behavior. Psalms
2:11 says, "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling". Rabbi Ada ben
Matanah, interpreted in Rabbah’s name: Bime’kom gilah, sham te’hei re’adah,
"Where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling." A wedding should not be
sheer undisciplined merriment, and the breaking of expensive glass stunned the
guests into tempering their gaiety. The ceremony serves, then, to moralize
pleasure and attain tempered emotions.
In the fourteenth century, the author of Kol Bo
offered another explanation. The broken glass represents the wreckage of our
past glory, and the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in the first
century. It recalls, at the most joyous and momentous occasion of the life
cycle, that there is a continuing national sadness. It is a memory of Zion that
stands as a reminder that in life great joy can be cancelled by sudden grief. It
enriches the quality of joy by making it more thoughtful and by inspiring
gratitude for the goodness of G‑d.
It is customary to recite the following words when breaking
the glass: "If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand fail... at
the height of my joy." Sephardic Jews, and also many of Ashkenazic descent,
recite this phrase at the performance of an analogous custom during the wedding,
the placing of a bit of ash on the groom’s forehead. This sign of mourning is
placed at the site of the tefillin—the ash of bereavement (efer),
in place of the glory which signifies tefillin (pe’er).
Perhaps a deeper significance can be realized if, as the
groom’s action recalls the demolished house of G‑d, the now-married couple takes
it as an obligation upon themselves to rebuild the Temple in their own lives by
building their own Jewish home, as every synagogue is a mikdash meat, a
miniature temple. The Sages say that all that is left of the Temple today are
dalet amot shel Halakhah, (the four ells of Torah law). If the home
we build will house the spirit and practice of these four ells, we will have
contributed to the rebuilding of the Temple in our own way and in our own homes.
How unfortunate it is, therefore, that the phrase of
Jerusalem’s destruction is rarely recited and, instead, a chorus of mazal
tov’s greets the breaking of the glass. If the reason for the glass breaking
is to temper joy, this is surely inappropriate; if the reason is to recall a
national tragedy, it is vulgar. Often not only is a joyous mazal tov
sounded, but a licentious sneer that it is a "good sign" if the glass is smashed
at the first try. This elicits gross comments regarding the groom’s prowess. The
late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ben Zion Ouziel, wished that he could have
abolished the custom for this very reason. In fairness, however, it should be
noted that the mazal tov is not so much in response to the breaking of
the glass, as it is to the end of the ceremony. In any case, it would be less
than responsible to eliminate a millennial tradition because of some people’s
untutored reaction to it. Perhaps we should reinstitute the reference to
Jerusalem and move the glass breaking back to the middle of the wedding
The two fundamental reasons lead us to another insight
derived from this ceremony—the magnificent, sensitive balance within Judaism
that testifies to its rich maturity and to its suitability to the whole range of
human emotions. It connects the private moment under the chuppah with the
public national event of the Temple, the ancient past with thoughts of a long
future, heady joy with a tragedy bewailed for nineteen hundred years. The
breaking of a glass at the symbolic moment that celebrates making a new home, is
also reminiscent of the Talmud’s assertion that "joining two people in marriage
is as difficult as splitting the sea."
Through the ages, other homilies were derived from the
ceremony. Tzafenat Pa’neah suggests the hope that the breach in the
relation between G‑d and Israel caused by the Temple’s destruction will be
repaired just as a broken glass can be repaired by melting under the glazier’s
fire. G‑d’s marriage with the Jewish people will be unbroken, as will the
marriage of these children of G‑d to one another.
Rabbi Bachya traces this custom, as so many other marriage
customs, to the revelation on Sinai. What joy is greater than the wedding, in
the private lives of this bride and groom? What joy is greater in the religious
lives of the people Israel than the simchat Torah, the exquisite moment
at Sinai? At Sinai, there was the tragic breaking of the tablets of the
commandments at the foot of the mountain; at the wedding simchah there is
a symbolic breaking of the glass under foot. Every new family helps repair the
breach at Sinai—the breaking, in joy, at every wedding overcomes the breaking of
Contemporary preachers have suggested new meanings for this
closing ceremony. The fasting in repentance before the wedding and the
purification from the stains of the past in the mikveh is symbolized in
the crushing of the glass, which represents a final, dramatic breaking with the
past. A full life is the cup from which we drink. It is a "cup of blessing," one
which we use to celebrate Sabbaths and festivals. A life that is filled to the
brim with meaning is the life for which we strive.