Category Archives: Personal Development

Why Break a Glass at a Jewish Wedding?

‘Jewish Wedding’ by Jozef Israëls (1824-1911)

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, we find the verse that is traditionally used as the source for the mitzvah of marriage (Deuteronomy 24:1). One of the most famous and salient features of the Jewish wedding ceremony is the breaking of the glass. Where did this custom come from, and what does it mean?

The first and most common answer is that it is meant to symbolize the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. As much as the wedding is an extremely joyous occasion, we must not forget that we are still in exile mode, and the world is far from where it needs to be. The verses recited by the groom before breaking the glass remind us of this: “If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [its skill]. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not; if I not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy.” (Psalms 137:5-6)

Exactly when this custom began is not clear. The earliest known reference to breaking a glass at a wedding does come from the Talmud (Berakhot 30b-31a), though for a different reason:

Mar, the son of Ravina, made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious. Rav Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious.

When their wedding parties were getting a little out of control, Mar and Rav Ashi both broke very precious cups to shock everyone back into seriousness. (Keep in mind that 200 zuz was roughly a year’s worth of basic expenses back then, so Mar’s 400 zuz cup was worth the equivalent of thousands of dollars.) Although the Talmud doesn’t explicitly mention commemorating the Temple here, the connection can be deduced from the very next passage on that page:

Rav Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: It is forbidden for a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world, as it says, “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter and our tongues with singing.” [Psalms 126:2] When will then be? At the time when “they shall say among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things with these’.” [Psalms 126:3] It was related of Resh Lakish that he never again filled his mouth with laughter in this world after he heard this saying from Rav Yochanan his teacher.

In other words, once the Temple was destroyed, it was considered inappropriate for one to be in a totally joyous state. Only when the Temple is rebuilt will we be able to completely “fill our mouths” with laughter, as the verses in Psalm 126 imply. Therefore, during a wedding—that most happiest of occasions—we break a glass to remember that no joy is complete until the Temple is rebuilt. While this is the simple reason for breaking the glass, there are far deeper meanings behind it.

Why Glass?

Of all the ways that one might “shock” people into commemorating the Temple, and of all the things that one could choose to shatter, why is it glass in particular? One possible answer is that glass is a unique substance, as discussed by the Sages in the Talmud (Shabbat 15b-16a). They say that because glass is made from sand, it should have the same status as earthenware, which is capable of receiving impurity, and must be shattered in that case. However, the Rabbis point out that glass can be purified in a mikveh, while earthenware cannot be. They then state that because glass can be melted and reformed (while earthenware cannot be), glass vessels are actually more similar to metal vessels.

The discussion gets even more complicated because the shape of the vessels plays a role, too. The Sages then state that metal is capable of impurity on a Torah level, while earlier they state that glass is not capable of impurity on a Torah level, but only on a Rabbinic level. In other words, glass was originally a pure substance, until the Sages found it necessary to declare glass should be treated as if it can contract impurity. However, glass can be purified in a mikveh, and can also be melted and remade into a new, pure substance. What does all of this have to do with a wedding?

A couple standing under the chuppah should think of their marriage as a glass vessel. It is not an earthenware vessel, which must be permanently shattered if it takes on any impurity. It is not a metal vessel, which contracts impurities very easily. Rather, the marriage should be like a glass vessel, which remains pure (on a Torah level), and should always be kept pure (on a Rabbinic level), and which can be easily re-purified if necessary. Even when the vessel appears to be completely shattered into a thousand pieces, hope is not lost. It can be melted and reformed, and remade as good as new.

The Glassblower Analogy

The fact that glass remains pure on a “Torah level” suggests that a marriage, too, can only remain pure when it is based on Torah values. After all, the whole concept of marriage comes from the Torah! A marriage cannot prosper and flourish in the long-term without an infusion of spirituality. This is reminiscent of the old “glassblower analogy” used by the Jewish mystics to explain the interplay between the three lower souls of a Jew: the nefesh, ruach, and neshamah (for a complete explanation of these, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan describes it as follows:

“God formed man out of the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils a breath of life.” [Genesis 2:7] This is likened to the process of blowing glass, which begins with the breath (neshima) of the glassblower, flows as a wind (ruach) through the glassblowing pipe, and finally comes to rest (nefesh) in the vessel that is being formed.

In other words, one’s neshamah is like the Breath of God, filling, forming and giving life to the body. That breath is what expands the glass vessel from a hot, molten mass and gives it a beautiful form. Similarly, a marriage needs to be filled with the Breath of God and infused with spirituality, otherwise it will simply cool and harden into an ugly, amorphous lump.

It is important to remember that marriage is entirely a spiritual thing. Animals do not get married, and our “closest” mammal relatives are not monogamous in any way. The concept of marriage comes from the very first chapters of the Torah, where God divides man into two halves and commands them to reunite as one. It is a reunion of soulmates. Without soul, a marriage is little more than two animals coming together to procreate.

In a world that is so physical and materialistic, where children are taught from a young age that they are just hairless apes and that life has no ultimate purpose, it isn’t surprising why so many marriages fail. In fact, marriage rates are down all over the world. In 1967, some 70% of American adults were married. Now that number is only around 50%, and falling fast.

In an increasingly material world, young people no longer see a point to getting married, or find that it isn’t economically viable to do so. That makes sense, because without soul a marriage is completely illogical, and contrary to our animal nature. This is why making a marriage work is very much supernatural. It requires overcoming that animal nature and rising to a higher spiritual—human—level. And within that lies the potential to repair the entire spiritual cosmos.

Shattering of the Vessels

The Zohar (I, 85b) states:

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.

A good marriage must have a strong spiritual foundation. A couple needs to understand that they are one soul, a soul that is an emissary of God in this world. As such, the purpose of this unified soul is to maximize mitzvot and bring more godliness into the world. In fact, the mystics state that within a marriage lies the power to rectify all of Creation.

Though he was certainly not the first to discuss it, the Kabbalah of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzhak Luria, 1534-1572) is primarily based on the concept of Shevirat haKelim, the “Shattering of the Vessels”. In the simplest of terms, when God created this universe He originally put together a totally perfect world, with ten wholesome “vessels” (the Ten Sefirot) holding it together. They couldn’t contain the Divine Light, and shattered into pieces. There were 288 major pieces, alluded to by the words “and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The word “hovered”, merachepet (מרחפת), is an anagram of met rapach (מת רפ״ח), “‘death’ of the 288”. Since then, our spiritual purpose is to repair these pieces and place them back in their rightful spot. In this way, they are like a glass vessel that is shattered and then repaired and reformed into a perfectly new vessel through an infusion of spirit.

Adam and Eve were the first to have the chance to put the whole vessel back together. This is why the Torah begins with that all-important narrative, so horribly misunderstood in our days. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve failed to realize that goal—the deeper meaning behind their consumption of the “Forbidden Fruit”. Like them, every Adam and Eve—every married couple—has an opportunity to affect the same tikkun. And that begins, on the simplest level, with establishing a wholesome union, and a happy, holy, and healthy home.

Think about it: if everyone grew up in such a home, would there still be evil in the world? If a child grows up in a healthy home, with good values, with loving parents that set an example of righteousness and holiness, will they turn to evil in adulthood? It is highly unlikely. The primary reason that there are broken people in this world is because there are broken homes. It should be mentioned that sometimes a person does come from a good home, but is corrupted by someone else from a broken home. Whatever the case, as the old Jewish saying goes, “it all comes from the home”.

This is the real meaning behind shattering the glass on a wedding. It is to remind the couple that they have an immensely important task ahead. Within them lies the power to rectify all of Creation. They shouldn’t forget that they are one soul that comes to this world on a great cosmic mission. They shouldn’t forget that marriage is an entirely spiritual institution, and requires a supernatural effort. And when, occasionally, that fails, they shouldn’t forget that just like a shattered glass vessel, the pieces can be regathered, melted, and reformed into a perfectly pure vessel, as good as new. Sometimes, like with the glass vessel, all it takes is one gentle infusion of soul.

On That Controversial Blessing of “Not Making Me a Woman”

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the five daughters of Tzlafchad, named Machlah, Noa, Chaglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. After the partitioning of the Land of Israel, the daughters approached Moses with a complaint. Because their family only has girls, and no boys, the daughters worried about what would happen to their father’s land and inheritance. Moses took the case up to God, who answered that daughters are able to inherit just as sons are in such situations. This is one example in the Torah of what might today be described as “gender equality”. The Torah (and Judaism more broadly) is sometimes criticized for its apparent gender inequality. One of the most common points of contention today is that blessing in Birkot HaShachar where men thank God for “not making me a woman”. Traditionally, women recite the blessing that thanks God “for making me kirtzono”, loosely translated as “like His will” Where did these blessings come from and what do they really mean?

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Iyar: The Month of Healing Marriages

This week (in the diaspora) we read the parasha of Kedoshim, literally “holy”. The name of the parasha is particularly significant, for although observing the entire Torah makes us holy, it is the laws of this parasha specifically that truly distinguish a holy person from the rest. This includes one of the most difficult mitzvot to fulfil: loving your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). It also includes honouring one’s parents (19:3 and 20:9), another one which our Sages describe as among the hardest to fulfil (Kiddushin 31b). Then there’s the mitzvah of not gossiping, which the Talmud holds to be the one transgression that everyone is guilty of to some extent (Bava Batra 165a). Several times in the parasha God reminds us to carefully observe Shabbat, which has so many halachic intricacies that it, too, is among the hardest mitzvot to fulfil properly.

Finally, towards the end of the parasha there is a long list of sexual prohibitions. Rashi comments (on Leviticus 19:2) that when God tells us to be kedoshim, “holy”, He is specifically referring to sexual purity. One can never be holy as long as they engage in any kind of sexually immoral behaviour. It should be noted that sexual purity does not mean celibacy. Unlike in some other religions and cultures, Judaism does not find sexual intimacy inherently sinful. On the contrary, when it is done between a loving couple in a kosher, monogamous union, then it is a holy act.

The classic Jewish text on sexual intimacy is Iggeret haKodesh, “the Holy Letter”. There we read how kosher sexual intimacy has the power to bring down the Shekhinah, God’s Divine Presence, “in the mystery of the Cherubs”. Interestingly, one of the Scriptural proofs for this is Jeremiah 1:5, where God says that before the prophet Jeremiah was born, and before he was even conceived, he was “sanctified” (hikdashticha) by God. An alternate way of reading this verse is that the act leading to conception is itself sanctified. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) added that at the climax of sexual intimacy, a couple “shines with the light of Ain Sof”, God’s Infinite Eminence (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Kohelet).

Needless to say, to attain such a level requires that the couple is totally unified spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It requires true love, going in both directions. This can be illustrated mathematically, where the gematria of love, “ahava” (אהבה), is 13, and when it flows both ways, 13 and 13 makes 26, the value of God’s Ineffable Name.

In our three-dimensional (x, y, z) universe, everything has six faces or sides.

Deeper still, the male and female are represented by the letters Vav and Zayin in the holy Hebrew alphabet. The letter vav has a phallic shape, and literally means a “hook” or “connection”, while zayin is a vav with a crown on top, since the woman is described as the “crown” of her husband (עטרת בעלה, as in Proverbs 12:4). Vav has a numerical value of six, and zayin follows with seven. Six is a number that represents the physical dimension, since all things in this three-dimensional world have six sides. The seventh is what’s inside that three-dimensional space, and therefore represents the inner, spiritual dimension. Naturally, this corresponds to the physical six days of the week and the spiritual Sabbath. And it relates to the male, represented by the physical six, and the female of the spiritual seventh.

The shapes of the letters vav, zayin, and chet (right to left), according to the ktav of the Arizal. 

The eighth is what transcends the three-dimensional space entirely. Eight represents infinity, and it is no coincidence that the international symbol for infinity is a sideways eight. In the Hebrew alphabet, the eight is the letter Chet. This letter represents the Chuppah, “marriage canopy”, of the vav (male) and zayin (female). If you look closely, the shape of the letter chet is actually a chuppah, and underneath it stand a vav and zayin, male and female.* Under the chuppah, their eternal, infinite (eighth) bond is forged. The vav and zayin combine into one, and when six and seven combine, they once more make 13, ahava, love.

(As a brief aside, the letter that follows in the alphabet is Tet, in the shape of a “pregnant” zayin, and with a numerical value of nine to represent the nine months of pregnancy.)

The Healing Power of Iyar

The parasha of Kedoshim teaches us that the greatest mark of holiness is sexual purity, especially a pure relationship between husband and wife. It isn’t a coincidence that this parasha is always read at the start of the month of Iyar, or in the Shabbat immediately preceding it (when we bless the month of Iyar). Our Sages teach us that Iyar (איר or אייר) is a month of healing, and stands for Ani Adonai Rofecha, “I am God, your Healer” (Exodus 15:26). There is even an old Kabbalistic custom to drink the first rain of the month of Iyar, for it is said to have healing properties.

For the Israelites that came out of Egypt, Iyar was a month of healing from their horrible past in servitude. It was in this month in particular that they were preparing for their meeting with God at Mt. Sinai. More accurately, it was not a meeting but a wedding, for the Divine Revelation at Sinai is always described as a marriage, with the mountain itself serving as the chuppah. This is the essence of the Sefirat haOmer period in which we are in, when we count the days in anticipation of our spiritual “wedding”, and spend each day focused on rectifying and healing a particular inner trait.

Just as this month is an opportune time to mend one’s relationship with God, it is an equally opportune time to mend one’s relationships with his or her significant other. Fittingly, the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) wrote in his glosses to the Shulkhan Aruch that a divorce shouldn’t be done in the month of Iyar! (Even HaEzer 126:7) The reason for this is based on an intriguing legal technicality:

A bill of divorce (get), just like a marriage contract (ketubah) must be incredibly precise in its language. A tiny spelling error might invalidate the entire document. Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) was especially well-known for going through countless such contracts and repairing them, especially when it comes to the spelling of names. He was an expert in transliterating non-Hebrew names into their proper Hebrew spelling to ensure the validity of the marriage (or divorce) contract.

The same is true for spelling the other parts of the document, including the date. The problem with Iyar is that it has two spellings: איר and אייר. No one is quite sure which is more accurate. Though some say it doesn’t really make a difference how you spell Iyar, the Rema maintained that it is simply better to avoid getting divorced in Iyar altogether. When we remember that Iyar is the time for sanctifying ourselves, the time to focus on becoming kedoshim, and what that really means, we can understand the Rema on a far deeper level.

Embrace Your Other Half

The fact that the root of the problem is just one extra yud in the word “Iyar” is quite appropriate. The previously-mentioned Iggeret HaKodesh presents a classic Jewish teaching about man, “ish” (איש), and woman, “ishah” (אשה): The difference between these words is a yud and hei, letters that represent God’s Name. The similarity between them is aleph and shin, letters that spell esh, “fire”. The Iggeret HaKodesh states that when one removes the Godliness and spirituality out of a couple, all that’s left is dangerous fire. For a marriage to succeed, it is vital to keep it infused with spirituality. A purely physical, materialistic relationship built on lust, or chemistry, or socio-economic convenience is unlikely to flourish.

We further learn from the above that a couple must embrace each other’s differences (the yud and the hei). One of the most frustrating things in relationships is that men and women tend to view and experience things differently. In general, any two people will view and experience the same thing differently, and it is all the more difficult when the two are building a life together. It is important to remember that it is good to be different, to have alternate viewpoints, perspectives, and opinions. We should not be frustrated by this, but embrace it and use it to our advantage.

On that note, the Torah tells us that God made Eve to be an ezer k’negdo for Adam, an “opposing helper”. More accurately, our Sages teach us that Adam was originally a singular human with both male and female parts (Beresheet Rabbah 8:1). Only afterwards did God split this human into separate male and female bodies. (This is one reason why the Torah seemingly describes the creation of man twice, in Chapter 1 and 2 of Genesis.) So, when the Torah speaks of an ezer k’negdo following the “split” of Adam, it really refers to both husband and wife. Each is a helper opposite their spouse. The term k’negdo is of great importance, for it implies that men and women are inherently different, opposites, and it is because we are opposites that we can truly help each other. There wouldn’t be much use to being exactly the same.

Fulfilling the Mitzvah of “Love Your Fellow”

From the Torah’s description of the creation of the first couple, we can extract a few essential tips for a healthy marriage. One verse in particular stands out: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) First, it is critical to keep the parents and in-laws out of the relationship. Second, husband and wife must “cleave” unto each other—spend plenty of time together, and as is commonly said, to never stop “dating”. Third, they shall be “one flesh”; one body and soul. It is vital to understand that husband and wife are a singular unit. In fact, the Talmud states that an unmarried person is not considered a “person” at all, since they are still missing their other half (Yevamot 63a). Each half should keep in mind that their spouse’s needs are their own needs. And each spouse should always have in mind not what they can get out of the other, but what they can give.

Of course, being one means loving each other as one. The Talmud famously states that a man should love his wife as much as himself, and honour her more than himself (Yevamot 62b). We can certainly apply this in reverse as well, for a wife should similarly love her husband as much as herself, and honour him more. That brings us back to the most prominent verse in this week’s parasha: “love your fellow as yourself”. In Hebrew, it says v’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha, where “fellow” is not quite the best translation. In the preceding verse, the Torah says “your brother” (achikha) and “your friend” (amitekha). What is re’akha (רֵעֲךָ)?

In the Song of Songs, King Solomon’s intimate Biblical poem, he constantly uses the term ra’ayati (רַעְיָתִי) to refer to his beloved. This is the same term used in the sixth blessing of the Sheva Berachot recited under the chuppah and during a newlyweds’ first week of marriage: sameach tesamach re’im (רֵעִים) ha’ahuvim. The newlyweds are referred to as “fellows” in love. So, while it might be a tall order to love everyone like ourselves, we can certainly at least love our spouses this way. And that might be all it takes to fulfill the mitzvah.

Our Sages teach that the month of Iyar which we have just begun is a time for healing, and we have suggested here that is a particularly auspicious time for healing marriages. As it turns out, those two may be one and the same. In one of the longest scientific studies ever conducted, researchers at Harvard University tracked the lives and wellbeing of families for nearly a century. The conclusion: the single greatest factor in ensuring healthy and happy lives (or not) was marriage. Statistically speaking, those couples that had the best relationships tended to live the happiest and healthiest lives.

Our Sages left one last hint for us to make the connection between the month of Iyar and the Sefirat haOmer period with the necessity of building healthy marriages: It is on that very same page of Talmud cited above (Yevamot 62b) that the Sages tell us about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the Omer period—in the month of Iyar. In fact, the very next passage after the Omer one deals with marriages, and begins: “A man who has no wife has no joy, no blessing, and no goodness…”

‘Jewish Wedding’ by Jozef Israëls (1824-1911)


*This is the way a chet is written according to Kabbalah, as explained by the Arizal. However, in most cases (especially in Ashkenazi tradition) a chet is written as two zayins.