Tag Archives: Arizal

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.

How Korach Was Rectified in Samuel

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion instigated by Moses’ Levite cousin Korach. Korach’s main accusation was against Aaron and the Kohanim: why did they tale all the priestly services for themselves and left nothing for the lay Israelite? Had not God stated that all of Israel will be a holy nation of kohanim? (Exodus 19:6) Why did only a small group of people (Aaron and his descendants) suddenly become kohanim? His argument was actually a valid one, and Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) records that Moses even agreed with Korach to some extent, and said that he too wishes that all of Israel could be priests! Why weren’t they?

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The 24 Ornaments of a Bride and Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read the command to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t explicitly say why we should do this. The Zohar (III, 97b) comments on the parasha that when the Torah says to count sheva shabbatot temimot (“seven complete [or pure] weeks”) there is a hint in there that we are supposed to become tamim, “pure”.  The point is to purify ourselves over these seven weeks in preparation for the great revelation at Sinai which took place on Shavuot. The Sages always describe the Sinai Revelation as a wedding between God and His people. In fact, the Zohar compares the counting of the seven weeks to a woman’s counting of seven “clean days” following menstruation and before immersing in the mikveh, after which she can reunite with her husband.

On the next page, the Zohar goes on to describe the “wedding”, where God is the “groom” and the Jewish people are the “bride”. The Zohar alludes to an ancient teaching that a bride should be adorned with 24 ornaments on her wedding day. This actually goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God made Eve and adorned her with 24 ornaments before her marriage to Adam. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 18:1) brings Scriptural proof for this, citing Ezekiel 28:13, which says:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby [odem], the topaz [pitdah], and the diamond [yahalom], the beryl [tarshish], the onyx [shoham], and the jasper [yashfe], the sapphire [sapir], the carbuncle [nofech], and the emerald [varkat or bareket], and gold [zahav]; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared.

If we count the precious stones and metals in the verse, we find only ten, not 24. However, one of the minor principles of Torah interpretation is when a general statement is introduced followed by a specific list, the general statement both includes the specific list, and adds to it (כְּלַל וּפְרַט, עָשָׂה אֶת הַכְּלַל מוֹסֶפֶת לַפְּרַט). So, since the verse begins with a general statement (“every precious stone”) and then goes on to list ten precious materials, we actually learn from this that there was a total of twenty precious materials. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish held that one should also add “every precious stone” as a special stone of its own, meaning there were eleven stones, and since we double that, we have a total of 22. Plus, the verse goes on to speak of “your settings and your sockets”, bringing us to a total of 24 ornaments!

Alternatively, there is another Scriptural verse which brings us the 24 ornaments more simply and directly (though without mentioning Eden), listing explicitly what each specific piece of jewellery was. This is Isaiah 3:17-23, which says how the daughters of Zion were adorned with

…the anklets [‘achasim], and the ribbons [shvisim], and the crescents [saharonim]; the pendants [netifot], and the bracelets [sheyrot], and the veils [ra’alot]; the headdresses [pe’erim], and the armlets [tza’adot], and the sashes [kishurim], and the corselettes [batei hanefesh], and the amulets [lehashim]; the rings [taba’ot], and the nose-rings [nizmei ha’af]; the aprons [mahalatzot], and the shawls [ma’atafot], and the hair-coverings [mitpachot], and the girdles [charitim]; and the robes [gilyonim], and the fine linen [sadinim], and the headscarves [tzenifot], and the mantles [redimim]…

A count of these brings us 21. In addition, the verse that follows speaks of perfume [bosem], a belt [chagorah], and hair curls [petigil], giving us a total of 24 ornaments.

Elijah confronts the priests on Mount Carmel

Kabbalistically, these 24 ornaments have tremendous meaning. The sefirah of Chessed, which represents love and kindness, has three inner states, each of which is made up of 24 parts. (The gematria of Chessed [חסד] is 72, and dividing that number by three gives us 24.) This is why Eliyahu poured an extra three measures of water (water being Chessed) on his altar when he went head-to-head with the idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18). The altar which he built was actually made up of precious stones, too (I Kings 18:31-32), and then he had water poured from a jug called a kad (18:34). The gematria of kad (כד) is, as we might expect, 24.

That word is the exact same used when the Torah introduces Rebecca: “And it came to pass, before [Eliezer] had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out… with her jug [kadah] upon her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:15). Kabbalistically, Rebecca is the embodiment of Chessed (see Zohar I, 137a) and she graciously provides water for Eliezer and all of his camels. Eliezer realizes that she is the perfect one for Isaac, and immediately proceeds to adorn her with all kinds of jewellery: “And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden nose-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold…” (Genesis 24:22) After the marriage was arranged, Eliezer gave the soon-to-be bride even more jewellery: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca…”

If one looks carefully at these verses in Genesis 24 (not a coincidental number), and applies the classic rules of interpretation, they will find that Eliezer also brought for Rebecca 24 ornaments in preparation for her wedding! Rebecca went on to marry Isaac, and they had the purest love of all the forefathers and figures in the Torah. In fact, the first time that the Torah describes a husband loving his wife is with Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:67). This is one reason why there was an old custom to adorn a Jewish bride with 24 ornaments. Alternatively, a husband may fulfil this special segulah by purchasing 24 adornments or pieces of jewellery for his wife—not necessarily all at once! (It is especially good to get white gold, since it is symbolic of Chessed, while yellow gold is the opposite, Gevurah.)

24 Ornaments of the Jewish People

If a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments, and the Jewish people were God’s “bride” at Sinai on Shavuot, what were our 24 ornaments? The Kabbalists teach us that these are the 24 books of the Tanakh! The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343, on Exodus 31:18) comments that every Torah scholar is adorned with these 24 books just as a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments. And this is why, the Zohar states, one should stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah, especially the 24 books of the Tanakh (Zohar I, 8a; though in Zohar III, 98a there is an alternate suggestion to study the Oral Torah at night and the Tanakh in the day). In so doing, one is spiritually adorning himself in preparation for the wedding (as well as adorning the Shekhinah herself).

Today, it has become the norm in all synagogues and yeshivas around the world for everyone to stay up all night and learn Torah, as the Zohar instructs. This practice was initially popularized by the kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. The earliest reference to a tikkun leil Shavuot, a fixed text of study for the night of Shavuot, comes from a letter of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576), most famous for composing Lecha Dodi. He was born to a Sephardic family in Thessaloniki, or Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire, now the second largest city in Greece).

In 1533, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) settled in Salonica (he was born in Toledo, Spain before the Expulsion), and the two became close. One Shavuot night, they stayed up together studying Torah as the Zohar states. (In addition to Tanakh, they learned a little bit of Mishnah). Suddenly, the Shekhinah filled Rabbi Karo and spoke out of his mouth! Such revelations would continue for most of his life, and are recorded in his book, Maggid Mesharim. On that Shavuot night, the Shekhinah revealed many secrets and instructions. Among other things, She instructed the pair to move to Israel. In 1535, they did so and settled in Tzfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism.

In Tzfat, the pair would meet the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who later married the sister of Rabbi Alkabetz. When he was twenty years old, the Ramak heard a Heavenly Voice instructing him to seek out Rabbi Alkabetz and learn Kabbalah with him. He did so, and went on to become the preeminent Kabbalist of Tzfat. He was succeeded in the position by the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572).

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) went on to publish the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish Law. Interestingly, he did not write anything about a tikkun leil Shavuot in the Code. He believed that it was a practice for Jewish mystics, not for the average Jew. Nonetheless, the custom spread very quickly, first in Tzfat, then across all of Israel. When the Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1555-1630), who was born in Prague, moved to Israel in 1626 he wrote how all the Jews living in the Holy Land stay up all night on Shavuot. The Shelah put together a text of study of his own for the night of Shavuot. In addition to portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, he added the first and last verse of every Mishnaic tractate, and the first and last verse of Sefer Yetzirah, along with the Zohar passage from this week’s parasha with which we began, and a recitation of the 613 mitzvot.

In the ensuing centuries, the custom spread further across the entire Jewish world. Various other tikkun texts have arisen over that time. Today, it is normal for many synagogues not to follow any tikkun at all, but simply to have lectures on different topics by multiple speakers, or to learn whatever Torah text people wish, and this is appropriate as well. Having said that, the original Kabbalistic way—as suggested in the Zohar, practiced by the early Tzfat mystics, and affixed by the Arizal—is to study specific portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, together with mystical commentaries on them. (This is the version we used in our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which has the proper text of study in both Hebrew and English, along with commentaries from the Zohar and Arizal.)

Rectifying Sinai and Purifying Our Souls

On a simple level, the word tikkun may refer to a “fixed” text of Torah, such as that which a ba’al kore uses to study the weekly parasha before reading it publicly in the synagogue. On a mystical level, “tikkun” refers to a spiritual rectification. When it comes to tikkun leil Shavuot, it is commonly taught that staying up all night in study is a spiritual rectification for what happened at Sinai over three millennia ago. At that time, the people had fallen asleep before God’s great revelation. Though some say they slept so that they would have energy to witness the tremendous event, others state that they were wrong to fall asleep so casually the night before the biggest day of their lives. Would a bride sleep so soundly the night before her wedding? Therefore, when we stay up all night on Shavuot, we are spiritually rectifying the mistake that the Jewish people made.

If we delve a little deeper, we might find an even greater tikkun on the night of Shavuot. The Talmud (Shabbat 146a) tells us: “When the Serpent came upon Eve, it infused in her a spiritual contamination [zuhama]. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the zuhama was removed.” Eve was the first to be decorated with 24 ornaments in the Garden of Eden, but then fell from grace and was spiritually contaminated. In a cosmic rectification, the Jewish people were “decorated” with 24 books of the Tanakh on Shavuot, and that impurity was removed. Each year since, we have a tremendous opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our own spiritual impurities on this special night, by immersing ourselves in the purifying words of our holy books.