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.

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