There’s an old saying that if you ask two Jews a question, you’ll get three answers. And if you ask two rabbis why the groom breaks a glass at the end of a Jewish wedding, you will get even more answers.
At one of our recent book talks, we were discussing minhag – that is, a Jewish custom that is not mentioned in the Torah or mandated by law but nonetheless is followed. Sometimes, the reasons behind the tradition are lost through the ages. Examples of minhag include serving a round challah (rather than the usual oblong shape) on Rosh Hashanah and naming a child after a deceased relative. Even the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a matter of minhag rather than Jewish law.
That’s when an audience member asked, “Why do we break a glass at the end of a wedding?” That’s a good question . . .
The first mention of shattered glass at a wedding appears in the Talmud: A rabbi was celebrating the marriage feast of his son, and the guests were getting too rowdy. The rabbi seized an expensive goblet (some say it was worth 400 zuzim –coincidentally the same unit of currency mentioned in Had Gadya, where the goat was bought for two zuzim, or half a shekel). He held it high above the fray and then smashed it – to sober up the crowd. The tradition stuck, and modern rabbis still remind guests that amidst all the rejoicing there should be solemnity. Or, as Austin Powers says, “Oh, behave yourself.”
From the dozens of explanations for the groom smashing the glass, we narrowed down the list to our six favorites:
1. In those dark medieval times, making a loud noise was always a good way to frighten away demons. Everyone knows that demons are attracted by something beautiful (a bride) or good fortune (a wedding.) So tell those demons not to give you a kine-ahora, and then break a glass and make some noise to make sure they’re listening.
2. Diamant writes that in the Middle Ages, German synagogues were constructed with a special stone against which the glass would be smashed. Around this time, the interpretation of the custom changed to include that the smashing of the glass should serve as a reminder of the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. This explanation is commonly given today.
3. Many rabbis say that the shattering of the glass is to remind the couple of the fragility of marriage. They should treat each other kindly and always be careful –lest a relationship shatter.
4. Other people say that in the midst of great joy, if something has to go wrong, let it be something minor like the breaking of a glass. In fact, let’s head off the whole “something’s bound to go wrong” thing and break this glass just to be sure.
5. Of course, there’s one explanation with a hidden sexual meaning, a hint that the bride will lose her virginity in the coming marriage. The breaking of the glass is symbolic of the breaking of the bride’s hymen. That’s why the groom is supposed to “do it.”
6. The breaking of the glass follows the recitation of the Sheva Brachot, the seven marriage blessings, which conclude the religious part of the ceremony. Some say it is the signal to the witnesses that the marriage is complete! Time to get a glass of wine and find the waiter with the hors d’ouevres.
Given all these connotations, it’s important for the groom to successfully shatter the glass. That’s why so many couples use a light bulb instead of a sturdy wine glass. A light bulb is practically guaranteed to shatter. What ever you choose, you can wrap it in a napkin or buy a special velvet bag to save the shards.
If you are a really organized bride, you can plan ahead and order a delicate, glass cup (available in many colors) that’s not only easy to shatter but leaves you with some attractive shards that you can save to incorporate into a mezuzah. Several websites, including traditionsjewishgifts.com offer this service.
We’ve both been married for so long that the breaking of the glass is just a happy memory. Back in the day, it didn’t occur to us to save the shards and transform them into an artwork. Now when we break a glass in the kitchen, we don’t think of the ancient Temple, we just say “Oy” and go get the broom before anyone walks in.