The Real Reason

In Jewish weddings, after the bride is given her ring, tradition holds that the groom must break a glass. He’s supposed to stamp on it, so–as the explanation goes– a cloth is draped over the goblet so shards don’t go flying. Many modern weddings substitute a light-bulb. (What happens when incandescent bulbs are gone?) After this much-anticipated moment, all the guests and family members shout, “Mazel Tov!”

Shattering a glass, even cut crystal, isn’t easy, especially if the guy is wearing patent-leather dress shoes and the target is covered with fresh linen. It’s a nerve-wracking moment for a groom. There’s a lot of pressure to get this right; surely a kind of performance anxiety.

Which isn’t a bad analogy. Because there is one real reason why the glass is broken at Jewish weddings, and vases and dishes are smashed at traditional Italian weddings. It’s so obvious, that all the squirming the rabbis have done over the last two-thousand years trying to find “serious” explanations makes me laugh.

The breaking glass is supposed to symbolize the tragic destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. Some couples apparently recite appropriate Biblical verse. But that seems such a solemn memorial for a wedding; there is an actual Jewish holiday to mourn the destruction of both Temples. Centuries ago, some rabbis tried to reconcile the ritual and the explanation by ordering the celebrants at weddings to stop shouting “Mazel Tov!” Like anyone listened to that.

Another Talmudic story explains, breaking the glass reminds the couple that there are sorrows as well as joys in life. There they are, side by side under the chuppah (the wedding canopy), hopefully totally besotted with joy, and the new husband needs to smash a wine goblet under his heel to remind them that marriage is a life-long commitment through thick and thin. It’s a pretty story. And satisfies most modern families. But really, how does this highly stylized, determined moment of force, executed by the groom, signify a warning, especially–again–with everyone shouting “Good Luck!” at the moment of its successful completion?

Maybe the shards of glass can be counted, and represent the number of years they’ll be married, or the number of children they’ll “beget.” But I’ve never heard about or seen anyone rushing to count sharp pieces of broken glass, and how does a popped light-bulb help?

Mystics–as in Kabbalists or some of the Chabad Hasids–hover closer to the truth. They believe that the breaking of the glass represents change; the moment of change from one status to another. Woman and Man become a married couple, and enter their community as a new whole. Except, wait a minute, if the glass is shattered into umpteen pieces, how does that represent a new whole? The drinking vessel has certainly entered a new state of being–it’s broken, and can no longer carry wine or water to thirsty lips.

Modern rabbis often take the most twisted and winding road trying to offer insight. “The glass breaks apart just as you were broken apart as single people but then you come together as a couple,” or, “The splitting of the glass represents the splitting of your souls, that are united now in marriage….” It’s surprising how many modern interpretations read like this. But no, I don’t think so. The groom is required, after slipping the ring on his bride’s finger and before he can do another thing, to destroy a glass under his polished footwear. To any logical observer, this does not represent “coming together” but something being broken or pushed apart.

I imagine a number of people who ever thought about this custom have suspected the truth. Dismissed as dastardly “anthropological primitivism” or far worse, “feminism,” the ancient paradigm behind all modern cultural versions of the wedding-day destruction of glass or ceramics is female sex. More pointedly, the bride’s individuality and sexuality. Which of course, no modern patriarchal religion can admit.

The breaking of the virgin. The breaking of the hymen. The smashing of the independent girl, the crystal cup filled with sweet wine; the groom signifies what his penis plans to do during the wedding night by treading on that goblet covered by a white linen cloth. Up until relatively recent times, a Jewish girl didn’t chose her own husband, and she was supposed to be “intact” when she got married. This is the real reason everyone shouts “Mazel Tov!” (the unconscious euphoria of sexual tension filling their thoughts) at the sound of that stomp and cracking, splintering glass.



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Rivka Jacobs

Rivka Jacobs

Rivka Jacobs

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