What’s the Truth About…Breaking a Glass at a Wedding?

Misconception: A glass is broken at the end of the wedding ceremony zecher l’Churban—to remember the loss of the Beit Hamikdash.

Fact: The Gemara describes breaking an expensive glass during the wedding feast in order to instill an air of solemnity to the sacred event, and also records putting ashes on the groom’s head to remember the Churban. However, in subsequent years, the breaking of the glass, the timing of which has varying customs, took on the additional role of serving as a reminder of the Churban as well.

Background: One of the most iconic features in a Jewish wedding is the groom stomping on a glass, followed by joyous shouts of “mazal tov.” This nearly universal1 practice has an interesting history and symbolism.

Tosafot (Berachot 31a, s.v. ay’tei kasah) and the Gra (OC 560:2, s.v. v’yeish) suggest that two Talmudic stories (Berachot 30b-31a) are the source for breaking a glass at a wedding.2 In the course of discussing praying with the proper reverence, the Gemara (Berachot 30b-31a) emphasizes the need to temper joy with seriousness and cites two wedding-related stories. Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son, and when he noticed that the rabbis were excessively jovial, he brought a precious glass cup worth the huge sum of 400 zuz and shattered it in front of them and they became sad.3 Similarly, Rav Ashi made a wedding feast for his son, noticed the excessive levity and broke a white glass4 to make the mood somber.

Based on these sources, the breaking of a glass is for the purpose of maintaining a somewhat solemn demeanor in the midst of a joyous occasion. This is a fulfillment of the verse (Tehillim 2:11): “Ivdu et Hashem b’yirah, v’gilu bir’adah—Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling,” which the Gemara understands to mean, “In the place where there is rejoicing [e.g., a wedding], there should also be trembling.” Thus, it would seem, the breaking of the glass is unrelated to mourning for Jerusalem. Even as late as the thirteenth-century, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (Rokeach, sec. 353, 355) offers the Gemara’s reason for breaking a glass at a wedding, which has nothing to do with remembering the Temple.5

The Temple, however, is not to be forgotten at the pinnacle of happiness, a wedding. The Mishnah (Sotah 9:14 [49a]) describes a series of decrees, cited in Shulchan Aruch (OC 560:4), pertaining to the style of crown and jewelry that the bride and groom may wear as well as the kind of musical instruments that may be used at a wedding, all to ensure a consciousness of the lack of the Temple. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik says that because it is difficult to identify the exact ornaments listed in the Mishnah, the custom in some parts of Europe was for the bride and groom to not wear any jewelry at their wedding (Nefesh HaRav, p. 256; cf. Pitchei Teshuvah, EH 65:4 “standard” jewelry was worn). Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (Shoneh Halachot 560:7) takes a more lenient position, permitting a bride to wear certain kinds of jewelry, even if made of gold and silver.

In fulfillment of the verse (Tehillim 137:6), “If I do not place Jerusalem above my chief joy,” the Talmud (Bava Batra 60b) prescribes and the Rambam rules (Hilchot Ta’anit 5:13) that ashes be placed on the groom’s head on the spot where tefillin are worn.6 The Tur (Even Haezer 65), in the context of describing the great mitzvah of rejoicing with the chatan and kallah, writes that something should be done to remember the mourning of Yerushalayim. He mentions that in Ashkenaz the custom was to put ashes on the groom’s head in the place where the tefillin are worn, and in Sephard the custom was to place a crown made of olive branches on his head, because the olives’ bitterness evokes mourning. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 560:2; EH 65:2), who usually presents the Sephardic practice, says that one is obligated to place ashes on the chatan’s head. The Yemenite practice (Halichot Teiman, p. 139) was to place the ashes on the groom’s head before the chuppah while reciting Tehillim 137:5-6, a ritual described as evoking tears among the assembled.7 The Aruch Hashulchan (EH 65:5) states that one should place the ashes on the groom prior to the chuppah, and then immediately remove them. Rabbi Soloveitchik (Nefesh HaRav, p. 256) would not place the ashes on the groom’s head until after the chuppah, when he officially became a chatan. The Taz (OC 560:4) records that among some communities, a cantor would recite Tehillim (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .” [137:5-6]) and the groom would repeat after him word for word.8

Rabbi David ben Levi of Narbonne (late thirteenth century; Sefer Hamichtam, Berachot 30b [p. 54 in 5775 ed.]) says that a glass is broken at a wedding to instill sobriety, a requirement which, he notes, some say is only necessary at a time  when there is no Temple.9 Commenting on the Tur’s description of how to remember the Churban, both the Beit Yosef (EH 65) and the Prisha (65:6) cite the circa-fourteenth-century work Kolbo (62) as saying that since there was a great deal of laxity with regard to the mitzvah of tefillin,10 it would be inappropriate to put ashes in the spot where tefillin are worn. Instead, the custom developed to place a black cloth on the heads of both the bride and groom and to break a glass following the sheva berachot under the chuppah, zecher l’Churban. The Rema (OC 560:2; EH 65:3) describes similar customs. He adds that in Krakow, his hometown, the custom was to both use ashes and break a cup (Darkei Moshe, OC 560:2). Thus, while the breaking of the glass may not originally have been linked to mourning the Churban, the connection has been made over the years, with some commentators merging the two reasons.11

One of the most iconic features in a Jewish wedding is the groom stomping on a glass.

Other symbolic meanings have been associated with this ritual. Rabbi Solomon Luria (the Maharshal, d. 1573; Yam Shel Shlomo, Ketubot 1:17) notes many parallels between the “marriage” between God and the Jews at Sinai and a typical Jewish wedding.12 The breaking of the glass, he states, represents the breaking of the Luchot. While the Maharshal does not explain the reason for recalling the shattering of the Luchot specifically at a wedding, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains [Divrei HaRav, p. 229] based on a Midrash Tanchuma, that breaking a glass conveys a message to the young couple—just as the first Luchot, given with great pomp and ceremony, were not sustainable while the second set of tablets, given quietly, did last, marriage is based on a private relationship, hidden from public view, and not on the public wedding celebration.13

Non-Jews have commented on the ritual as well. In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), a non-Jewish physician and a signer of the US Declaration of Independence, attended a Jewish wedding in Philadelphia. In a letter to his wife, Rush wrote: “The groom after sipping the wine took the glass in his hand and threw it upon a large pewter dish which was … placed at his feet. Upon its breaking into a number of small pieces, there was a general shout of joy and a declaration that the ceremony was over. I asked the meaning . . . I was told . . . the breaking of the glass . . . was designed to teach them the brittleness and uncertainty of human life and the certainty of death, and thereby to temper and moderate their present joys” (Letters of Benjamin Rush, 1761-1792, edited by L. H. Butterfield [Princeton, New Jersey], p. 429-432).

Esoteric reasons are also given for the custom. Some view the ritual as a means of “appeasing” the sitra achra—the “other forces,” or demons, thereby warding off a potential ayin hara (evil eye) that might be present at such a happy occasion.14 If anything bad was destined to befall the couple, the shattering of the glass is meant to take its place (Minhag Yisrael Torah 4: 184-185, quoting fourteenth-century Recanti, Shoftim, s.v., vehayah [Devarim 20:2]; Rabbi Uri Feivel, Ohr Hachochmah, part II, Derush L’Chodesh Adar [p. 26 in 2016 ed.]).

While the custom of breaking a glass at a wedding is widespread, the details of the ritual are quite varied. In the Talmudic foundational story, one of the wedding guests breaks the glass. According to Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini (d. 1904), the Sdei Chemed (Ma’arechet zayin:12, p. 106), the practice in Eretz Yisrael in the late nineteenth century was, in fact, for one of the guests to break the glass. Nonetheless, the Rema writes that it is the chatan who breaks the glass, which is the custom most widely practiced today.

It is also standard today for the chatan to step on the glass.15 However, early sources describe the chatan throwing the vessel against a wall. In some communities, an “even chuppah,” a chuppah stone, in the outer wall of the shul was set aside for this purpose. The stone was appropriately decorated with a Star of David, a lion’s head, verses, or some other drawing, and it was against this stone that the glass vessel was hurled.16

The timing of the breakage also varied. The Gemara relates that the glass was broken during the wedding feast. The twelfth-century Machzor Vitry (470, 476) and the Rema (EH 65:3) describe breaking the cup at the end of the sheva berachot that conclude the chuppah ceremony, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4:EH:9) states that his custom is the same. Similarly, according to Maharam Mintz (fifteenth century; siman 109, p. 100a in 1851 ed.) the custom of his teachers was that after the sheva berachot were recited under the chuppah, the chatan would take the cup that had been used for kiddushin and smash it. However, an increasingly popular custom, mentioned in some Acharonim (e.g., Ben Ish Chai, year 1, Shoftim:11), is to break the glass after the kiddushin before the ketubah is read. Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Schick (1844-1916; Shu”t Rashban EH: 268) describes observing a Jerusalem wedding in 1905 where the cup was broken immediately after the Birkat Erusin, and he was told that such is the Jerusalem (Ashkenazic) custom.17

The overwhelming majority of sources describe breaking a vessel made of glass, as described in the Talmud. Notable exceptions are the Rema (Darkei Moshe, OC 560) and Ben Ish Chai (Shoftim:11), who relate that the local custom was to use a cup made of pottery. Many sources stipulate (see e.g., Peri Megadim Mishbetzot Zahav 560:4) that the vessel must be glass. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4:EH:9) points out that the gematria of “hachatan hakallah” is the same as “kli zechuchit” (523). Additionally, another reason for using glass specifically is that it alludes to the “groom’s gate.” Shlomo Hamelech made two gates in the Beit Hamikdash, one for chatanim, and one for mourners and for those who were excommunicated. According to tradition, the “groom’s gate”—where the masses would bless the grooms with “May the One Who dwells in this house gladden you with sons and daughters”—was made of white glass (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 17; Radal 17:70). Breaking the glass serves to remind the chatan that the groom’s gate and the Temple are still not rebuilt. A contemporary posek, Rabbi Pinchas Zvichi (b. 1960; Ateret Paz, 1:OC:15), criticizes wedding hall managers who provide chatanim with wrapped light bulbs18 to break. He asserts that a proper glass vessel be broken by the chatan so that a real sense of loss is felt.

Until recently, the custom was to break one of the cups used in the ceremony under the chuppah. Rabbi Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein (d. 1908; Aruch Hashulchan, EH 65:5) describes the chatan breaking the cup upon which Birkat Erusin was recited. In some locales, the cups would be shattered while still full of wine, while in others, the wine would be spilled out first (Minhag Yisrael Torah, vol. 4, p. 188). The first source in modern times to mention breaking a glass that was not used as part of the ceremony is the eighteenth-century Peri Megadim.

The Sdei Chemed laments miserly individuals who use a chipped or inexpensive glass. The Mishnah Berurah (560:9) states that one should use an intact cup and that there is no concern of bal tashchit, wanton destruction,19 because the act of breaking a glass serves an important purpose.

A widespread but much more recent (first mentioned in the seventeenth century) Ashkenazic custom entails having the mothers of the bride and groom break a plate at the signing of the tena’im, the pre-marriage document, an act which the Aruch Hashulchan (EH 50:26) views as the formal acceptance of the tena’im. The shattering of a plate is also intended to decrease the joy and serve as a zecher l’Churban. Since this is, however, a less popular custom, some recommend using an inexpensive or chipped plate to avoid any concern of bal tashchit (Sha’ar Hatziyun 560:20; Shoneh Halachot 560:6, both citing Peri Megadim). Rabbi Aharon Lewin (Birkat Aharon, Berachot, ma’amar 262:3) disagrees, maintaining that since the breakage is done for a purpose (zecher l’Churban), it does not constitute bal tashchit.

Various meanings have been assigned to the material from which the vessel is made. Rabbi Yisrael Chaim Friedman (Likutei Maharich, vol. 3, p. 129a) explains, in the name of the Rabbi Chaim Mi’Volozhin, that earthenware is broken at the tena’im because once broken it is irreparable, while glass is broken at the wedding because glass can be repaired. This is because, in his view, it is worse to break a tena’im than to divorce. The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot, Berachot 31a, s.v. kasa) says that like glass, man originates from earth and is destined to die and return to earth. The Tzlach adds that similar to glass that is repairable, when man is broken by sin he can be “fixed” with repentance.

One aspect of this custom that is widely criticized among halachic authorities is the incongruous shouting of “mazal tov” immediately following the breaking of the glass The Sdei Chemed (Asifat Dinin, Ma’arechet Zayin:12) lists breaking the glass at the time of the chuppah among the customs done zecher l’Churban. He then bemoans that the masses trample this custom and turn sorrow into joy because when the glass breaks, instead of feeling the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, wedding guests are full of laughter and mirth. He says if he had the ability to do so, he would abolish the custom.

Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (d. 1953; Mishpetei Uziel 5:EH:89 [pp. 444-445]) decries the fact that this beautiful custom has evolved into a ritual in which the chatan often “shows off” his physical strength when smashing the glass. In its present form, it would be better to abolish the custom, he asserts, while praising the Sephardic custom in which the cup is broken after the sheva berachot and the assembled respond by saying, “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim . . .” as opposed to “mazal tov!”

This standpoint continues until today. Last year, in light of the frequent levity after the breaking of the glass and following an incident in which a chatan cut his leg on the glass, Rabbi Dr. Ratzon Arusi, a member of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Council, called for abolishing the practice and employing the Talmudic practice of placing ashes on the groom’s head. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had, in the past, opposed abolishing a venerable practice but posited that the rabbis should educate people against shouting “mazal tov” immediately after the glass is broken.

Others have justified the cries of “mazal tov” following the breaking of the glass. Shulchan Ha’ezer (Simla L’Tzvi 8:3:26) defends it by stating that because the glass is broken at the very end of the chuppah, it is followed by the “mazal tov” wishes so as to end the ceremony on a positive note. However, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is reported20 to have said that he could not comprehend how people had become accustomed to cry “mazal tov!” in relation to an act commemorating the destruction of the Temple. He felt that one needs to pause first to reflect on the Churban, and only after, a “mazal tov” wish is appropriate to encourage the chatan and kallah on their special day and not have them dwell upon sadness during their moment of joy.

Each act done as a zecher l’Churban is an indication of the Jewish people’s attachment to Jerusalem and the Temple. And Chazal (Bava Batra 60b, based on Yeshayahu 66:10) assure us that all who mourn for Jerusalem will be privileged to share in its joy. May it be speedily in our day.

Notes
1. It is such a deeply rooted custom that the Mexican Marranos, who had lost nearly all of the Jewish customs, preserved the custom of breaking a glass at a wedding (see Cecil Roth, “The Religion of the Marranos,” JQR n.s., 22 (1931-32), p. 30, n. 116, citing autos de Mexico, p. 205). So too the Bene Israel of India maintain this custom, breaking a glass by hand.
Yemenite Jews do not have this custom and even suggest it may have non-Jewish roots (Rabbi Yosef Kafich, n. 26 to Rambam, Hilchot Ta’anit 5:13; Ovadia Melamed, Mesoret Hatefillah V’Shoresh Haminhag L’Eydat Yeshurun, pp. 405-6).
The closest non-Jewish ritual seems to be “Polterabend,” a German wedding folk custom in which, on the night before the wedding, guests bring the couple new dishes as gifts. They then smash them all, making a lot of noise that is intended to ward off evil spirits.
Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathansohn (Shay L’Moreh, EH 65:3) notes that the Ra’avan (d. 1170; Ashkenaz) questioned this custom.

2. See Rabbi Aharon Lewin (the “Reisha Rav”; Birkat Aharon, Berachot 262:1-2) for why one story did not suffice.

3. The Gemara also recounts that at this wedding Rav Hamnuna dampened the mood by singing a dirge. Unbridled levity is prohibited (Berachot 31a; Shulchan Aruch, OC 560:5) because it can lead to immorality (MA 560:12; Shitah Mekubetzet, Berachot 31a). See also Yabia Omer 4: EH: 9:1 for an analysis of the concept “not to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world” (Berachot 31a).

4. White glass was expensive (Moed Kattan 27a), rare in post-Churban times (Tosafot, Shabbat 20b, s.v. ve’anan; Sotah 48b; Tosafot, Bava Metzia 29b, s.v. b’zechuchit; Tosafot, Chullin 84b, s.v. b’zu’gayta), and fragile (Bava Metzia 29b).

5. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach reportedly believed that this was also the motivation behind the decree promulgated about 150 years ago to ban instruments at Jerusalem weddings other than a drum (Hanoch Teller, And from Jerusalem His Word: Stories and Insights of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l [New York, 1995], 354-356). He said the ruling regarding musical instruments was not related to mourning the Churban, but rather to contain what was perceived as inappropriate behavior at weddings.
Rabbeinu Bachya (Devarim 16:15) finds an allusion to restraining one’s joy in this world in the Torah’s use of the word “ach,” a word implying limitation, when describing the joyous feeling on Sukkot (“ach sameach”). He notes that this applies to celebrations of mitzvot, as Chazal derived from Tehillim 2:11. Sefat Emet (derashah on Sukkot, 1876 [5637]), also sees “ach” as a limitation but interprets it to limit oneself to rejoicing that is wholly “l’shem Shamayim” and also without non-Jewish participation.
The archetype of this attitude was Rav Zera who was reluctant to ever laugh (Berachot 30b; Niddah 23a).

6. The custom of placing ashes on one’s head was used on other occasions as well. In describing public fasts, the Mishnah (Ta’anit 2:1) discusses placing ashes on the aron kodesh and on the heads of the nasi and the av beit din, and then the assembled placed ashes on their own heads. Ashes were also placed on the head of the shaliach tzibbur on Tishah B’Av (Sofrim 18:4).

7. Rav Kafich (Collected Writings [Ketavim], Yosef Tovi, ed. [5749] vol. 2, p. 924-927) suggests that Chazal had not indicated a particular point during the ceremony at which to put the ashes. Rather, it was to be done at the height of the joy, as determined by each community.

8. It was the practice of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (ibid., p. 335) to recite this verse after the breaking of the glass.

9. Note that Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4:EH:9) erroneously gave the reference as Ta’anit 31a and stated that Rav David ben Levi had said the reason was “zecher l’Churban.”

10. This laxity is mentioned in Tosafot, Shabbat 49a, s.v. k’elisha. For a fuller discussion, see Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Not Just Another Contemporary Jewish Problem: A Historical Discussion of Phylacteries,” Gesher (5) 1976: 106-121; idem, “Rabbinic Attitudes toward Nonobservance in the Medieval Period,” in Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew, edited by Jacob J. Schacter (New Jersey, 1992), 3-35, and especially 7-14.

11. For example, Yam Shel Shlomo, Ketubot, ch. 1, 17.

12. There are many examples. An interesting one mentioned by Rabbi Moshe of Przemyśl (d. 1606; Mateh Moshe, Gemilut Chasadim, 3: Hachnasat Kallah:1) is that not only were candles carried in front of the kallah but fires were thrown, reminiscent of the lightning at Sinai (Shemot 19:16).

13. For an elaboration on this theme, see Rabbi Hershel Schachter at https://www.torahweb.org/torah/2005/parsha/rsch_yisro.html. Peri Megadim Mishbetzot Zahav 560:4 gives a totally different explanation for the link between breaking the cup and the breaking of the Luchot.

14. The Gemara (Berachot 54b) says that a chatan and kallah require “guarding,” and Rashi says it is from demons. See Jacob Z. Lauterbach, “The Ceremony of Breaking a Glass at Weddings,” HUCA II (1925): 351-380.

15. There is no requirement that the glass be broken by stepping on it, and thus a chatan with a disability can break it in another way.

16. See Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 4, p. 96-98, for descriptions and p. 120 and p. 123-127 for pictures of such stones.

17. He also cites the custom that before the erusin, the bride circled the groom three (not seven) times and that the ketubah included the stipulation that the groom may not leave the Land of Israel without permission from his new wife and the local beit din.

18. Wrapping the glass is actually a good idea. The Ben Ish Chai notes the potential danger from shards, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says that is why the glass is usually wrapped.

19. This is the widely held position. Ben Yehoyada (Berachot 31) suggests that the “expensive” cup in the Talmudic story was actually a damaged cup that the observers thought to be valuable.

20. Hanoch Teller, And from Jerusalem His Word: Stories and Insights of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (New York, 1995), 334.

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. 

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