With the summer wedding season upon us, Jewish couples are preparing for marriage ceremonies that will conclude with the ancient ritual that many know simply as “the breaking of the glass.” Many a groom’s heel will crush a small glass under a handkerchief.
Unfortunately for many assimilated Jews, the only Jewish aspect of the traditional wedding ceremony that they retain at all is the breaking of the glass.
What is this strange act? What drives so many Jews, even those who are seemingly detached from the Jewish community and may even be marrying non-Jews, to nevertheless want to break the glass?
When Chris Fischer and actress Amy Schumer —not exactly a paragon of Jewish religious observance— married in a Malibu beach ceremony earlier this year, they too broke a glass.
Even some non-Jews have appropriated this aspect of Jewish wedding celebrations. At actress Cameron Diaz’s wedding in 2015, her groom stepped on a glass even though, as one newspaper account put it, “neither Diaz nor Benji Madden are Jewish, so the reason for this elaborate traditional Jewish ceremony is best known to them.”
The sad truth is that an extremely high percentage of Jews break the glass because it is “traditional,” yet they have no idea what the deeper meaning really is.
But it’s not their fault. These young Jews were never told the real reason by their rabbis or their parents. And the popular wedding blogs these young Jews read too often give wrong or nonsensical reasons, and may not even hint at the true beauty of the idea.
The fact is that breaking the glass does not fit easily with the idea of being a fully acculturated American. It smacks of ethnic separatism and attachment to a foreign country. We break the glass at our weddings as a sign to God, to ourselves, and to our wedding guests that although our wedding is a day of extreme joy, we cannot enjoy complete happiness as long as Jerusalem and its Holy Temple are not fully rebuilt as in ancient times.
At traditional weddings, when the guests shout “Mazel Tov!,” the groom recites this verse from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not make Jerusalem above my greatest joy.” (Psalm 137)
Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed it, we still mourn the loss of our Holy Temple. We grieve the destruction of the actual, physical building. We are not at peace with the fact that our holy site has been co-opted by another religion, and the religious shrines of others have been built atop the ruins of ours. It is a bitter irony that these Islamic shrines are now used by extremists to incite hatred and violence against the Jewish people and Israel.
We also grieve over the fact that the Divine presence is now manifested differently now that the Holy Temple does not stand. No matter how many Jews live in Jerusalem, no matter how many yeshivas flourish there, no matter how beautiful the modern city of Jerusalem is, Jewish destiny is left unfulfilled so long as we are without our Holy Temple. And that is why we break the glass.
With Birthright, gap year programs, and Israel trips for mothers, there are now more opportunities for American Jews to visit Israel than ever before. These programs all bring their participants to visit the Kotel (the Western Wall) but seldom focus on the ways that Jews for centuries mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple each day through prayer and ritual.
Perhaps the time has come to consider investing in the relationship between young marrieds and Jerusalem, the same way that we invest in Birthright.
There are artists who preserve the broken glass in Lucite or in other artistic fashion. The verse “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” on such a gift is more than just an investment in helping young Jewish married couples stay connected to the Jewish people—it is an investment in Jerusalem itself.
Moshe Phillips is the national director of Herut North America’s U.S. section. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education.
By: Moshe Phillips