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As Judith Seid says in God-Optional Judaism, "If you are having a Jewish wedding, you probably have to break a glass. You can forgo almost every other element, but if you don't break glass, folks will not believe you are really married."
Progressive or traditional, religious or secular, Jewish weddings almost always include a breaking of glass at the end of the ceremony. Traditionally, the man alone broke the glass; today, some couples break the glass together or break two glasses. The glass-breaking is typically followed by a communal "Mazel tov!", which means "good fortune" in Yiddish and is the equivalent of "Congratulations!"
To avoid injury, the glass is typically covered in cloth. Some people use a wineglass, others a lightbulb--which breaks very easily.
There are countless interpretations for the tradition of breaking a glass. Some see it as a reminder of the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. Others say it is meant to remind us that marriage is as fragile as glass. It also has been interpreted to demonstrate how life is so fragile that the couple should enjoy every day as if it were their last together.
We conclude the ceremony with the traditional breaking of the glass. The breaking of the glass, like the commitment you make today, is irrevocable and permanent. As the groom breaks the glass, I invite everyone to shout, "Mazel Tov" which means "Congratulations and Good Luck!"
We have come to the final act of this service, which will actually be observed with two final scenes each a link to your different heritages.
First, you will enact an age-old Chinese ritual of bowing, first to your ancestors, then to your parents and friends, and finally to yourselves.
[Bow to candles, parents, each other.]
Now, in keeping with the Jewish custom, we will end the service with the ritual breaking of the glass. This ceremony seems to have as many explanations as there are rabbis officiating at weddings.
For some, the glass is supposed to remind us of all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries, starting principally with the destruction of the temple.
For others, it is a reminder of the fragility of life and all human relationships.
For the romantics among us, and surely there are still a few left, it is supposed to be as difficult to put the glass back together as it is to break the newly married couple apart.
Anthropologists offer the appealing idea that the sound of the breaking glass is intended to scare away the evil spirits which prey on couples and try to wreak havoc in their relationship. Since we're inclined to look for the repressed, core explanation underlying our modern rituals, this answer is appealing, but since the only demons we're afraid of reside deep within us, we doubt the loud noise will do much to scare them away.
The bride and groom also think the ritual is just plain fun, and that is reason enough to perpetuate it. Fun is good. Breaking the tension is also good. Breaking things and not getting punished for it, is good too.
So now, if for nothing more than the sake of tradition, the groom will break the glass. Let it signify, once and for all, that he and the bride are husband and wife and that it is time to begin the celebration of their marriage.
[The glass is stepped on.]
There are several reasons why it is customary for a glass to be broken at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony. Symbolically, the breaking of the glass reminds us of the fragile nature of life. The custom has also come to symbolize the shattering of the old and the beginning of the new. The breaking of the glass insures the uniqueness of the moment that arises and passes away, a letting go of the past and looking toward the future. Since this is an intermarriage ceremony, that brings together two people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, let us, with this symbol, become especially mindful of the barriers that people erect between one another, and hope that with the breaking of the glass, we will see a breaking down of the barriers between people and help create a world based on love, unity, peace, and understanding. The breaking of the glass is irrevocable and permanent; so, too, may this marriage last an infinity of time--as long as it would take to reassemble the broken pieces of this glass. The breaking of the glass represents a turning point in your lives as you pledge your love today and make a new commitment to one another. This is the time when you turn from living your separate lives to creating a new family together.
-by Rabbi Miriam Jerris
Just as church bells are sometimes rung at the end of a Christian marriage, people of the Jewish faith smash a wine glass. Among the many interpretations of these two customs, one is that the loud noise of both the church bells and the breaking of the glass scares away evil spirits wishing harm to the newly married couple.
Breaking a glass summons the Jewish culture's notion that sweetness can only exist alongside bitterness--breaking the glass reminds us that although this wedding has provided joy, the world is still in turmoil, and requires our care and love. Its breaking is not only a reminder of sorrow, but also an expression of hope for a future free from all violence. Frailty of the glass also suggests the frailty of human Relationships. The glass, then is broken to "protect" the marriage with the implied prayer, "As this glass shatters, so may your marriage never break."
-by Rabbi Lawrence M. Schuval