Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

  • Find us on Facebook

Broken Glass – Weddings and Kristallnacht

by Rabbi James Prosnit

I’ve never loved the classic explanation as to why we break a glass at a wedding. What a downer. The ceremony is coming to an end, bride and groom; or groom and groom; or bride and bride are about to share their first kiss as a married couple; friends are about to shout mazel tov and head to the bar to begin the festivities and some rabbi says, “we break this glass to acknowledge the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.”


When I perform a wedding I usually offer some other explanation  –  along the line of how fragile relationships are and how they need to be nurtured. But mostly I feel this ritual is one that sometimes is left best just to happen and forget the explanation.

Sometimes — the power is in the action – not in talking about.

But still we may wonder from where did the custom emanate.

I can promise you, not in the Torah portion we read tomorrow. It does contain the story of the first Jewish wedding; the arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebecca. But I guarantee they didn’t break a glass, nor sign a ketubah, nor dance the hora. Most of the things we do today were added over a long history. The chuppah, symbolic of the tent or the marriage bed may have some presence. Rebecca steps down from the camel, enters Isaac’s tent, and we’re told, “he finds joy after his mother’s death.” In biblical times consummating the relationship was marriage. Come in to my tent — he doesn’t even buy her a coke.

Clearly breaking a glass is not biblical, although Freud might have something to say about the symbolism.

Some suggest that the glass breaking is actually a much more recent ritual – emanating from the Middle Ages when folks were quite superstitious. Loud noises chased demons away and there was probably no time when demons were more prevalent than around the marriage canopy.

Another explanation suggests that a father was upset that there was too much lavish spending and feasting going on – so he smashed a glass to get everyone’s attention and to berate the participants in their excess. 

Of course we tend to not use these last explanations in a contemporary wedding — so, yes, many rabbis fall back on the old Temple destruction story.

Whatever the true meaning, like many rituals we have probably long forgotten the real reason we do something and we have to concoct new explanations.  But it is fascinating that this little ritual has become such an identifier of the Jewish experience.

Several years ago Wendy and I attended a wedding of my Mexican cousins (that’s a long story I’m happy to tell at some point). They now are all Catholic, the only connection to Judaism was the grooms great-grandfather, who happened to be a great great uncle. At the reception, after the church wedding, I was invited by my cousin, the groom’s mother to lead the “significant glass breaking ceremony.”  I had no idea what to do or say. 

So I read the following that is attributed to the great glass artist — Dale Chuily. I say attributed because he probably didn’t write it, but it has power nonetheless.

“We Are Like Glass”

Glass is a reminder of the strength and fragility that exists in life.
Like glass, we are beautiful and luminous.
Like glass, we are fragile and shatter without care.
Like glass, we are also strong and powerful.
Like glass, we are reflections of our past.
Like the sands of glass, we can come together, help each other, and accomplish amazing things.

A lovely reading and a helpful explanation of the symbolism – but switching gears let me share with you another reading about glass written by Rabbi Karen Bender.

I am the glass.
Once clear, smooth, perfect.
Protecting the store, the home, the eyes.

I am the glass.
Shattered now, broken, sharp, dangerous.

I am the book.
Once a source of peoplehood, philosophy and learning.
Inspiring the spirit, the mind, the person.

I am the book.
Burning now in a flame of hate.
A precursor to the fate of a community.

I am the synagogue.
Once the house of learning, the house of prayer, the house of gathering.

I am the synagogue.
Aflame now, the end of an era of safety in Europe.

I am the rabbi.
Once a teacher, a leader, a dignified transmitter of Torah.

I am the rabbi.
Humiliated now on the streets of Germany.
Forced to choose between desecrating the Torah and surviving the night.

I am the child.
Once carefree and innocent, laughing, playing, free.

I am the child.
Terrified now as they take my father away 
Shaken by an evil in this night
I am the glass.

Repaired now by a People that will never give in.
A window into a future of hope, of goodness, of peace.

I am the glass.

It is hard for a Jewish community to gather on the 10th of November without some recollection of the Night of Broken glass – Kristallnacht in 1938 as night descended across Germany and Austria and the nightmare of Nazism became even more real to those who had not yet left. For the purposes of history we sometimes consider this event as the beginning of the Holocaust. While voices of outrage and condemnation rang out from the leaders of other nations in the wake of the pogrom, it would become clear to the Nazis that the nations of the world would do nothing to actively oppose them.  This terrifying time would in a few short years give rise to many more concentration camps and the “Final Solution.” Kristallnacht was more than the shattering of windows; it portended the physical destruction of European Jewry.

But Rabbi Bender’s poem does end with a bit of an upswing.

Glass… Repaired now by a People that will never give in.
A window into a future of hope, of goodness, of peace. 

I am the glass.

You know as I think about it – maybe that classic rabbinic explanation to the glass at the wedding isn’t so bad.

Our experience is that of challenge, horror – but also of blessings. Brides and grooms need to be reminded of that – as they are our future.   

As we gather this evening to share the blessings of this community – our Bar and Bat Mitzvah need to be reminded because they are our future too.

Such reminders need not diminish our joys – in fact they may heighten them because we are a people who must always strive to repair the brokenness in a fragile world.