Why do we break a glass at the climax of a Jewish wedding ceremony?
The most common answer: To remember the destruction of our temple. The Talmudic answer (Brachot 30b): To temper our joy. The symbolic answer: To remind us that marriage is as irreversible as a broken glass. The anthropological answer: To make noise to frighten away jealous demons, similar to attaching cans to the bumper of newlyweds’ cars.
There is also a psychoanalytic answer: The glass, like the plate that we break at the tenaim (the engagement), is a domestic item symbolizing our parents’ kitchen. We break it to announce that we are no longer sitting at their table. We are moving to our own. We are breaking our ties to them.
Psychiatrists, like myself, often witness the separation anxiety precipitated in newlyweds moving out of their parents’ homes for the first time. Rarely, however, do we address the intensely ambivalent feelings it precipitates in their parents. A wedding is very different from a bar/bat mitzvah. Going to the celebration with your child, and, but a few hours later, going home without them, does not feel celebratory for some.
Over the years, several disparate parents have reported the same recurring dream following their children’s wedding: They are in their home or office, immersed in some activity. They look up and unexpectedly notice their newly married child on the other side of a window or glass door. They both smile, acknowledging each other, but, because of the glass, they cannot converse.
It is a dream, not a nightmare, but it has a melancholy aftertaste. Parents sense that their child is happy, which gladdens them. And yet, there is still a visceral part of them that wants to break that glass, grab their child’s hand and return them home.
Sagacious parents understand that breaking the glass would be a mistake. If their child is communicating things with them that are not being shared with the child’s spouse, it weakens the marriage. Newlyweds’ secrets should now belong to their future partner rather than their past progenitor. We must release our embrace to strengthen their incipient bond.
At my daughter’s wedding, I concluded my blessing to her under the chuppah by describing how, half her lifetime ago, I sat next to her, holding her hand as she lay unconscious in the emergency room because of a pertinacious, traumatic brain injury.
Eventually, despite my white coat and hospital ID, I would be asked to leave. I did not want to. Most of all, I did not want to let go of her hand.
As my wife and I walked up the aisle of the emergency room to the exit, invariably, we were both in tears. I tried to remind her, and myself, that someday we would walk that girl down another aisle. At that moment, neither of us believed it.
Over a decade later, as we walked that girl down the aisle, and up the stairs to her chuppah, once again, I did not want to let go of her hand. As I blessed her, I noticed that she was now holding hands with her groom. Like her mother, and me, she was smiling, but simultaneously crying. This time however, there were only tears of joy.
She had walked up the stairs holding my hand; she walked down the stairs holding her husband’s.
The glass had been irreversibly broken.
The broken glass did not, however, temper our joy, frighten us or precipitate the demons of jealousy.
It was only by breaking the glass that a new temple could be built.
Isaac Herschkopf, president of the NYU Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, is in private practice. His work has appeared in literary, news and medical publications as well as The Jewish Week.