Customs of Remembering the Destruction
Breaking the glass and midnight payers
The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD left a lasting impression on the Jewish experience, and to this day Judaism has many customs focussing on “remembering the destruction”.
We will briefly set out here two of them, the first: “midnight prayers”, an ancient custom – it is difficult to determine when it commenced – which concerned rising at midnight, wearing torn clothing, sitting on the floor by flickering candlelight and lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. During the ten days of atonement (between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) there were those who wallowed in ash, while lamenting the destruction. In order to awaken on time they would tie a rooster (mostly a black one) to the bedposts, and the rooster as is its wont “would call out” at the designated time.
In many communities the wardens of the community would bang a hammer on the door and wake up those sleeping for the midnight prayers.
There are those who placed by the side of the bed “a weight”, a type of scales, whereby on one side an iron bar and on the other a jar full of water with a small perforation, through which the water dripped gradually. During the night the jar would empty and thereby rise upwards slowly; whereas the iron bar which was balanced with the jar, would descend and at midnight the process would conclude, the iron bar would drop to the floor by force and the sound would awaken the dwellers in the home.
And the second custom is – breaking the glass by the groom under the chupa (wedding canopy) as a symbolic expression of “remembering the destruction”. Specifically the link between this custom and the wedding ceremony are known from the 13th century and onwards. The Sages wanted to find a connection with the words of the Talmud expressing reservations about excess joy as a rule, because “after the destruction we should not be overjoyed even as regards a good deed”.
The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative summary of religious laws by Rabbi Yosef Karo from the 16th century, still does not include this custom as a law; however later we find it as a binding custom, and there are places that used to break the glass during the chupa, or placed a black cloth or other signs of mourning on the head of the groom. The custom also expanded to the ceremony of the writing of the terms during engagements - breaking a plate, and thus is also customary today.
Surprisingly, in more ancient times, in the Talmudic sources, this custom has no relation to this meaning. Although it is known that at least two Sages broke expensive glasses in the weddings between them; however the reason given there was that the guests were joking around and having fun excessively, and therefore as it seemed to them as rebelliousness they acted cautiously in order to harness the natural inclinations of “the wild one”.
Later we were told about pouring the wine during the chupa ceremony and smashing a glass at the Western Wall. From this one can assume that the entire issue was related from the outset to general supernatural beliefs, according to which in particular at a time of joining together of the sexes the harmful goblins and the ghouls would ambush the couples, and in order to distance the danger they smashed and broke expensive glass items in order to make noise.
Incidentally – the black rooster during the “midnight prayers” could also hint at folk beliefs relating to the supernatural: both the rooster and the colour black have a significant place in such beliefs.