Parshas Pinchas (5773)
The period which we are now in is traditionally known as Bein HaMetzarim, "within the days of distress", and is sometimes referred to as "The Three Weeks". It began this Tuesday with the Fast of Shivah Assar B’Tamuz, the Seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, and ends on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the Fast of Tishah B'av, the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (this year on July 16th).
This three-week period is a time of national mourning for the Jewish people, as many terribly tragic events in our history occurred during this time. Moses broke the Ten Commandments on the Seventeenth of Tamuz, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached, both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on Tishah B'av (and all that remains of the Temple today is the Kosel Hama'aravi - the Western Wall), the wicked king Apustomus burned the Holy Torah, the Expulsion from Spain was set for this time in 1492, and the list goes on and on. And, ultimately, our being exiled and dispersed among the nations only to be persecuted and tortured for the last 1900 years, is a direct result of the Romans destroying the Temple and expelling all of our ancestors from the land of Israel during this period in the year 70 C.E.
It is not only during the Three Weeks that we remind ourselves of the destruction of the Holy Temple and our Jewish homeland. The Sages ordained that throughout the year, any time a person participates in a celebration, he must recall the destruction of the Holy Temple, for so long as the Temple is in ruins the joy is still not complete.
This special sensitivity to the destruction of G-d’s Home has been a part of the collective Jewish psyche ever since the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from Israel, as the following story beautifully illustrates:
A wealthy friend of the family of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, ZT”L, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, urged Rav Yosef Chaim to permit him to build a beautiful, spacious home for the Rav. Rav Yosef Chaim thanked him for the generous offer and led him over to the window of his modest dwelling. "Look out the window, my friend," said Rav Yosef Chaim wistfully. "See how the house of G-d, our Holy Temple, lies in ruin, occupied by Arabs. Do you really want to build a mansion for me? It is enough for the servant to be like his master. As long as the palace of the King is destroyed, this dwelling will suffice for me."
Thus the Talmud in Bava Basra 60b teaches that when a person builds a new house for himself, and arrives at its final stage, the whitewashing of the walls, he must leave a square cubit (roughly 21 in. x 21 in.) of the wall unfinished, so as to serve as a reminder that so long as G-d’s home, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is not rebuilt, his own private home also cannot be complete. The bare square cubit must be in a place that catches the eye. The Sages therefore instituted that this square cubit be situated opposite the entrance of the house.
Another little-known Talmudic custom that in many circles is kept to this very day, is to place ashes on the groom’s head just before he marches down to the chuppah (wedding canopy), as a reminder that even on his wedding day he must place Jerusalem above his highest joy.
But wait, there’s more…
Did you ever notice at traditional weddings that there’s a whole lotta smashin’ goin’ on? I mean, first you have the whole ‘tenaim’ thing. [Tenaim literally means “conditions” and refers to a formal ceremony announcing the couples’ engagement to the community, where a contract is signed, setting the wedding date and stipulating various prenuptial agreements. This custom is still prevalent today, predominantly among Chassidim. Most others will sign the tenaim on the wedding day itself, as part of the groom’s reception, just before the kesubah (marriage contract) is signed.] After the tenaim contract is signed by witnesses and read aloud, the mothers of the bride and groom are brought together to (attempt to) smash a china plate against the back of a chair.
Then, of course, you have the groom smashing a glass under the chuppah.
The Rabbis explain that the smashing of the china plate at the tenaim and the glass under the chuppah are both for the same reason mentioned earlier - to recall the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple at our moments of great celebration. It is to remind everyone present that there is still much sadness and heartbreak in the world, so that our own personal joy cannot be complete.
[Although I have heard some rabbis quip that the groom’s breaking of the glass under the chuppah may be the last time in the marriage that he gets to put his foot down!]
Some even have the custom, just before the groom smashes the glass, to recite (or sing) the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill …If I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy.” (Psalms 137:5). [I find it kind of ironic that just at the time that the glass is broken under the chuppah – when we are meant to reflect on all the sadness and heartbreak in the world – everyone shouts “Mazel Tov” and the band strikes up the recessional. But that’s the way it is…]
I would like to conclude with another reason for breaking a glass under the chuppah, which contains a valuable lesson for the newlywed couple and for all the rest of us. The Rabbis explain that just as glass can be re-melted and restored, so can man, even after his soul has been shattered and blemished by sin. No matter what sins a person may have committed, if he repents and changes his ways, G-d will forgive him.
Thus the groom smashes a glass under the chuppah at the outset of their marriage, to remind the newly married couple that even if they seriously wrong each other and “shatter’ their relationship, it is never too late to say “I’m sorry” and to repair what was broken.
The Jewish people as well need to realize that even though our relationship with G-d has been “shattered” and broken due to our many sins and indiscretions, and we have been exiled from our homeland and have been suffering these past 2000 years, there is always hope. Like broken glass that can be restored, we, too, can repair the bond between us through teshuvah (repentance) and positive change, and then G-d will take us back to his newly built Home, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, with the coming of the Messiah, speedily and in our day.
[Sources: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Wedding Guide: Made in Heaven pp. 201-204]