If you’re Jewish, you are proud of what the Jewish people has contributed to civilization. Our belief in One G-d has transformed the world and affected history in countless ways. Our laws and commandments, our morality and ethics, have defined the ideals and values of much of the world.
All this you know. So let me tell you something you don’t know: Jewish people brought glassmaking to the world. In a book called The Glassmakers: An Odyssey of the Jews published in 1991, Samuel Kurinsky shows that for centuries, even millennia, Jewish people were the exclusive glassmakers in the world for much of that time. If you took a map of how the making of glass spread through the world, and superimposed it on a map of how Jewish people migrated to different countries, you would have a match.
The art of glassmaking appeared during the latter part of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. in Mesopotamia, The art was associated with the progenitors of the Jewish people, who derived mainly from Mesopotamia, what we now call Iraq. Mesopotamia is where Abraham, the first Hebrew, came from. From their beginnings in Akkadia, westward across Aram into Canaan, exactly Abraham’s path, eastward back into Persia and across the desert into China, across North Africa into Iberia, across Anatolia into Greece and Italy, up the Seine and Rhine valleys and across the Hungarian plains, across Germany into the Pale of the Polish and Russian plains, Jewish people sought opportunity or refuge, carrying their religion, philosophy, arts, science, and the art of glassmaking with them.
Glassmaking was considered a “Jewish trade” from ancient times well into the present era. It was none other than Jerome, not exactly one of our friends, who complained that glassmaking was among the trades with which the Semites “captured the Roman world.”
Jewish slaves built the Colosseum in Rome and mined the iron and copper of Sardinia, Spain, and Sicily.
They minted coins for European nobility.
They were merchants at the local markets.
They formed the core of international trade, inasmuch as they were uniquely able to issue a letter of credit in one country and be assured of its being honored in another country months and even years later.
They were also the doctors and the accountants. They were councillors to kings.
Yes, they were also moneychangers and bankers, occupations whose transactions were placed on record and largely preserved, for taxes had to be paid and they often involved the finances of the various states. The Jews who were involved in financial activity thereby became far more visible than did the millions of Jews engaged in the other mundane activities of which records are sparse and indeterminate.
Now you could say: “Very nice: We’re great; now I know something else that Jewish people did for the world. But why should I care that Jewish people brought glass to the world?”
But for me, this is all symbolic.
To use a modern phrase:
We do windows.
We have always made the windows for people
We have enabled them to look out at the world.
Think about a house without windows
If you’ve ever worked in an office without windows, you know what I mean
We need to know that there is not just this little room or this house, but a world that we must be an active part of
The great songwriter Van Morrison sings:
“What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows”
That’s the Jewish line, it is what Jewish people try to be, the ones who make and clean the windows of society
And certainly, our society needs to look out at others
We live in a time when America is split between two views of the world
We never consider the other point of view
We need to see what’s outside our own rooms, our own minds
So glass enables us to look out.
But by creating glass, we also created mirrors so that people can see themselves as they truly are.
On the High Holidays, we look in the glass and see ourselves
With all of our faults and inconsistencies
With all of our inadequacies
And we know that we can do better
Think of another important use of glass in Judaism.
The end of every Jewish wedding ceremony is marked by the breaking of a glass. It is smashed under foot by the groom at the very end of the ceremony and everyone shouts, “Mazal Tov.” This is on my mind because my son Danny will be stepping on a glass this year.
Originally, grooms broke one of the glasses that they had just used as one of the two Kiddush cups during the ceremony. But people decided that smashing either of those wine glasses that had been used to bless the marriage was not an auspicious sign, and that another glass, any other glass should be used.
So now the custom is that we can break any glass utensil at the wedding service.
How did this all start? The source for the custom is related in the Talmud.
Mar, son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son, and when he noticed that some of the rabbis became boisterous in their joy, he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz, and smashed it before them. This quieted them down immediately.
Rabbi Ashi also made a wedding feast for his son, and when he noticed that the rabbis were boisterous, he brought a cup of white glass and smashed it before them and immediately they sobered.
So breaking the glass served to engender sobriety and balanced behavior. I know that you’ve never seen excessive drinking at a wedding reception. A wedding should not be sheer undisciplined merriment, and the breaking of expensive glass stuns the guests into tempering their levity. The ceremony serves, then, to moralize pleasure and attain tempered emotions.
This is a lesson about moderation. Have a good time, but don’t get drunk. We should not ruin our joy with frivolity.
In the fourteenth century, another explanation began to circulate. The broken glass represents the wreckage of our past glory, and the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in the first century. It recalls, at the most joyous and momentous occasion of the life cycle, that we are a part of a people and a history.
Think about it. A wedding is all about two people. For one day, the two people are royalty and they wear special clothes and they march in procession. For one day, their perfect day, everything should be as they want it to be. That’s why we have Bridezillas, brides who scream because they want their own way. But again, the breaking of the glass says that we are supposed to moderate our self-centeredness even at the moment when we feel like we are the center of the world. It is a memory of Zion that stands as a reminder that in life, even such great joy can be cancelled by sudden grief. It enriches the quality of joy by making it more thoughtful and by inspiring gratitude for the goodness of G-d.
In a way, not just with a painful memory of destruction in the past, but in a positive way, the now-married couple takes it as an obligation upon themselves to rebuild the Temple in their own lives by building their own Jewish home, as every synagogue is a mikdash meat, a miniature temple. If the home we build will house the spirit and practice of the Temple, we will have contributed to the rebuilding of the Temple in our own way and in our own homes.
There is a wonderful new custom of taking the shattered glass and putting it in the Mezuzah that hangs on the couple’s door, to say, “We are rebuilding the Temple in our own home.”
That’s why we shout mazal tov when the groom steps on the glass. Not to say, “Congratulations that you can break a glass!” but “Good luck! More power to you! Go rebuild the Temple in your own home.”
So Jewish people use glass to say all that.
I cannot talk about glass and Jewish history without mentioning Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Kristallnacht was a pogrom or series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on 9–10 November 1938. The attacks left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues.
In my mind, it is not a coincidence that it was glass, the product of Jewish art, that gave the pogrom its name. Attack the Jews in their pride, in their art, in their beauty. And yet, we are here, and we still have our glass and our synagogues and our stores. We survive.
Glass also reveals another lesson.
It is so fragile; it breaks so easily
When you see a box with glass in it, it says,
“Handle with care.”
There is a wonderful song by the Traveling Willburys:
Been beat up and battered round
Been sent up, and Ive been shot down
Youre the best thing that Ive ever found
Handle me with care
We are all fragile
Handle with care
We are breakable at the slighted touch
And who can break us?
Not strangers but the people who are close
We are shattered not by strangers but by friends
Remember that you and the people around you are fragile
We are all made of glass and we are easily broken
And yet we break each other
Sometimes just for fun
Or to let out our frustrations
Or vent our irritations
Handle with care
Handle the people around you with care
We Jewish people know all about glass
We gave glass, among other things, to the world
We above all others should know how easily broken we can be
So as we begin this new year, let’s think about glass, something Jewish people gave to the world,
Glass for windows to see out of
Glass so that we can see ourselves in the mirror
Glass to break at a wedding service to remember that’s it’s not just about us
Glass that our enemies break but that we rebuld
Glass as a metaphor for how easily we can break others and we can be broken ourselves.
If we use the glass wisely to see others and see ourselves, if we handle ourselves and others with care, we will be worthy of this new year of life.