Thursday, November 5, 2009

Breaking the Plate at the Tna'im. A Trivial Discussion of a Little Minhag

I'm writing this little bagatelle because it came up in conversation recently, and I thought that if my friend had to deal with certain mechutan issues involving this minhag, a little overview might be helpful to other people as well. This kind of post is not going to become a habit.

We Ashkenazim have a minhag that the mothers of the Chasan and Kallah break an earthenware plate after the Tna'im is read.  (I am not talking about the glass under the Chupah.  That minhag stems from Brachos 31b, as Tosfos says there.
רב בריה דרבינא עבד הלולא לבריה חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קבדחי טובא  אייתי כסא דמוקרא בת ארבע מאה זוזי ותבר קמייהו ואעציבו רב אשי עבד הלולא לבריה חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קא בדחי טובא אייתי כסא דזוגיתא חיורתא ותבר קמייהו ואעציבו אמרו ליה רבנן לרב המנונא זוטי בהלולא דמר בריה דרבינא לישרי לן מר אמר להו ווי לן דמיתנן ווי לן דמיתנן
 I'm not talking about that.  I'm talking about breaking the plate at the Te'na'im.) 

All our minhagim are holy and meaningful, but among those holy and meaningful minhagim, this one does not stand on the highest rung.  But it's worth bearing in mind that, as I've said before, the meaning of our minhagim is fluid and dynamic; they ebb and flow.  What a minhag means to one generation, to one group, might be very different than what it means to another.  See, e.g., our discussion of the Kittel here, where we showed that wearing the kittel could symbolize diametrically opposed ideas, and that with time, one idea has become dominant, and our discussion of masks on Purim here.  The symbol's meaning is what you understand it to be, and even minor minhagim can come to assume greater significance.  The same is true regarding the breaking of the plate.  Here's a list of the various interpretations that have attributed to it by our mefarshim.  I'm listing all the time honored classics; I'M NOT IMPLYING ANY PARITY HERE! Some are stranger than others, several are similar but have differences in tone.  Pick the one you like.  They're all kosher.

The first written mention of this minhag is in the Sefer Ma'adanei Yomtov, written around 1600 by Reb Yomtov Lippman Heller, the author of the Tosfos Yomtov. He was a talmid of the Maharal.  And he is the Ketzos' grandfather.

1.  To temper the celebration Zeicher Le'Mikdash.  Ma'adanei Yomtov (cited by Eliahu Rabba,  which is cited by Pri Megadim in OC 560 Mishbetzos SK 7, and cited by Mishna Berura there SK 9, but I found it here) says the purpose is to shock the onlookers, in order to temper excessive joy that is inconsistent with mourning for the Churban Beis Hamikdash.

2.  To show that the Te'na'im is irreversible, and whoever breaks it can never be made whole.   The Pri Megadim brings the Maharit, which he understands to mean that although we break glass under the Chupa, we should break earthenware at the Tna'im, because glass can be melted and remade, but earthenware, once broken, can never be repaired.  This is also said in the name of the Gaon in the She'iltos on the Ma'aseh Rav in numbers 133 and 134, here.

3.  As a re-enactment of Mattan Torah, the breaking of the Luchos, and our ultimate redemption.  The Pri Megadim himself says the following: Mattan Torah was Kidushin, and it ought to have been followed by Nesu'in.  The sin of the Egel, followed by the breaking of the luchos, and ultimately the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, left us almost bereft of the Hashra'as Hashechina that should have been ours as the beloved of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.  But the day will come that Hashem will betroth us again, and that kidushin will be followed by a nisu'in and a permanent union.  So we break earthenware at the Tna'im, to symbolize the breaking of the luchos and the impermanence of Klal Yisrael's first kiddushin, but we break glass at the chupa, because glass can always be repaired; in a sense, it can never be permanently or irreparably broken.

4. To show that breaking a tna'im is worse than getting divorced.  The Gaon is quoted here as having said that it is worse to break a Tna'im than to get married and divorced.  Or, that it is better to get married even if you know you're going to get divorced than to break a tna'im.  So we use irreparable earthenware at the Tna'im, and glass at the Chuppah.

5.  To show that the only one way to break a tna'im: by dying.  The Baal Shem Tov is quoted in Taamei Haminhagim (page 411) as having explained this Maharit as meaning that a tna'im cannot be broken for any reason at all, but a marriage can be dissolved via a get.

6. To remind the chasan that even if his wife turns out to be a shrew, he should be grateful, because suffering through a miserable marriage will earn him a ticket straight to Olam Haba.  (Hopefully, without her.)  The Ta'amei Haminhagim also brings from the Likutei Maharan the following reason:  you break an earthenware vessel at the Tna'im to remind the Chasan that there is a Gehinnom, and that he better not be mindlessly driven by his bodily desires.  Also, he says, even if (Chas veshalom!) the answer to the question is "motzei," and it turns out that his wife is no good, he should still not "traitorously" divorce her, because his lifetime of suffering will save him from Gehinnom.

7.  To prevent excessive frivolity so that we don't forget our Yiras Shamayim.  See above from Brachos 31, Rav Hamnuna Zuti, who, when asked to sing at a wedding, sang "Woe to us, we all will die....." and the rule of Rav Yochanan/Rav Shimon bar Yochai,

א"ר יוחנן משום רשב"י אסור לאדם שימלא שחוק פיו בעולם הזה
that one may not "fill his mouth with joy in this world."  Some learn that this 'reigning in of levity' is so that we should remember the Churban, that we should elevate Yerushalayim over our joys, as indicated in the Ramban in Toras Ha'adam.  This approach is seen in the Tosfos Yomtov's pshat, #1 on this list, and that's why this halacha is discussed in Hilchos Tisha Ba'av.  HOWEVER: Rabbeinu Yonah in Brachos there says that this rule applied even when the Beis Hamikdash stands, because immoderate levity is incompatible with Yir'as Shamayim.  The same reasoning would apply to our discussion-- that the breaking of the plate at the Tna'im is more in line with Rav Hamnuna Zuti's dirge than it is with Zeicher Le'Mikdash.

8.  Why do the mothers do this?  Well, it seems that in some places, this was not done by the mothers.  In this drawing from 1724, a man is doing it (the fellow bottom center with the jug raised above his head).
and here's another drawing of men breaking stuff at a Tna'im:
While I haven't found anyone who explains the change, I would guess that it indicates that the Kallah, by sending her female representatives, is aware of and agrees to what is happening. There was a time when we would just give them away, but that's not how it's done now, and it's not much of a 'commitment to get married' if the kallah has no idea of what's happening. Also, see the first comment for Rebbitzen Divrei Chaim's note.

And, here's the bonus video. It's from a Sardinian wedding, and they're not Jews.  There were Jews in Sardinia from before the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash until the expulsion that accompanied the Inquisition in the late fifteenth century.  If you want to believe they got the minhag from us, go ahead and believe it.  I think people, Jews and Gentiles, do it because it's just fun to break stuff.

Now, you are all experts on this minhag.  I hope this has cheered you up.


  1. I thought the financial obligation entailed by breaking the tanaim contract is actually incumbent on the father of the bride rather than the bride herself. That assumption underlies Rabbi Reisman's suggested reason in his book Pathways to the Prophets. He concedes that he could not find a source for the minhag of mothers, specifically, breaking the plate. He offers a possible explanation as follows: the tanaim undertake a financial obligation. As the fathers of the chasson and kallah each have a prior financial obligation to their wives' kesubos, the wives participation indicates their willingness to allow this new financial agreement. After I looked it up, I put this into the comments on my post at

    Speaking of the kesubah, the bride is not present, nor is her mother, necessarily, when it is drawn up. The witnesses serve as her agents, in effect, though she never appointed them. When I asked the esteemed DC about this, he said the principle of mezakin leadam shelo befanav would apply there. Anyway, why would the bride's mother represent her rather than her father for the tanaim? I really think it was just a matter of allowing women an active part with an attitude of "why not, if there is no halachic reason not to?" They weren't worried about havig to counter any feminist impulses.

  2. I don't like Rabbi Reisman's pshat; a man can obligate himself numerous times, and we don't investigate whether his assets have prior liens, or whether he has assets at all. Furthermore, I would say that his assumption that Tna'im obligations trump kesuva obligations is incorrect; they wouldn't if the husband acted unilaterally, and despite the wife's participation, her rights are not abrogated unless she signs them away explicitly.

    You're right that the tna'im obligates the parents, but it obligates the chasan and kallah even more. The financial liability, perhaps, is specific to the parents. But how can parents accept a mi shepara, the curse against the party that reneges, if the parents can't make the decision? Ultimately, it's the C & K that make the decision whether to go through with the wedding; therefore, the agreement that the party that breaches will suffer the curse of mi shepara has to be made with the agreement of the principals. Therefore, it makes sense for either the kallah or members of her entourage, to participate, to ensure her awareness, approval, and agreement. Like it or not, weddings are a time that we have to deal with women.

    But I agree that before feminist ideologists began to denigrate Chazal, women's participation in public events was assessed on exclusively tznius/kol kevuda issues, but otherwise considered innocuous, and that it's a nice way to be marbeh simcha for both the men and the women.

  3. Barzilai,
    "Like it or not, weddings are a time that we have to 'deal' with women"? what does that make you? Don't you know that Bnei Yisroel would never have left Mitzrayim if it were not for "nashim tzitkoniyot"? Such a comment is repulsive, ignorant and anti-Torah.

  4. haltheman, I don't know if that stands for Hal the Man, nor whether you are male or female. Whatever you are, tell me, if the Pope would say "unfortunately, on Sundays we have to deal with Christians," would you start tapping away at the keyboard to accuse him of prejudice?
    I would suggest that my words be judged in the context of one or two of my hundreds of posts before characterizing them as being "repulsive, ignorant and anti-Torah"
    Presuming that you are a normal, functioning member of society, I attribute the ill-considered and humorless remark to be an artifact that bespeaks the habit of typing away before careful thought that the internet has encouraged.