The other day I was invited to my friends’ house for dinner. During dinner, someone dropped a glass and it broke. At that moment, everyone shouted,“Mazal tov!” Now, I read on Chabad.org why we break a glass at a Jewish wedding and then say “Mazal tov.” Is this just an outgrowth of that custom, or is there something more to it?
It is quite possible that the sound of shattering glass reminds people of the breaking of the glass at a wedding, and it therefore evokes the accompanyingmazal tov. But there are a number of other fascinating reasons unrelated to weddings.
Some point to this wondrous tale in the Talmud:
Once, the Romans forbade the Jews to observe Shabbat, circumcision and family purity. When other avenues were exhausted, the Jews sent a delegation to plead with the Romans. Who was sent? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for he was accustomed to having miracles performed for him, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Yosei.
As the pair traveled, a demon named Ben Temalion came to meet them. He proposed to enter into the body of a princess of the imperial house, and not to leave her until Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai was asked to cure her, for in her madness she would call for him. When Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai would whisper into the ear of the princess, Ben Temalion would leave her, and as a sign of his departure all the glass in the palace would break.
Thereupon Rabbi Shimon wept and said: “The handmaid of my ancestor’s house [i.e., Hagar, the handmaid of Abraham] was found worthy of meeting an angel three times, and I am not worthy to meet one once. However, let the miracle be performed, no matter how.”
So it was. When Rabbi Shimon arrived, he wispered: “Ben Temalion, leave her, Ben Temalion, leave her,” and he left her, and all the glass in the palace shattered.
The grateful emperor then told them, “Request whatever you desire,” and had them led to the treasure house to take whatever they chose. The rabbis found the scroll upon which the decree was written, took it and tore it to pieces.1
Psalm 79 is all about the destruction of the Temple. Yet, strangely, it starts off with the words “A song of Asaph.” Why is a composition about a tragedy called a song? The Midrash explains that Asaph was singing in gratitude to G‑d, knowing that He would vent His wrath on buildings of wood and stone instead of on human beings.3
When something breaks, it is an omen of divine severity and judgment. Being joyful and wishing “Mazal tov” has the power to sweeten and mitigate this severity. This idea is perhaps best illustrated by the following story:
Rabbi Dovber Schneuri, known as the Mitteler Rebbe, was known for his penchant for joyfulness. He even had a group of chassidim who formed a kapelye (choir), and another group who were trained to perform tricks on horseback. On special, joyous occasions, he would ask these groups to perform, and he would stand on his balcony watching. The rebbe’s son Reb Nochum happened to be one of these horsemen.
Once, for no apparent reason, the rebbe suddenly instructed both of these groups to perform. This was extremely unusual. Yet the chassidim performed while the rebbe stood in his usual spot and watched the horsemen carefully.
Suddenly the rebbe’s son Reb Nochum fell off of his horse. Informed that his son was in grave danger, the rebbe merely motioned with his hand to continue the festivities.
After a while the rebbe asked them to stop, and stepped into his private office.
A doctor was summoned, and Reb Nochum’s situation proved far less severe than previously thought. He had broken a leg, but no more.
The rebbe was then asked why he had told the horsemen and choir to continue with their performance while his beloved son lay injured.
He responded, “Why don’t you ask me an even better question: why did I ask the horsemen and the choir to perform on a simple weekday in the first place?”
The rebbe explained: “Today was meant to be a harsh day for my son. I saw a grave accusation against him in the heavenly court. The prosecution was very powerful, and I could see only one way out: joy sweetens the attribute of severity. So I therefore called upon the choir to sing, and asked the riders to gladden everyone with their antics.
“The joy thus created tempered the strict decree against my son, but a small portion of the decree remained. That is why he fell off his horse and hurt his leg. However, the continued revelry lessened even this residual decree. G‑d willing, Nochum will recover in the very near future.”5
Now that you know the reasons behind the peals of “Mazal tov,” you too can join in and help transform the world into a more joyous place.
|1.||Talmud, Meilah 17a–b, following the emendations of Tosafot and Shitah Mekubetzet ad loc.|
|2.||See Otzar Yad ha-Chaim 92.|
|3.||Midrash Tehillim, Psalms 79:1; Eichah Rabbah 4:14; Rashi, Psalms 79:1.|
|4.||See Machmudei ha-Torah 38, p. 4.|
|5.||Otzar Sipurei Chabad, vol. 16, p. 55, quoting Reshimot Devarim by Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik.|