“He (Moshe) said: The Lord came from Sinai, and shone from Se’ir for them. He appeared from Mount Paran, and He came with some of the holy myriads. From His right [He brought] a fiery law to them.” (Devarim 33:2)

In the opening verses of Moshe’s final blessings of the tribes, he describes in poetic language, the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rashi notes that when Hashem came to give the Torah, he was accompanied by “some” of the tens of thousands of angels that minister before Him. He did not come “with all of them, or even most of them, unlike the behaviour of a man of flesh and blood who displays all his honour and wealth on the day of his wedding.” In Rabbinic literature, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is often compared to a wedding with God, the groom; Israel, the bride and Sinai, the chuppah. Contained in this comment of Rashi is a critique of the excesses that surround the celebration of marriages. 

In the modern era, Jewish weddings have undergone a complete transformation. Every aspect of the wedding is planned, designed and executed with the budget of a small third-world country and the precision and skill of a military operation. There are bespoke chuppah canopies; flower arrangements that could easily enter the Chelsea flower show; wedding gowns made to order in the most luxurious fabrics; specialty bars serving colourful cocktails and, that most basic of all Jewish foods, sushi served with soy sauce and spicy wasabi. Thanks to the affluent lifestyles of many Western Jews, parents are able (although not always willing) to give their children a send-off that their ancestors could only ever have dreamed about in the frigid gloom of Eastern Europe. The Code of Jewish Law (Even Haezer 64:3) rules that although holding a wedding on Friday could lead to the desecration of Shabbat, nevertheless (in his time) the accepted custom was to hold the chuppah on a Friday. Rabbi Obadiah MiBartenura notes (Mishna Ketubot 1:1) that this was primarily for the benefit of the poor who could not afford a separate wedding reception and would use their Friday night dinner as the wedding meal! 

Our way of life is extremely far removed from such deprivation. But what happens when families cannot afford such weddings? There are precious few who tell their children, “We cannot afford the wedding of your dreams, we will have something simpler.” Instead, many families beg, borrow and steal so they can keep up with the Cohens and not appear to be poor. I recall receiving a letter from a lawyer in Johannesburg several years ago, explaining that his client who had been a prosperous businessman, had fallen on hard times and was unable to pay for his side of a very lavish wedding for his child that his mechutanim in Israel had convinced him to contribute towards. The in-laws steadfastly insisted that he pay his share and as a result of this, he had reached levels of desperation, including having his attorney contact all the rabbis in South Africa seeking financial assistance. Thankfully, there are many hachnasat kallah funds around the world that come to the assistance of needy brides and grooms. Here in Cape Town, we have the Simcha Fund (of which I am a committee member) that to date, has assisted many families to create simple yet dignified simchas. (For more information or to make a donation please contact me!) However, it is unlikely that any such fund will pay for the type of weddings that are prevalent today in the Jewish world. How do we, as responsible Jews, react to this situation, especially during a worldwide economic recession?

The Prophet Micah (6:8, as explained by the Talmud, Makkot 24a) condensed all of the 613 mitzvoth into three principles: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” The Talmud provides two examples of the third principle: “Walking humbly with God: this refers to escorting the dead and taking the bride to the chuppah (both are done while walking). The sages conclude: “If we must act humbly while performing mitzvoth that are usually done in public and with much fanfare, then how much more so should we behave humbly when performing mitzvoth that are normally done privately.” There is a natural human tendency to “show off” when performing religious duties in public, be it a happy event or a sad occasion. In response to this tendency, the prophet calls upon the nation of Israel to be humble, to turn the celebrations (or the mourning) down a notch and to contemplate why they are performing the mitzvah. This is by no means an easy request to make, but it must be made. It would seem that in regard to funerals, the prophet’s words were successful. Jewish funerals are perhaps the most simple of any culture. There are no ornate coffins and no expensive clothes for the deceased. Everyone is buried in identical shrouds in a simple coffin or, as is the custom in many places in Israel, directly in the ground.  How did this happen?  The Talmud (Moed Katan 27b) explains: “Initially the funeral expenses were so high that [paying for them] became a greater ordeal for the family than the death of their relative. This led many family members to flee in shame and abandon their deceased relative. This happened until Rabban Gamliel gave instructions that, contrary to his high position, he would be buried only in simple linen shrouds. When this happened, the entire nation did likewise.” It took just one, high-profile, wealthy person to change the status quo. To this day, Jews are buried as Rabban Gamliel directed: in a humble fashion. 

I believe the same example needs to be set for weddings. A person of renown in the community must swallow his pride and provide his children with a basic wedding. I read of something similar concerning bar mitzvah celebrations in the letter pages of an edition of the American Jewish Observer magazine. A woman from a prominent family wrote that for her second son’s bar mitzvah, she and her husband decided that the sole celebration would be a Kiddush following shul on Shabbat. This took some convincing because the young man’s older brother had been given a no-holds-barred catered event.  However, they persevered and did the same for all of their other sons. Soon the entire community followed suit and a new status quo was established.    

The time has now come for our community to show some self-restraint, especially during these times of economic hardship. Families can still have beautiful and memorable weddings, but without the unnecessary extras that have become the norm. 

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

Share with your community
No Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.