JERUSALEM, March 19 (JTA) — Reports that Israel’s chief rabbi has been charging couples to wed them have sparked a public debate. The Religious Affairs Ministry bars rabbis from charging for conducting weddings, because Israelis already pay a fee to their local religious council. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Wednesday that Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau performed more than 100 marriages a year and regularly collected fees ranging from $500 to $2,000 per couple. The paper said the chief rabbi often was paid cash, which was handed to him in an envelope on the night of the event. According to the report, Lau sometimes opened the envelope, counted the bills and, referring to his personal driver, asked, “What about him?” Responding to the allegations in the article, Lau said he never charged to perform marriages. “I never asked, and certainly never conditioned my services, on any kind of payment,” he told the paper. When told that some 30 couples had recorded statements claiming otherwise, Lau said he had received donations as gratuities. “There is no directive against receiving a gift from someone who would like to express appreciation,” he said. Lau said such gestures sometimes equaled the equivalent of a few hundred dollars. The chief rabbi’s lawyer said all of his client’s activities were legal.