$100,000 for a wedding? $20,000 for a bar mitzvah? When did extravagance and luxury become such primary Jewish values? I can’t remember the last simcha (Jewish celebration) I attended at which there were not tremendous amounts of wasted food, overly expensive napkins and bands large enough for a royal banquet.
Shockingly, the funding for these weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and bris milahs does not always coming from savings accounts; rather, families frequently take out large loans in order to afford keeping up with the Jewish communal norms. Stories have been told that some families take out loans up to $100,000 to cover weddings that at times cost as much as $150,000-$300,000. Is this what a committed Jewish life necessitates?
Histapkut bamuat (being content with less) is a core Jewish value, and Ben Zoma taught that a wealthy individual is one who is content with one’s lot (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Rav Bachya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th Century Spanish philosopher, shared this view and taught that a lifestyle of materialism and overindulgence leads one away from G-d. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 29b) teaches that one is not to appear publicly in a way that flaunts his or her wealth, as this lifestyle not only leads to arrogance, but can also shame others and lead them to covet.
Throughout various time periods, the Jewish community embraced sumptuary laws (laws limiting personal expenses on religious grounds). As a way of showing “deference to the poor” (Moed Kattan 27), even the richest people were to be buried plainly so as not to shame the poor, and on certain festive days, girls, especially those from wealthy families, were to wear borrowed clothes so as not to shame those who did not have.
In the early 18th century, the community of Furth prohibited the serving of coffee and tea because they were expensive. They also limited the number of musicians at celebration and how long they could play for. At other times, rabbis ruled that only fish, not meat, could be served at celebrations.
Attempts to limit overly extravagant celebrations have been made in 21st Century America as well. In 2001 the Agudah issued “Guidelines for Financial Realism and Modesty in our Weddings,” and for a few years thereafter, ultra-Orthodox rabbis issued simcha guidelines (“wedding takkanos”) that cancelled the vort (pre-wedding celebration), limited wedding guests to 400, the smorgasbord to the basics, the meal to 3 courses, the band to 5 musicians, and the flowers and chuppah decorations to $1,800. The Satmar, Skver, and Belz Hassidim have also issued followed suit and issued wedding takkonos.
These takkanos indicate that the madness of overly extravagant celebrations has gotten out of hand.
Every simcha sets a new communal standard, and rabbis should be counseling families in the virtues of modesty and moderation as their congregants plan their celebrations. Family members and friends should remind loved ones what is most important when planning a major life event; it should be a time of spiritual reflection creating an ambiance of love by bringing together sacred community and not merely be an opportunity to outdo “the Cohens”.
Instead of inciting competition and animosity, we should work to create more creative and holy celebrations that foster inclusiveness and community building.
Money is tight today, especially for those committed to living an observant Jewish life. A 2005 study estimated that synagogue membership averages at over $1,000 and in large cities it can easily be two to three times that. A Jewish family with only three children could spend over $100,000 a year on day school, camp, synagogue, and kosher food. Prices are going up and not all can meet these demands.
A wedding, birth, funeral, and the like are all opportunities for great spiritual and ethical possibilities and are a time for families to engage in financial introspection (cheshbon ha’kis).
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Some argue that people have the right to enjoy their wealth and spend it as they please. While it is true that they have the secular right to do as they wish with their wealth, it is clear that excessively lavish semakhot are at odds with core values of the Jewish tradition. Those who are concerned with the trend of expressing love through consumerism should consider alternative models of celebration, shifting the focus of Jewish life cycle celebrations from materialism and extravagance to a more spiritual and ethical approach.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.