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Teach, Don’t Ban

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The impact of the country’s economic crisis is being felt far and wide, and most, if not all, of us are being forced to cut back on non-essential spending.

Being frum, however, is expensive. New clothes for Yom Tov; a lulav and esrog; fish, chicken, and meat every Shabbos; yeshiva tuition — the list goes on and on. What results is a never-ending series of expenses that seems overwhelming and inescapable.

Making a simcha — in particular, marrying off one’s child — is surely one of the heaviest of these financial burdens. Jewish weddings routinely include over 300 guests, more than five band members, and both a smorgasbord and a sit-down several-course dinner. Vorts have become mini-weddings, with a catered spread of cakes, pastries, and salads, a live musician, and a specially purchased outfit for the bride-to-be. That’s not to mention the protocol when it comes to the exchange of gifts at every stage of the process.

Of course, not everyone can afford to underwrite these kinds of affairs. And others, regardless of their wherewithal, eschew hyper-materialism as a matter of principle. So what we have in our community are basically four categories: the “haves” who spend big, the “haves” who keep it simple, the “have-nots” who spend big anyway, and the “have-nots” who keep it simple. Is there anything wrong with this system?

I don’t see a problem with people spending within their means, whether those be modest or abundant.  What we should be concerned about is people spending outside their means in order to keep up with more well-to-do friends and neighbors.

Some segments of the Orthodox world see things differently, however. There is, they believe, a “crisis of spending.” In August, the leadership of the Skverer chassidic community in New Square, New York issued updated chasunah takanos (wedding rules) designed to lop thousands of dollars off the cost of marrying off a child. The rules are incredibly detailed and sweeping in scope. A few highlights:

▪ The vort should be held in the kallah’s home within three days of the l’chaim.

▪ The kallah’s friends should not be invited to the vort.

▪ No birthday gifts should be exchanged between the chasan and kallah.

▪ A cubic zirconium should substitute for a diamond engagement ring.

▪ Gifts for the kallah should include artificial flowers, a pearl necklace, earrings, and bracelet, machzorim and a siddur.

▪ Gifts for the chasan should include a gold-plated watch, set of Shas and various other seforim, menorah, Shabbos talis and talis bag, and kittel.

▪ A maximum of 120 guests may attend the wedding feast, which should feature only a one-man band.

▪ All but two of the sheva brachos must be held in a private home with only a minyan of men invited.

The Skverer edicts are the most comprehensive and restrictive to date. They build upon previous rules and were adopted after a survey of Skverer chassidim. The Satmar community has a similar set of rules, while the Ger chassidim in Israel have their own regulations. These rules are not merely suggestions — they are meant to be followed, and in a tightly run chassidic community, they will be.

In the Litvish world, on the other hand, there is no centralized rabbinic authority — no “chief rabbi,” at least in this country. Thus, attempts to issue simcha rules have never quite taken off. In 2001, Agudah introduced a list of takanos that, among other things, eliminated the vort and limited side dishes at the wedding to two, the guest list to 400, and the band to four pieces. Yet if you’ve attended your fair share of weddings in the past several years, you will have noticed that these guidelines are not being widely followed. That’s if people even know about them.

The solution is not issuing more rules and coming up with ways to publicize and enforce them. That approach misses the real problem. Making a fancy simcha is not, in and of itself, a sin. What’s wrong is 1) spending money you don’t have in order to keep up with perceived competition; and 2) on the other end of the spectrum, spending money you do have in an ostentatious manner meant to, as my mother puts it, “pop people’s eyes out.”

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