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Ridiculous Jewish Weddings

January 10, 2014 2:04 pm 4 comments

An Orthodox Jewish wedding. Photo: Wikipedia.

It has been a pleasurable part of my life as a rabbi to attend weddings. I have attended hundreds of weddings of various sizes, styles, and traditions. Some of course I have enjoyed more than others, and not a few have been the occasion of as much conflict, anger, and dispute, as happiness, love, and delight. But I am finding it increasingly hard to feel comfortable about some weddings I attend, for a whole range of reasons.

Firstly, they are getting more and more protracted. I thought it was only Persians who called you for 5:00, arrived at 8:00, and started at 9:30. But the last Ashkenazi wedding I attended was called for 6:00, ran a smorgasbord till 9:00, and started at 10:00. You can now assume it takes half an hour for the procession in to the Chupah. Some Chupahs are so overcrowded with jostling relatives that it feels like a scrum.

Often one band plays for the reception, another for the Chupah, a third for Hassidic or Israeli dances, a fourth for ballroom dancing, and then there’s a disco. One singer is for Ashkenazi cantorial style, one for Chasidic pop, one for Sephardi tunes, and another for Carlebach. As for food, a loaded reception is offered as people arrive, another after the Chupah but before dinner, then there will be a full main meal, midnight refreshers, and if there’s a Chasidic Mitzvah Tantz at the end you’ll get a complete breakfast as well.

It is fashionable to fly in from Israel, distinguished rebbes, rabbis, and factota traveling first class or on private jets. A guest list of thousands is not unusual. Consider the millions, now billions being spent each year on religious weddings. Then consider how much charitable and educational work could be accomplished instead of a one-night bash that disappears into photo albums a few hours after it is over, to be glanced at perhaps once a year thereafter. The cost, the waste, it’s mind-blowing.

But I realize that weddings are not just for brides and grooms. Nowadays we have massive extended families. Once upon a time war, disease, and anti-Semitism decimated our ranks. Nowadays first cousins can run into the fifties and second cousins into the hundreds. Successful businessmen have to invite business contacts, flaunt their success to attract new capital, and invite gaggles of rabbis to prove their religious status and legitimacy. It’s not just spoilt daughters who clamor for excess, it’s insecure magnates too.

Over the past fifty years of rising Jewish affluence (as well as continuing Jewish poverty) many religious leaders of all denominations have tried hard to introduce sumptuary laws to try to limit excessive expenditure on weddings, to absolutely no avail. Desperate parents have offered apartments and cars instead of huge weddings to their children, but a fancy white wedding always seems to win. Occasionally you hear of a couple who elope to Israel for a quickie or just take a rabbi and two witnesses into Central Park. But the pressures are so great that in most Jewish circles it’s simply not an option.

One could arrange a nice, modest wedding ceremony and celebratory meal, regardless of whether it was in New York, London, Jerusalem, or Pondicherry (even if the price of kosher catering is ballooning like the Hindenburg). Recently I entertained a relatively humble rosh yeshiva from Israel who has ten children and has personal debts of $500,000 as a result of marrying off his five daughters. It was not just the cost of a wedding itself, or the seven mini-celebrations, the Sheva Brachot during the following seven days. It was the need to buy an apartment for each that left him staggering under such a heavy load of debt. At the same time he has to support his five sons who are also married but are studying full-time. This is not atypical.

A rented apartment is unacceptable nowadays in certain circles. And the chances of someone with no serious secular education getting a good job are massively reduced in Israeli society, indeed in any society nowadays. Some families can support indolent, sponging, trust fund parasites. But the number of wealthy families who can do this is shrinking, because the open hands increase exponentially in each generation without any new infusion of money-earners. At the same time the culture of universal life-time study as the norm for adult Charedi men is reaching the point where either poverty or social dislocation will produce disaffection and even violence, as it invariably does regardless of religion.

Now it is true that Judaism is expanding because of its families blessed with many children. And it is true that social welfare (incidentally a product of the secular culture they despise) enables this mindset. But at some point social welfare will eventually have to be cut back as fewer and fewer enter the workplace to fund all this with their taxes. Shouldn’t we be thinking longer term?

If we cannot survive and grow without our families, it is also true that for Judaism to survive we need education and Jewish schools. In America there is a massive crisis over the cost of Jewish education. At $30,000 per child per year, after tax, fewer and fewer Jewish families can afford Jewish schools. The Charedi world has a way of taking care of its own. The absence of significant secular education cuts their expenses by more than half. Secular or less religiously committed Jews don’t bother with Jewish education altogether, and the resulting assimilation is now a veritable tidal wave. It is the modern or centrist Jews who carry the massive burden, because they want a dual-track Jewish and secular education. But the costs are making it harder and harder to afford.

In Britain, state aid has made Jewish education affordable. But there are not enough schools. A well-known campaigner for Jewish schools in London recently confided that he has a list of 1,500 Jewish children in the northern suburbs who are clamoring for Jewish education, but he cannot raise the money to start a school that, once it is running, the state would then support. The Charedi rich only contribute to Charedi education. The non-religious only care about non-Jewish education, and the middle either can’t afford to give or don’t care enough.

For our own good as a people, we must call a halt to throwing so much money away on pure self-indulgence. If we care for our future we must give as much attention to supporting Jewish education as we do to Jewish reproduction. The place to start is weddings. Make your calculations. Then carve them in half and divide the sum evenly between the two pillars that keep us alive and well and Jewish.


  • I find myself in the unique position that for the first time ever I absolutly agree with you. Things have truly gotten out of hand.
    Chasidic courts such as as Belz,Bobov,and Gur have put strict limits on how much can be spend on a wedding and on flowers and how many people may attend, and this is surely a step in the right direction.
    The universally accepted custom to bury ones dead in a simple white shroud came about as a result of outrageous expenditures on the clothing of the dead.
    There is a fantastic organization in Israel called Yad Eliezer who amongst a myriad of charitable acts does weddings at their own wedding hall in Jerusalem ( Armonei Wolff ) at under $2500 US i have personally attende some of these weddings and can tell you that hey are beautiful with music and flowers and good food, its time for the community to wake up and use its resources better.
    The key to all this is to force the well off not to make outrageous weddings as its done in the frum community

    Showing the love of Judaism.
    Celebrating in similar styles as our neighbors.
    Jews are harmonizing with fellow man.
    Spreading our wealth.Doing what The USA PRES OBAMA ADVOCATES…giving to the lesser of society. Equalizing the hard earned money we Jews earned through ‘hard honest work even putting our life and life savings on the line to make an obscene amount of money to share with the less fortunate.
    We Jews are taking good care of the wealth the heavens have poured on us….

  • Brilliant piece. Couldn’t agree with you less. We have our own parallels on splashing loans on weddings and funerals in Ghana inWest Africa. Of course this depends on the level of education, one’s social standing I.e family, professional class. But more importantly it depends whatmessage the spender intends to send across to the public. It really does irk me. The irony is that people spend more on the dead these days than on the living.

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