How can I convince my parents to let me get married in a simple, outdoor ceremony, and not make a huge, fancy deal? My fiancee and I do not want to elope, but just see the whole hall/food/etc. thing as a huge waste of resources, especially in today's world. My parents (in addition to being very upper middle class and slaves to society) are very traditional, so some Jewish sources from a rabbi might help our case....
FIrst of all mazal tov to both of you and all your family for the simchah of your wedding!
Although weddings are times of joy, we all know how wedding planning can be a cause of strife among family members.
Our tradition has the concept of CHIDUR MITZVAH, which is beautifying the mitzvah. This can be doing something to ritual objects to make them beautiful, i.e. to make an ornamented Torah cover, Shabbat candelabra, mezuzot, tefilin, Passover seder plates, etc.
What the rabbis say is there should be no limit to this action, since it is out of love for the mitzvot and God.
However, it is true we have become more and more as you define "slaves" of society and sometimes the reasons behind embellishing a mitzvah can come out of a different place, one of competing with others to see who can throw the most lavish bar-mitzvah or wedding ceremonies. I personally have the experience of seeing so many Jewish parties so extravagant and a waste of resources in the community I grew up. It seems like every week somebody in the community wanted to throw the biggest wedding.
Perhaps you could negotiate in some sort of Salomonic wisdom; maybe you can reduce the number of guests or not make it as fancy as your parents originally thought. Traditionally Jewish weddings are also a good setting for becoming aware, among the joy, of those who are needy in the community and society in general. It was very normal to see beggars coming to weddings and ask for tzedakah. Perhaps your parents could give some of the money they are planning to "throw away" and give some tzedakah in the name of the bride and the groom. In that way they will be using their resources to embellish your marriage with a beautiful and powerful mitzvah that is to help the needy.
Hope you can find a balanced decision. Many years of health and happiness to both of you.
Answered by: Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez (Emeritus)
The Torah advocates beautifying moments and places that are associated with holy celebrations and mitzvoth. The walls of the Temple in Jerusalem were paneled with gold, and in fact there is a Biblical commandment, based upon the verse “This is my G-d and I will beautify Him” (Exodus 15:2), to spend up to 30% more than one normally would to beautify a mitzvah. (BT Baba Kama 9a). With that said, excessive displays of wealth or ostentatious behavior are against the values of the Torah. Modesty is a quality which is important to inculcate for its own sake, as the prophet Micah (6:8) enjoins us to ‘go (in life) with modesty’. The Rabbis of the Talmud also warned that excessive displays of wealth may arouse the resentment of non-Jews when we are living outside the land of Israel (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 10b). There is also an idea that after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem weddings should be toned down because our joy cannot be complete (BT Sotah 49b).
Lifecycle events are celebrations which families want to make special by enhancing, however this can also lead to excess, and this excess can put pressures upon those who cannot afford it. This often occurs with weddings, Bar and Bat mitzvah celebrations and funerals. Throughout different periods of history, the Rabbi made decrees, takanot, to curb excessive lavishness at these events. The best example of this, and the one that has perhaps been most successful was the decree to keep funerals simple. (BT Moed Katan 27a). The former practices of elaborate processions and costly sarcophagi were banned by force of takkanot so the ‘the poor should not be put to shame’. To this day the Jewish custom is to bury in a plain pine box and linen shrouds, and to have no flowers.
In the Middle Ages the Rabbis’ concern for societal pressure brought about what are referred to as the Sumptuary Laws, community decrees limiting the number of guests, the number of silver goblets, and the ostentatious jewelry.
In more recent times there has been an attempt in the orthodox community to institute takanot, communal decrees that create guidelines to limit the size and elaborate nature of celebrations. This includes limiting the number of guests, having a single musician instead of a whole band and limits and what is spent on the flowers. The Chasidic communities are much more successful because of the authority commanded by the ‘Rebbe’. In non-chasidic communities takanot were attempted but then dropped because people had difficulty adhering to them. Is it not ironic that we are more successful at keeping funerals modest than weddings? But then again, the person is not there to insist on what they want.
On a personal note, our wedding had 70 people, our closest family and friends, with a light buffet. The chupa was four people holding poles with a talit attached and we bought a video camera and gave it to a friend. His pre-YouTube amateur shoot was nice than most professional jobs, and people said it was such a nice wedding because the true spirit was not eclipsed by the trappings. Let’s get back to basics and try to really live with modesty according to our Jewish values. The Duties of the Heart says that a person who follows a spiritual path needs to have the strength of character to not just follow what everyone else is doing, and sometimes will be criticized for it, but in the end they will have the inner satisfaction of knowing they did the right thing.
There surely seems to be a difference (read: clash) of values between you and your parents on this subject. For you, you wish either to restrain what could be perceived as conspicuous consumption or to use your (your family’s?) financial resources in other ways.
For your parents, they are elated at your upcoming marriage. They either want to have a blowout celebration or, as you describe them as “very upper middle class and slaves to society”, they may have a range of social obligations to repay. You may also have a very large family that needs hosting if you all anticipate or desire a weekend of events. A large party can fulfill these or other needs, of which you may or may not be aware.
From a Jewish standpoint, we sure would not want resources to be used inappropriately, and much of Jewish law frowns upon ostentation. Jewish law and custom surely approves of the acquisition of wealth, but those who attain it should use it to help others (tzedakah, that is), and not use it for personal advancement or aggrandizement. Deuteronomy (15:10) reminds us that we should “give generously to them [the needy] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to”. Other similar references can be found in Isaiah 1:17-19 and Proverbs 19:17.
When it comes to displays of wealth, the Talmud takes a view that unnecessary ostentation leads to envy and, perhaps, to anti-Semitism. When in Genesis 42:1, Jacob wonders about why his sons just sort of stand around looking at one another and doing nothing during the famine, the Rabbis of the Talmud give a slightly different spin to Jacob’s observation. In Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 10b, this was Jacob’s speech to his sons: “Do not show yourselves to be sated either before Esau or Ishmael in order that you do not arouse their envy against you”. Some read these words as warnings about the Israelites displaying their wealth to the nations around them.
Another reason to restrict the display of one’s wealth, as we read in tradition, is to protect the poor, who would not otherwise have the means, of trying to “keep up” with others in society. Some may consider borrowing far beyond their means, and others might even engage in illegal or unethical behavior to achieve what they see in others.
In an article, “The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law”, Hershey H. Friedman, Professor of Business and Marketing at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, brings forward this interesting passage from Babylonian Talmud Mo’ed Katan (27a-27b) regarding the changes that were enacted in the funeral ceremony in order not to humiliate the poor [http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/againstosten.html]:
“Formerly, they would bring food to the house of mourners in following manner: to the rich, in baskets of gold and silver, and to the poor in wicker baskets made of peeled willows. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with food in wicker baskets made of peeled willows out of deference of the poor.
Formerly, they would provide drinks to the house of mourners in the following manner: to the rich, in white glass [which was very expensive], and to the poor in colored glass. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with drinks in colored glass out of deference to the poor.
Formerly, they would uncover the face of the rich [corpse], and cover the face of the poor because their face became blackened by famine. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all faces should be covered out of deference to the poor.
Formerly, they would carry out the rich [corpse] in a state bed and the poor on a common bier. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be carried out on a common bier out of deference to the poor…”
Finally a conspicuous display of wealth can lead to conceit and haughtiness, characteristics that the Rabbis wanted us to avoid. The most common passage in Torah on this subject is this one from Deuteronomy 8:10-18:
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Eternal your God for the good land God has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Eternal your God, failing to observe God’s commands, laws, and decrees that I give you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down; when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Eternal your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. It was God who led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. It was God who brought you water out of hard rock. It was God who gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. Beware that you don’t say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me’. But remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms God’s covenant, which God swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”
In the final analysis, your parents may do what they want; it sounds as though they are paying for the wedding in any case. But perhaps you can ask them to tone down the party to reflect their need for social obligations and your desire to make this an appropriate party. Bear in mind that, in the realm of Jewish celebrations, a wedding is the happiest of occasions that we celebrate, and some people feel they want to go all out for it.
So what can affect the costs? An afternoon affair is usually less expensive than an evening party. Certain outdoor venues can be inexpensive or costly; it depends upon demand. Certain menu selections can be less costly. So be creative, and also be willing to compromise with your parents on some of these matters. Your values about avoiding ostentation – for whatever reason – are just as valid as theirs, and you probably should try to meet halfway.
And, by the way, Mazel Tov on the upcoming wedding!
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