Yes to Regulation, No to Social Engineering

The commendable trend to remove the “keeping up with the Cohens” part of simchah spending is degenerating into turning a chasunah into a glorified Kiddush.

There are three kinds of takanos that have developed over the millennia: Takanos have been enacted as a sign of mourning over an event; to streamline simchah spending; or to save money for people.

These can be divided into three categories.

The first is a real, dyed-in-the-wool takanah, instituted by Chazal or Rabbanim over the years, mourning the churban Beis Hamikdash or other events which they felt irrevocably changed the course of Klal Yisrael. They abolished the “hinuma” that a kallah had — either an elaborate canopy or a headdress — and in recent years, Rabbanim of Yerushalayim have limited music to a drum, or a “poiker,” and a singer.

The second grouping can be categorized as regulations to save people money or to prevent ultra-lavish affairs. The practice of instituting takanos for simchos dates back to the early Rishonim, as recorded at length in Tosafos in Kesubos. Many Ashkenazi towns and cities limited spending on wedding flowers to a certain amount of reiner and drachma, guest lists were limited and extravagance was shamed down.

Many individual kehillos also have takanos of this sort, limiting cakes at kiddeishim, one-man bands at chasunos, or the amount of real gold in chassan watches and kallah jewelry. These are fine examples of the concern Gedolim have for the Jewish bottom line, and are not the subject of this debate.

But today, a third category is creeping into society, which can only be described as socialism. Jewish socialism for sure, with the epithet that “he meant well,” but socialism nonetheless.

These people would relegate chasunos to Friday afternoons — “just like the alte heim,” I can hear them saying — have sheva brachos made at private homes, and limit the seudah to immediate family.

Where to begin? Should chuppos be limited to those housewives who have their cholent ready three hours before the zman? Bachurim who can afford to disappear from the house for a few hours on Erev Shabbos? Should Rebbes stop conducting tischen on Friday nights when there is a chasunah? Abolish seder in most yeshivos?

Should some enterprising individual open a “sheva brachos gemach” to ensure panim chadashos at all those house affairs? (How’s that for a response to takanos?)

We live in a capitalist society. And we only gain from it. Centuries of the government limiting what goods you could sell and at what price have devastated generations of oppressed citizens.

The same capitalism that allowed so many Jews to earn a comfortable middle- or upper-class existence is continually under attack by, for lack of a better term, well-meaning people. But that does not change the facts. The singers, vendors, flower-sellers, caterers and hall managers who lose the most from these takanos are members of our community. When they make money, they use it for s’char limud, mortgage, local grocers and buying aliyos on Yom Tov.

We all pay the price for these takanos. The overall heimishe economy loses when they lose parnassah. How many halls and people went out of business because of the previous takanos that anyhow ended in failure?

Growing up in Boro Park in the 1950s, my father recalls how every bar mitzvah in the close-knit Holocaust-survivor community was a major affair. While my grandfather recalls his bar mitzvah in Bialostoker yeshivah in Poland — he put on tefillin and that was it — and many of his friends got their start on married life in a mass wedding in some DP camp, he and his generation celebrated their postwar rebirth to the extent that bar mitzvos started taking place in catered halls. Chasunos were community-wide celebrations.

That eventually became the model across the Jewish world today. Stories of how “my bar mitzvah meant an after-Shacharis l’chaim” have become cute punch lines and chasunos in shul are part of the rich Depression-era story repertoire.

I agree that takanos have their place, but only the regulatory ones similar to those enacted in previous generations, and, most importantly, takanos that take our unique lifestyle into consideration. We, or at least those of us living in large communities such as Boro Park, Monsey, Lakewood or Yerushalayim, cannot limit ourselves to the same guest limit as they did in Cologne, Emden, Worms and Salonika.

One final thought: When our community makes the news for any tragic event, we are referred to more often than not as “close-knit,” or the reporter will mention how Jews grieve over people they never even heard of.

We can cry over sad events, but agree to limit our happiness for simchos? As important as it is to save people money, the majority of the Orthodox community can afford a nice chasunah today. As long as he is content with his wallet and not spending with his neighbor’s bankbook.