The days and weeks following Shavuos constitute our community’s prime wedding season. With the advent of warm weather and the end of the sefirah period, wedding halls are booked solid, and young men and woman celebrate the most important day of their lives.
For many members of our community — far more than is often imagined — the joy of meriting to marry off a child is tempered by the knowledge that the arrival of this long-awaited simchah has also entailed slipping into a deep morass of debt.
While precise numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that the average cost of marrying off a child — reckoning from the night of the engagement until the last sheva brachos — is upwards of $45,000; in many cases, the costs are far higher.
Despite their sincere intentions to save, and unlike a generation ago, many families are unable to put away any part of their hard-earned wages. With incomes failing to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of housing and other essential expenses, they barely manage to scrape through the month as it is. Even among those who did manage to squirrel away some savings, most of it is used up at the marriage of their first child. The remainder is used towards the wedding expenses of the second, and by their third child, parents find themselves without any savings at all.
These desperate parents rush from gemach to gemach, borrow from relatives and acquaintances, take out a second mortgage. When those options dry up, they start to ratchet up their use of credit cards, paying astronomical interest rates in the process. For years to come, instead of focusing on reaping nachas from their children and enjoying the grandchildren, a very significant part of our community struggles to keep up with an ever-worsening cycle of debt.
The enormous amount of stress caused by this phenomenon is taking a severe toll, affecting both the physical and emotional health of many parents and weighing on the hearts of newlyweds, who feel guilty that their happiness is causing such tension in the lives of their parents.
The concept that those who are well off have an obligation to take steps so that those of lesser means should not be embarrassed is clearly stated in Chazal, who inform us that when bnos Yerushalayim would gather in the vineyards for the purpose of shidduchim on the fifteenth of Av, each had borrowed a dress from another, so that the poor among them would not be embarrassed.
It is in this light that chasunah takanos have been remarkably successful in dramatically cutting costs in those kehillos where they have been accepted. While takanos have yet to become a reality in many other kehillos, they have had a very positive ripple effect, making cutting back a much more acceptable idea.
While a considerable amount of the expenditures associated with making a chasunah go for basics, still, as the takanos illustrate, there is much room for scaling down. The vicious cycle of spending money one doesn’t have for things one doesn’t need solely because of a desire to emulate the neighbor down the block — who, ironically, is doing it for the very same reason — is a sad reality that has a negative effect on the day-to-day lives of the members of our community.
All it takes is the courage to break the cycle of imitating what others do and to recognize the grandeur of cutting back on behalf of the entire community. Unlike the hollow feelings that accompany ostentatious spending, and the heartache of spending tens of thousands of unnecessary dollars for an affair that lasts only a few hours, taking the initiative to do what is right provides deep satisfaction while rightfully earning the brave families who do so a sterling reputation.
A number of years ago, a pair of mechutanim sat down to plan the chasunah menu. The father of the chassan suggested simple fare that would have saved a substantial sum.
“My other children had a more elegant menu,” the kallah’s father responded. “It wouldn’t be fair to give any less. I will pay the entire difference.”
“It isn’t the money,” the chassan’s father quickly replied. “Baruch Hashem, I can afford it. It is the principle. I feel it is very important to teach my children that we must be considerate of those who are struggling financially, and by cutting back on public spending we make it possible for others to do so as well.
“Instead of spending more money on wedding refreshments,” he continued, “let’s give this amount directly to the young couple, so they can use it in a meaningful and lasting way.”
Impressed by the sound reasoning, the kallah’s father agreed to present the offer to the kallah, who accepted the change in plans happily.
There are numerous heroic individuals who, like these fathers, could well afford to spend more, yet deliberately choose to cut back — thereby serving as role models for others to emulate. It also takes great courage for those who can’t afford it to withstand the inevitable peer pressure and recognize that cutting costs is nothing to be ashamed of, and is actually an act of chessed that will be of great help to others.
Through the courageous actions of individuals, real change can be made that will, b’ezras Hashem, alleviate the burden borne by so many.