Several years ago I was heading to a shul in Israel for Mincha when I encountered a most unusual sight. On the footsteps outside the shul a small crowd had gathered, and, of all things, a wedding was being conducted! To my even greater surprise, it quickly became apparent that there was not one, but two weddings taking place. A double shotgun wedding on the steps outside shul before Mincha!
The mesader kiddushin was a Rabbi from a nearby moshav. The witnesses to the marriage were chosen at the scene. The guests were local residents on their way to shul, who also functioned as an impromptu band. The wedding “meal” consisted of bamba, pretzels, candy, and soda in the lobby of the shul. The whole thing took about 15 minutes, for both weddings. True story.
On the one hand, it would have been nice if the couples could have enjoyed a celebration more befitting the greatness of the occasion. But I can’t help but wonder if these couples — probably new olim with little to their names — should really be feeling sorry for us instead. I doubt many people remember anymore, let alone care, that this double wedding was so simple. The new couples surely did not need a lavish affair for the moment to be special, and were able to begin life together free of an unnecessary financial anchor.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that semachos be conducted in this fashion as a lechatchila, only that a minimal-yet-tasteful affair is preferable to an opulent one. Few would argue otherwise (the argument that “those who can afford to go overboard are entitled to” rings hollow with me), yet many families continue to outspend their means for a fleeting indulgence. They go deep into debt and burden themselves with multiple jobs for a few hours of empty social adequacy. How many millions of dollars does our community flush into opulent semachos every year? How many thousands of additional hours of hard work are performed to pay off the mountain of debt? How much family tension and private suffering is endured just “to keep up” with a society gone mad?
The attempted “takana” of a group of Rabbis several years back merely underscores the inability and/or unwillingness of community leaders to tackle serious communal problems head-on, and lends support to my belief that contemporary Jewish practice is determined from the bottom up. Some may deem this position disrespectful, but the facts speak for themselves.
Since the average Jew will continue to commit financial suicide as long as society demands it (for reasons best understood by experts in human psychology and mussar), we must change the demands of society. In the absence of true religious fidelity, there is only one way that can be accomplished. I know the solution will work if properly implemented, because it has already been proven.
In Mishnaic times it became the social norm for funerals to be elaborate affairs. The dead would be buried in expensive garments, and professional lamenters would often be hired to wail in the streets. The stress on the family to keep up and the difficulty to pay for the funeral exceeded the pain of the death itself. It reached a point where people abandoned their dead and fled!
The spiral of madness ended when Rabbi Gamliel, the nasi of the generation, ordered that he be buried in simple linen shrouds, without the opulence that was now expected for even an ordinary person. The entire nation adopted this as a custom – after all, who would dare take more honor for himself than Rabbi Gamliel? – and the custom remains to this very day, thousands of years later (see Kesubos 8B).
This situation is exactly analogous to what we face today, and a similar solution should prove effective. We don’t need elaborate takanos and plaintive calls for moderation. We need role models to step forward and set a new standard. Let several wealthy and highly respected individuals publicly announce that their upcoming semachos will be plain and understated in every way. Further, instead of wasting many thousands of dollars on a few hours of pomp, they will donate the equivalent amount to a variety of worthy charities. This will allay speculation that they are covering for a financial downturn or a sudden bout of parsimony.
This mesiras nefesh should receive widespread publicity and fanfare. (Hopefully the ba’alei simcha will not be motivated by the well-deserved honor they stand to receive, but this is a trivial concern.) This break from social expectations will quickly become the talk of the town, and the average Jew will be liberated from the chains of social expectations. After all, if prominent and wealthy Jews are making simple affairs, an ordinary person would be crazy to take out a second mortgage to pay for something more elaborate. If anything, his opulence would come across as silly and misplaced.
Consider the benefits to our community: The pressure to keep up would fade; financial and emotional burdens would be lifted from thousands of families worldwide; millions of dollars in perpetuity would be available for more important purposes; charitable causes would benefit from a new trend; our semachos will be more spiritual and authentic, beautiful in their modesty.
If these role models were to receive no more reward than the knowledge that they benefited the community through their example, that should suffice. But I submit that those who devote their over-the-top simcha money to charitable causes instead of personal indulgence will receive tremendous blessings as a result. How wonderful it is for a new couple to begin their life together with such a powerful demonstration of mesiras nefesh! Surely it will only lead to good things for them and their families. (It is quite common for families to go from simcha to aveilus; whether there is a direct connection or not, surely this would stand as a zechus for the entire family.)
Rabbi Gamliel receives merit that far outlasts the fleeting honor he sacrificed. A similar merit is available today. I hereby pledge to set an example in my own small way by keeping my semachos extremely modest and making significant donations to charity in honor of the occasion. Let other, more wealthy and prominent individuals step forward and do the same.