Is it somehow anti-halachic to have a wedding that is elegant and tasteful and avoids excesses?
The Presbyterian minister of the nearby church in Atlanta was a true ohev Yisrael, even delivering pro-Israel sermons and denouncing anti-Semitism from his pulpit. Despite the great divide in our beliefs, we were quite friendly over the years.
When he invited me to his daughter’s church wedding, I explained that I could not attend. He readily understood, but invited me to the reception following the wedding service. Since that was to be held on the broad lawn outside the church, I accepted.
The ceremony was called for a Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., to be followed by the outdoor reception. Since this was not a Jewish wedding, I knew that 2 p.m. meant 2 p.m., so I arrived at the reception at 3:00, as the guests were gathering on the lawn. The entire area was tastefully decorated, tables laden with varieties of sweets and cakes, pastries, ices, parfaits, and various beverages and soft drinks. Two violinists playing light music strolled amid the approximately 200 guests, and the photographer was unobtrusive as he mingled among us. There was a brief speech by the minister, another by the groom, after which the immediate family and relatives moved back into the social hall for a family dinner. The afternoon was solemn but pleasant, dignified but happy.
Two weeks later I attended an Orthodox wedding in New York. The chuppah, called for 6 p.m., began at eight. Prior to the chuppah, special tables were overflowing with what is called a smorgasbord: a dizzying variety of condiments, hors d’oeuvres, meats, corned beef, salami, frankfurters, hamburgers, cholent, small sandwiches, cakes and candies and drinks, some of which were soft. Waiters proffering heavy trays of more goodies strolled through the crowd of about 200.
After the chuppah, we took seats at flower-bedecked tables. After that lavish smorg, who could indulge in more heavy food? How naïve! We were all good sports and we devoured every bit of the elaborate dinner. The five-piece band blared out their beat (some call it “music”), the guests danced with wild abandon, and the badchanim performed their shtick.
It was a fine simchah, with great ruach and joy in the air, but as I left the hall, a certain discomfort gnawed at me. Not a discomfort from overeating, but a different kind: one mixed with a certain unease close to melancholy. Why so? Because of the excesses I had just experienced, especially gastronomical ones. Beyond this, I knew both sets of parents well; they were far from wealthy, and it was obvious that in order to pay for such a wedding — not only the elaborate food, but also the hall, the flowers, the band, the video and still photographers, the professional cosmetician, all of which surely cost them more than $100,000 — they would have had to go into serious, burdensome debt.
Of course, I mused, a wedding is a serious matter, a union of two people that goes back to Adam and Eve. Under the chuppah, we pray that G-d make the couple as happy “k’sameichacha yetzircha b’Gan Eden mikedem.” It is a new link that preserves Am Yisrael and guarantees our continuity. In this idea there resides solemnity and joy, tears and laughter, spirituality and physicality, all melded into one magnificent entity called a chasunah. By attending weddings, we express our communal joy at this newest link — which is why mesameiach chassan v’kallah is a great mitzvah.
I had just participated in such a wedding, a veritable explosion of simchah. Why, then, the discomfort? Because while a Jewish wedding meal is a seudas mitzvah, it need not be “over the top,” redolent of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s vivid warning in Chovos Halelavos about osim bitneihem eloheihem — “making a deity out of their bellies” (Prishus II). It was certainly not intended to send parents into crushing debt in order to serve bountiful smorgs and lavish dinners to hundreds of people.
This melancholy was only intensified when I recalled the minister’s wedding, which not only began on time, but was a model of simplicity. Despite the fact that it was understated and subdued, and lacked the amplified ear-splitting beat of the typical frum wedding, there was a palpable sense of joy and happiness in the air. I wondered: Is it somehow anti-halachic to have a wedding that is elegant and tasteful and avoids excesses? Is it only through noisy, gluttonesque extravaganzas that we can fulfill the mitzvah of simchah? To deepen my discomfort, the church wedding had probably cost only a tiny fraction of this one.
In any case, even a curmudgeon would agree that this chasunah was completely joyous. Still, I kept thinking of the insight of the saintly Gaon of Vilna: one of the greatest temptations for Jews today is the desire to imitate non-Jews, k’chol hagoyim. But I wondered, would just a minute dose of imitation, judiciously applied, do any harm?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 968)
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