When Rachel and Joe’s daughter got engaged, it should have been one of the happiest times in their lives. But because of their tight financial situation, the simha (happy occasion) was marred by the inevitable question: How would they pay for the wedding and all the other expenses that come along with it?

Joe was a nervous wreck. His wife remembers waking up in the middle of the night and panicking about the costs of the affair. Of course, theoretically, they could have cut back. They could have made a very simple wedding and solved the financial problem by arranging a wedding with no dinner, recorded music and improvised decorations. But the thought of being different and hosting a budget wedding was even more stressful than the impending financial burden. They felt compelled to make a wedding similar to the ones their friends had made for their daughters. That’s when Joe and Rachel began to wonder, why has the bar of “normal” parties been raised so high?

Reaching a Debt End

Of course, Joe and Rachel are far from alone in dealing with this issue. Paradoxically, it’s been estimated that more than two thirds of community families cannot afford to pay for the “average” community wedding. It should come as no surprise then, that the escalating costs of such occasions have led many families towards financial ruin. Norman Balassiano, the “Angel of Debt” who assists families buckling under the pressures of bills they cannot afford to pay, reports that about 50 percent of families have difficulties affording a wedding in keeping with the standards that our community established.

With so many suffering under the strain and stress of trying to pay for their Simha – and the problem compounded by the ongoing economic slump – the idea of setting reasonable, communitywide standards for social affairs, is once again gaining traction in many circles. Of course, it takes a good deal of courage and conviction to be one of the first few to try to “lower the bar,” by hosting a low-key affair. But proponents of mandated limits point out that some well-to-do families have already been bold enough to take such an initiative by hosting large, but decidedly modest weddings over the past few years. The hope is that once the ball gets rolling, the standard will start to change and the entire community will be far better off with simpler, less costly celebrations become the accepted norm.

The Escalating Standard

How have the standards of weddings become so extravagant? And why has it become so common for otherwise prudent families to plunge themselves into an ocean of debt when marrying off a child?

The answer is simple: social pressure to keep up with community standards. People by nature want to follow the conventions of the society in which they live, and people who identify with a community will, naturally, want to live their lives according to the basic accepted norms of that community. This is especially true of semahot, which offer a venue for showing where one fits along the community’s socioeconomic scale. In the natural desire for acceptance, people are prepared to sacrifice their long-term financial stability by taking on enormous debts, simply to plan an affair according to the “norm.”

Changing Mindsets

This sobering reality has led many pulpit rabbis from the community to make the issue of excessive spending on parties a common subject of Shabbat sermons. Repeatedly calling upon heads of households to rethink their priorities, the question is asked: is it really worth sacrificing a family’s financial future to score social points with friends? And among those who are blessed with the ability to make an extravagant affair, are their choices inadvertently harming others who are less fortunate by creating communitywide pressure to maintain standards that not everybody can reasonably afford?

Of the two questions, the second seem to be the focus of most efforts to bring about much needed relief. The importance of maintaining standards that are modest enough for a majority of the community to afford, was famously demonstrated by Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky a.h., who for many years refused to have an air conditioner installed in her home despite the sweltering Bnei Brak heat, because there were many poor people in the city who couldn’t afford it, and she didn’t want them to feel pressured to follow suit.

Guidelines That Worked

In recent years, the rabbis of Agudath Israel, Ger (in Israel), Satmar and Skvere (a Hassidic community in Spring Valley) have addressed the problem of the escalating cost of simha celebrations by enacting various “takanot” (rabbinic decrees) for their respective communities. These takanot establish a modest standard that is to be adhered to by all members of the community, even by those who could afford much more. Essentially, the guidelines imposed a ban on excessive wedding expenditures that were driving many families into debt. Especially in Hassidic circles, the wedding takanot have been fairly effective in ensuring joyous celebration without the anxiety and anguish of financial ruin.

But guidelines, and even rabbinic takanot, are bound to have a fair number of opponents, in any community. Celebrating major life events in lavish style is supposed to be one of the primary rewards of amassing wealth, and denying those who have worked hard to achieve their success could seem unfair. Mr. Balassiano states his belief that families are entitled to do what they want with their money. “If they choose to host a lavish wedding all the best for them.” He adds his advice that, “It would be a great deed for those who can afford a lavish wedding to also help those who have little or no resources afford a relatively low cost wedding. I’m sure the reward for such a gesture would be very handsome.”

Taking this concept a step further, other have suggested the concept of a luxury tax to benefit a communal wedding fund. In theory, such a luxury tax would be imposed on a percentage of the amount by which a host’s spending exceeding specified guidelines. For example, if wedding spending was capped at a hypothetical $40,000 and the luxury tax was 20 percent, someone who spent $50,000 on a wedding would be required to pay $2,000 or 20 percent of the $10,000 by which he exceeded the limit. The money collected by the fund would go to help the less affluent pay for their wedding celebration.

A Problem of Priorities

Perhaps the most important benefit of these takanot would be a shifting of focus, away from the vanity and materialism of the party, and onto the far more significant aspects of the wedding celebration. The period of engagement and marriage is a time for the couple to prepare for their sacred role of building a home and family where the Divine Presence would reside. Preoccupation with centerpieces and Viennese tables obviously distracts attention away from what the wedding is really all about. Imposing limits and basic standards is an ideal way to redirect the focus to bringing blessing to the couple, as opposed to impressing the guests at the three hour reception

The Community Opinion

In a recent online poll, Community Magazine asked: Do you think there should be official guidelines for spending on parties in the community? The results show an overwhelming number of respondents in favor of guidelines or rabbinic takanot.

Agudath Israel Wedding Guidelines

At the 2001 Agudath Israel Annual Convention, a brochure entitled “Guidelines for Financial Realism and modesty in our weddings” was given to participants. Some of the recommendations included:

  • Eliminating engagement parties and ensuring that the “lehaim” (meeting of the family) held at the time the engagement is announced should also not turn into a full scale engagement party.
  • Only 400 invited guests may be seated at the wedding meal. Additional guests may be invited only for dancing or for the ceremony and can be served only a modest buffet of basic cakes, fruit platters and the caterer’s standard chicken or hot meat dishes.
  • The menu for the meal is limited to three courses, followed by a regular dessert. No Viennese table and no bar.
  • A band may consist of a maximum of 5 musicians (one of the musicians may act as a vocalist). A one-man band is recommended.
  • The total cost of flowers and huppah decor for the entire wedding should not exceed $1,800.

Selected Wedding Takanot Enacted in Kiryas Joel in 2008

  • The bride’s gifts are limited to: a watch, pearl necklace, earrings, and an engagement ring with a cubic zirconia – not a real diamond.
  • The groom’s gifts are limed to a kiddush cup, set of Shas, a menorah, and the tallit and accompanying accessories.