Orthodox rabbis are putting harness on opulent weddings

NEW YORK — They're vanquishing the Viennese table, banning the bars and even putting the kibosh on fancy kugels in Boro Park and other fervently religious neighborhoods where weddings have become extravagant — and very, very expensive — affairs.

A group of 27 influential haredi rabbis issued a takhana, or rarely issued formal guideline, setting strict limits on the number of people who are to be invited to an Orthodox wedding, the number of musicians hired to play, and even the type and amount of food that is to be served.

These rabbis, led by Yaakov Perlow, the chief religious authority of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, are leading a charge to change the communal culture around religious weddings, where even families of moderate means feel social pressure to invite upward of 1,000 people and serve them lavish smorgasbords set with everything from intricate ice sculptures to glatt kosher prime rib carving stations.

"It's gotten to the point where the amount of money being spent on weddings is absurd," said Shia Markowitz, an Agudath Israel of America lay leader in Monsey, N.Y., who helped to develop the new guidelines.

Markowitz was at one wedding where the groom was a Kohen and the caterer carved an edible statue out of watermelon pulp shaped to resemble two hands held up praying in the Mr. Spock manner of Kohanim.

Families are taking a financial hit with these lavish celebrations. A bare-bones wedding today in New York costs $35,000, said Markowitz, while fancier parties easily tally into the $150,000 range. And that's for one wedding alone in families who may have four, six and even 10 children who need to be married off.

"People borrow money to pay for them; they take out second mortgages, and then are stuck because they can't repay it," Markowitz said. The stress caused by these money woes "is even affecting people's health and shalom bayis," or the peace in their homes.

Chabad of Berkeley's Rabbi Yehuda Ferris referred to the lavish wedding phenomenon as "keeping up with the Cohens" and "a plague."

Fortunately, it is an epidemic he believes to be largely restricted to the East Coast and Los Angeles.

"The weddings I have officiated in the Bay Area are comparatively very modest. They have about 200 people and the band, the dress, the flowers, the caterer, the liquors are modest. The emphasis is on rejoicing with the bride and groom as opposed to having a fashion show," said Ferris, who noted that his 1980 wedding cost $6,000 and his wife, Miriam, borrowed her sister's dress.

"It really is endemic to the region, the way society at large celebrates — stretch limos, gigantic halls. It's not like you need a black-tie affair."

Ferris stressed that the late Lubavitcher rebbe was opposed to staging a wedding beyond one's means or traveling to a distant relation's wedding if it presented a financial hardship.

However, the Bay Area is not immune to overly lavish weddings, according to Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel. "People who have money have every right to spend it any way they like, but when people who don't have money go into hock, that's very, very sad."

The rabbi expressed approval of the new wedding guidelines, drawing parallels to talmudic proscriptions against costly burials.

"The joyous event a wedding is supposed to be is often turned into a financial hardship; all the joy is drained out of it," he said. "I've officiated at weddings with just a minyan of people and a hand-held chuppah all the way up to weddings that knocked people's socks off. And I've enjoyed them both."

The goal behind the new guidelines was not only to reduce financial pressure but to discourage showiness. A draft was distributed to roughly 3,000 people at the Thanksgiving weekend annual convention of the Agudah, where it sparked spirited discussion — almost all of it positive, according to people there.

The guidelines were adopted in mid-March, with about two dozen rabbis in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania signing on. Now news of the guidelines is spreading further through the Orthodox grapevine, and members of the takhana-organizing committee have received phone calls from as far away as Israel and Los Angeles, expressing support and interest in applying them there. Some rabbis are planning to adapt the guidelines to b'nai mitzvah celebrations as well.

But there has been some negative feedback, too, which has already made the guidelines more generous than they were in earlier drafts. After much discussion, beef, chicken and fish have been approved for entrées, which must be accompanied by no more than two simple side dishes, preceded by soup or salad and followed by an unfussy dessert, for a total of no more than three courses.

A one-man band is the preferred alternative, but up to five musicians may now be hired. Ideally, artificial flowers are and gowns are to be rented from communal services that supply the Orthodox community. But at most, no more than $1,800 is to be spent on flowers, said Markowitz.

There is to be no bar at weddings — a few wine and liquor bottles may be placed on tables — and the smorgasbord is to be a modest, primarily cold buffet. And there are to be no more than 400 adult guests invited, but up to 500 may be included in very large families.

Giving muscle to the guidelines is the fact that the rabbis who sign on — and organizers hope to have hundreds eventually committed — will refuse to attend weddings that don't adhere to the takhana.

Now people will have to choose what they value more — spending thousands on sculptures of chopped liver or having numerous rabbis in attendance, Markowitz said.

"Our goal is to bring down a $35,000 wedding to under $15,000," he said.

The guidelines will also omit the vort, or engagement party, which used to be nothing more than a friendly l'chaim at the bride's family's house shortly after an engagement was announced. In recent years it has become like a wedding before the wedding, with hundreds of guests in a rented hall eating catered food running up a bill of thousands of dollars.

"People invite their 1,000 closest friends" to their engaged child's vort, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union. "It's an imposition on everyone invited to something superfluous, which was invented by the caterers to waste people's money."

Genack said he favors the takhana, even though his kashrut certification agency oversees caterers, whose businesses will suffer if the community adheres to the guidelines.

"I don't think the focus of concern should be on the parnossah [income] of the caterers, but on what's appropriate for the community," said Genack, who wasn't sure if the Orthodox Union or its allied rabbinical organization would take up a similar effort.

The guidelines are garnering nearly universal acclaim, even from those whose pocketbooks will be hit the hardest.

"Would it hurt my business? Definitely yes," said Moishe Baum, owner of Baum's Superior Caterers in Brooklyn, which handles weddings large and small, lavish and simple. "…I do believe that God has many ways of sending money, and we'll find other ways to bring it in."