December 11, 2019

Waiter, Hold the Knishes

They’re vanquishing the Viennese table, banning the bars, and even putting the kibosh on fancy kugels in Borough Park and other fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, where weddings have become extravagant — and very, very expensive — affairs.

A group of 27 influential Charedi rabbis will soon issue 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 fervently Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, are leading a charge to change the communal culture around frum weddings, where even families of moderate means feel social pressure to invite upward of 1,000 people and serve them food from 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 who is helping to organize 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 Dr. Spock manner of kohanim.

Paying for such frills is taking too big a bite out of Orthodox families’ budgets, Markowitz said, since a bare-bones wedding today costs $35,000, and fancier parties easily reach more than $150,000. And that’s for one wedding alone, in families with 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.

The rabbinic authorities who have signed onto the takhana, which is still in draft form and being tweaked, include the leaders of the Torah V’Das, Chaim Berlin, Mir and Lakewood yeshivas, as well as rabbis from Monsey, Riverdale and Philadelphia.

A draft was distributed to roughly 3,000 people at the Thanksgiving weekend annual convention of the Agudath, where it sparked spirited discussion — almost all of it positive, according to people there.

Now news of the guidelines is spreading farther 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.

But there has been some negative feedback, too, which has already made the guidelines more generous than they were in earlier drafts: at first the rabbis wanted to ban beef from the list of potential entrees and limit the number of musicians to four.

Now beef is again an acceptable alternative, along with chicken or fish, for an entrée to be accompanied by not more than two simple side dishes, preceded by soup or salad, and followed by an un-fussy dessert, for a total of no more than three courses, according to the guidelines.

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

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.

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 which prestige 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.

In their takhana, the rabbis will also do away with 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, but in recent years 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 (OU). "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 OU or its allied rabbinical organization would take up a similar effort.

The takhana effort is 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. "It definitely would take a cut of my budget, but I do believe that God has many ways of sending money, and we’ll find other ways to bring it in."

This isn’t the first effort by Orthodox leaders to rein in the lavishness of weddings.

The earliest recent attempt may have been by the Gerrer rebbe, who in 1978 issued a decree requiring his Chasidim to limit attendance at their weddings to 120 people or fewer, and instructing them to invite family up to the first-cousin level and not beyond.

"The community adheres to it," Baum said.

Years ago Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, a widely respected kashrut authority based in Baltimore, wrote an article in Agudath Israel’s magazine The Jewish Observer, appealing to people to use common sense and restraint when planning weddings. It did not have the power of rabbinic enactment, however.

But even more serious, and specific, rabbinic intervention in wedding matters is nothing new: Rabbis governing central European Jewish communities in the 16th and 17th centuries dictated to their mostly impoverished constituents how weddings should be handled — all the way down to the fineness of the lace on the bride’s wedding dress.