Thursday, June 15, 2006

Wedding Takanos: Living within One’s Means

A few years ago after seeing the ever increasing excesses at many Orthodox weddings, several leading rabbinic figures came out with a set of Takanos, guidelines for weddings to prevent such excesses. These rabbis, many of whom are on the Agudah Moetzes, decided enough was enough. Too much money was being wasted by people who couldn’t afford it. I do not recall all the specifics of those guidelines but suffice it to say that the amount of money allowed to be sent on these weddings would be very minimal. While their intentions were good, as I’m sure they always are, Takanos are not the way to go.

I agree that there are huge amounts of money spent by some people. But why should that necessarily be a problem, if they can afford it? If there is a wealthy individual who enjoys throwing lavish parties for his friends, what better way to do it than in the form of a wedding... involving a Seudas Mitzvah? Could the money be better spent towards community welfare? Sure it could. But one can say that about any extravagant expenditure by a wealthy person. Why should the wealthy be denied the fruits of their labor… the fruits of their success? Are we a people who believe in redistribution of wealth? Are we socialists, or communists?

Of course not. The Gemarah is replete with stories of wealthy Taanoim and Amoraim. No one took their money away from them to redistribute it. And no one should do that to the wealthy of our own day. People have a right to enjoy their wealth in any way they choose. And Simchas Chasan V’Kalla is an appropriate way to do it.

I often hear people say that if only the X amount of dollars spent on a wedding went to… say… day schools. It would solve many a budget problem: Teachers would be able to get paid on time, many past due bills to patient vendors could finally be paid. All true. But who says that it should be the sole burden of the wealthy? Is a wealthy individual required to deplete all or most of his wealth on this problem …which wouldn’t solve all the problems anyway? And certainly it wouldn’t solve next year’s budgetary problems. Why should they be obligated to lower their standard of living?

Not only don’t they have to lower their standard of living. But Halacha requires a level of Tzedaka be given to a poor man who was formerly wealthy to restore him to that standard.

The vast majority of wealthy people give huge amounts of Tzedaka. Should they now be punished for it by denying them their choices in how to spend their money?

Let’s us look at the real problem: social pressure to keep up with the Joneses (or the Cohens). The problem that I think the rabbinic Takanos was mostly trying to address is that of many people with modest incomes spending more money than they can afford just to put on a show… to show that they too… can afford a nice big wedding with all the accoutrements. To that end many such people will borrow the huge sums of money needed to have such parties. They might even take out second mortgages on their homes… or sell life insurance policies, or dig into their life savings… all for one very big and very fleeting night! In short they would mortgage their lives away just to show they too can have a wedding like the Cohens did. Multiply this by the number of children one has to marry off and one can easily see where this is going to end up. Such parents are going to end up penniless and in debt.

Now, I’m sure not every middle class family will mortgage his future away to that extreme (although there are plenty who have and plenty who will. But to any extent that one spends beyond his means it is both wrong and stupid. True, the Takanos could help eliminate that problem. If everyone would follow the guidelines, no one would be able to spend exorbitant sums of money on weddings. The motivation to keep up with the Cohens will be eliminated: No one can do it, not even the Cohens.

But it is unfair to the wealthy who CAN afford it. And is not even fair to a middle income family. For example, if I recall correctly, one of the Takanos was to not have more than a 5 piece band. Well, what if a parent spends wisely limits his expenditures on everything else but loves music and wants to spend a few extra dollars on a bigger band? Why should he be denied this pleasure, especially if it adds to the Simcha?

And what about the vendors? In many cases the vendors are members of the Torah community and make their Parnasos from the Simcha industry. Frum musicians need work too. So does the Frum florist or the Frum party planner, the Frum invitations seller, or caterer. Why should they be denied the financial benefit of a wealthy person who wants to spend their money for these servies?

Wedding Takanos though well intended are laden with problems as currently constructed. The more correct path would be to educate the masses to stop chasing down the Cohens... to stop trying to show off wealth they do not have. Unfortunately, there are far too many people need to be taught to live within their means. In this sense I might agree with the Taknaos. I would support implementing a Takana against borrowing money to go beyond these guidelines. But I do not support a Takkana that limits how a wealthy person spends his money.

It is my understanding that wealthy people still have big expensive weddings. The Rabbanim who mandated these Takanos said that they would not attend weddings where these guildlines are violated But I hear that there have been "sightings" at the weddings of weathier Baalei Battim.

I guess those Rabbanim don’t think that much of their own Takanos either.