Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Context Needed: A Gvirish Wedding

A reader reminded me of this part of Jonathan Rosenblum second look at Pesach hotels:

"Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, was once asked by a certain gvir whether he should make a simple wedding or the kind that would be generally expected from those in his socio-economic class. The man was perfectly sincere in his question, and eager to do whatever Rabbi Hutner advised. Nevertheless, Rabbi Hutner told him to make a gvirish wedding. When his talmidim wondered at this, he explained, “If he is tight with himself, he will be tight with others as well.”

It is sad that this part of the article comes without context and it really if unfair to the reader, especially the younger reader who has little to no context to work with as they were attending weddings during Rabbi Hutner's life (d. 1980).

I don't know what a "gvirish wedding" looked like during the 1940's, 50's, 60's or 70's (perhaps a more mature reader will fill me in), but I am willing to bet that the fancy gvirish wedding of yesteryear topped out around what is considered a "normal" wedding in the year 200x.

What is a normal wedding today?:
-Set in a beautiful catering hall.
-An extensive smorg with numerous meat and poultry dishes served by wait staff which is followed up by a three or four course meal only an hour later.
-An open bar.
-A band consisting of at least 4 members.
-Nice photography.
-Monograms imprinted on invitations, benchers, etc.
-Floral arrangements, including bouquets for the sisters.
-A Wedding Party (i.e. mothers, sisters, and nieces) dressed up in matching dresses, often custom made, although they might be rented from a gemach.
-Professionally done hair (or sheitel up dos), manicures, and makeup is a given.
-Chatan and Kallah exchange numerous gifts prior to the wedding and in the yichud room including expensive watches, jewelry, silver, and ritual items. Kallah also receives at least one custom sheitel, oftentimes 2-3 sheitels/falls.
-Wedding is followed by sheva berachot, some of which are held in restaurants or smaller halls. The aufruf preceeding the wedding often includes a sit down meal for family and friends, as does the sheva berachot on Shabbat.
-Engagement is followed by a vort which can vary in extravagance. But, few go without a vort or l'chaim. And, if the chatan and kallah are from different cities, one may be held in each city.

And, let's not forget that the husband's were often already working or were credits away from doing so.

Context is essential. Quoting without context is misleading and does a disservice to the reader. I won't argue whether those who are tight with themselves are tight with others. If my readers want to open up that discussion, they are welcome to do so. I'd say there is some truth in this. But, I do know that today nearly everyone expects to put on a "baalabatish wedding" whether they have to beg, borrow, or steal to make it happen.

Today most put on affairs as if we were gvirim, even if our bank accounts would tell a different story.


Anonymous said...

it's clear from the quote that the person who asked the shaila was wealthy, as opposed to someone nowadays who would give a "gvirish" wedding and have nothing left for tzedaka...
I think many people simply don't see anything wrong with lavish events or gifts. In their mind it is simply a necessity of being frum. I've tried to argue, but got nowhere. I'm going to be very very pessimistic now, but I really think nothing will change with the frum wolrd until CH"V we have a tragedy of thousands of frum people bankrupt or going off the derech completely. I hope Hashem proves me wrong.

ProfK said...

Already in the late 60s and early 70s the type of wedding you are describing was around as common but with some exceptions. The vort/l'chaim is a new invention for the most part. An engagement party was not a requirement and usually it was the friends who gave an informal one, sometimes the family. It was the two families that got together to say mazel tov. The sheva brochos as mandatory parties every night was also not common. Even where there were full sheva brochos many people just invited in some extra men for dessert and bentching to what was a regular meal with the family. The gifts for choson and kallah were fewer as well. The girl got an engagement ring and the boy got a watch (sometimes) and a kittel. Some of the wealthier people would give the kallah pearls the night of the wedding, or maybe a watch before. Some boy's families would give the kallah lachter, some would not. A few boys got shas. The required make-up person was a rarity. If you couldn't do your makeup right, a friend did it.

One difference was in the size of the weddings. 300 people was considered a large wedding and loads of people who made much smaller ones. There was no simchas choson v'kallah with all the extra people invited. Only people close to you were invited. Very few people who were invited only to the chupah.

The New York City hotels were for the very wealthy to use. Wealthier sefardim used Shaarai Zion on Ocean Parkway. The rest got married in shul halls, or the Menorah Hall in Boro Park, or the Aperion Manor on Kings Highway (much more rinky dinky in the 70s then it turned into in the 90s.) Those who were really looking to ssave money or were more chasidish got married in one of the two halls in Williamsburg. I remember going twice to weddings that were held in the gyms of local schools, as well as a wedding make in someone's back yard.

Today's weddings are just a larger, more elaborate version of what was already around in the 60s and 70s. "Poorer" people went smaller; "Richer" people went to more elaborate halls with more costly items. But you are right--chosonim were already working and close to being there. The couple supported by parents was the exception, not the rule. And most of us did not get married with an apartment full of costly furniture, with a new car and with large, expensive apartments.

Anonymous said...

In the 1960's anything in a catering hall, as opposed to the school gym or cafeteria qualified. Also, anything with over about 150 people was a big wedding.

Lion of Zion said...


"but I really think nothing will change with the frum wolrd until CH"V we have a tragedy . . ."

that's really a sad observation. the truth is that we've earned the appellation of עם קשה ערף for a good reason and in general we never change our ways unless we are forced to by drastic external forces. this was true in the midbar and it remains true today.

so where does this leave us?

Chaim B. said...

I fail to see the point of trying to generalize based on advice given years ago by Rav Hutner in a specific case involving a specific individual in specific circumstances. Is the world out of poskim, Rabbanim, and leaders alive today who can think straight and advise people on this issue, leaving us no choice other than to dig up old Rav Hutner stories for guidence? Pretty sad...

Lion of Zion said...


"Is the world out of poskim, Rabbanim, and leaders alive today"

well this is the conclusion one can draw based on how people talk ad nauseum about how our generation is bereft of gedolim like the ones of previous generations.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention this is the conclusion one can draw based on that fact that people feel they have to ask to "daas torah" if they can take a pish and they still spend LOTS of money they don't have. Do you think people are not asking shailos related to how much to spend on a bar mitzvah wedding? They must be! These types of shailos are still being asked. What kinds of answers are they getting? Aren't the types of answers they get reflected in the types of over-the-top simchos we are seeing?

Sorry to be so darn cynical.

I'd love to see some rabbinic leadership on financial issues. Do any readers of this blog ask shailos related to how much to spend on a Bar Mitzvah? Or a wedding? Or whether they should send their kid to the cheapest school? Or do people only ask shailos about things like retirment and vacation and whether they should keep cholov yisrael if they can't afford to? I admit to not being particularly impressed by the rabbinic response I've seen to the retirement question!

And speaking of "drastic external forces" just take a look at SephardiLady's post from last week regarding food and gas prices. Things *are* approaching drastic it seems.

Last of all, if any of you have time to listen to podcasts, listen to This American Life from this week http://www.thisamericanlife.org/ on The Giant Pool of Money. It is *very* informative about how the current mortgage/credit crisis developed.

Charlie Hall said...

Here is my wedding, just over 3 years ago:

-Set in a beautiful beit knesset, with the reception in the basement.
Less expensive than a wedding palace, and much more Jewish!

-No meat anywhere, just fish and dairy. Plenty of snacks at the chatan's tish and the bride's reception, but nothing fancy. Healthier (except for the richer desserts), less expensive, and fewer kashrut concerns.

-No alcohol. If anyone wanted to get drunk at my wedding, I didn't want them at my wedding.

-We did have a really nice five piece band. We really like music. They were a big hit.

-One nice photographer who was ordered not to interfere with the service, and no video. I hate wedding venues being turned into a
video studio.

-Inexpensive invitations and benchers. No reason to spend a fortune here.

-Inexpensive floral arrangements. Pretty but not something that lasts.

-No matching anything. I bought a new suit; my wife ordered an inexpensive wedding dress from the internet and shortly afterwards donated it to a gemach.

-My wife did have her hair done before the wedding for the last day anyone other than me, her haircutter, or the mikvah lady will ever see it.

-No fancy gifts. I wore a talit before I got married. My wife has never worn a human hair wig in her life. (She has a closetfull of hats and scarves, obtained at a combinded cost less than that of a single good wig.)

-Nothing fancy for aufruf or sheva brachot, either; just modest affairs given by friends.

-No vort, just a pot luck engagement party with friends.

Total cost was about $10,000, for about 140 guests. No credit cards used. We wouldn't change a thing if we had to do it over.

"I'd love to see some rabbinic leadership on financial issues."

One rabbi in my neighborhood gave a sermon that emphasized that Jews are supposed to be financially responsible and live within their means. He was berated by one of his congregants for the chutzpah of suggesting that.

Ezzie said...

Good post. I would only note that "normal" in NYC and out of it are different (and actually, city to city). You can "get away" with a lot less in a place like Cleveland versus Brooklyn.

anonymous said...

I don't agree with the idea that those who are tight with themselves will be tight with others. Certainly there are stingy people out there, but modesty is important. Many are tight with themselves precisely so they can be generous with others. Many are also bothered by how ostentateous weddings and engagement parties can be these days, especially considering that you're spending money on yourselves with no tangible benefit to others.

Orthonomics said...

Ezzie-Some out of town caterers advertise a "New York" wedding package. So, NY is the standard although OOT communities are more flexible.

But I have to point that the low "normal" even in an OOT community is well above the standard most, if not all, of my (public) high school classmates were married off at.

Lion of Zion said...

"Some out of town caterers advertise a "New York" wedding package."

how could you leave that little gem out of the original post?

one of the 2 nicest weddings i've ever been too was in atlanta (the only OOT wedding i've ever been to). it was the simplest wedding but there was something so special about it.

(simple means in the shul's rec room, dairy buffet and a pick-up-band.)

ProfK said...

Comparing to the weddings of public school classmates (I'll assume both Jewish and non-Jewish) is comparing apples and oranges. Eloping in the non Jewish world is perfectly fine for many couples and would not be in the frum community. There are many very elaborate weddings in the non frum world--whose weddings do you think are featured in all the bridal magazines? Asians make very complex and large weddings. Muslims have two ceremonies and two dinners on the same night because the bride's family and the groom's family don't attend anything together (My Yugoslavian Muslim cleaning help made a wedding while she was working for me. The details made our weddings look simplistic.)Non-Jewish couples are engaged for a year or more before they marry, because they are saving up for the wedding and honeymoon. That also won't go over well in the frum community.

To see where we need to change we need to compare weddings in the past with weddings now in the frum community. We need to look at out of town and at in town.

Anonymous said...

I think "frum community" should be changed to "frum NYC community." What you describe is not at all standard in Israel, and from what I saw during my time "out of town" in the states, wasn't standard there either. I know many orthodox couples from the states who had nice, simple shul weddings, both 30 years ago and 3 years ago.

Ariella's blog said...

No question that weddings -- like bar and bat mitzvah celebrations -- have escalated tremendously in terms of both cost and expectations. Certainly, there is far more peer pressure today for more, more, and more. But one can decide that the wedding is, after all, a party and only lasts several hours. It does not have to be regarded as one's defining experience.
I don't wish to go on and on. So I will just say that the mother of a friend of mine who got married in the mid 60's or so said that there was no photographer at her wedding and that the roll of film a friend shot for her got thrown out, so that there is no album. While I believe that wedding albums were already common then (my parents who are older had one) she said this without a sense of deprivation. It did not define her whole outlook on her wedding. In contrast, another woman I know who got married just a few years later and did have a photographer always felt deprived at her wedding because it was in a cheap hall. So it really, ultimately boils down to one's own attitude and expectations.

Anonymous said...

"So it really, ultimately boils down to one's own attitude and expectations."

Exactly! I think some people just want to feel, for however small an amount of time, that they're rich and are not only not lacking any of the things others have, but perhaps even have more (we'll have sushi at the smorg! or we'll add a 7th piece to the orchestra!). Looking back at the album or the video allows people to recapture that feeling.

The real way to reduce wedding costs is to simply not care about impressing others and finding happiness in yourself, not caring what others may say or think, and taking pride in the fact that it's YOUR wedding no matter what. Of course the other option is reducing the "standard" of weddings (# of people, food, band, etc) - which will never happen I'm sure.

A friend who is getting married soon is paying for it themselves for the most part (parents have no money). With this understanding from the get go that money would be tight they are trying to create a fun wedding and not an expensive and fancy one - and quite frankly it meshes better with their personalities, they're both fun, down to earth people who wouldn't be flashy even if they were millionaires. Without this attitude they either would borrow to pay for a wedding they can't afford or would be very unhappy with their "cheap" wedding regardless of how nice it turned out.

In terms of the "old country" it depends if you mean the shtetl or the big cities, I'm sure weddings varied greatly between the two. Also, in terms of non-Jews more often they are married later, pay for it themselves, and therefore have much smaller affairs.

How many friends were at your wedding that you no longer talk to? Personally, we were married 2 years out of college (we went to the same college) and we had at least 10-15 people we never talk to anymore (out of a total of 180 people at the wedding). If we were married in college or immediate after, it would have been around 20-25 people at the wedding we never talk to. And if we had gone to different universities you could double that number. Furthermore, we never went to Israel or sleepaway camps - if we had, I'm sure we would have felt obligated to invite even more people. The number of people is the biggest cost driver and for young Jewish couples at college-age, with Israel, and sleepaway camp, they know tons of people they simply HAVE to invite. Not to mention the parents who HAVE to invite half the shul to not look bad.

Anonymous said...

JS- well said

Anon 12:25-" I admit to not being particularly impressed by the rabbinic response I've seen to the retirement question! " Please expand on what response has been.

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

I'm refering to the sidebar in the Jewish Observer that SL blogged on several weeks back. What irked me in particular was the juxtaposition of the answers to the questions "Can we take a vacation if we get a tuition break?" and "Can we save for retirement if we get a tuition break?"

Answer to vacation question was basically "Well, if you need a couple of weeks int he mountains to unwind, it's ok to do that."

Answer to retirment question was along the lines of "Your children's education comes first and you shouldn't save for retirement until that is taken care of."

Forgive the quotes-- I'm really paraphrasing and possibly not even correctly. However, the gist of these answers is what stayed with me from the first when I read that article. Vacation yes. Retirment no.

I'd be very interested to hear other examples of these types of financial questions being asked and the answers that were given.

Anyone ever ask these kinds of shailohs? I don't think I ever did.

TDR (aka anon 12:25)

Orthonomics said...

Joel Rich,
First off, welcome.
Here is the thread on my JO review (http://orthonomics.blogspot.com/search/label/JO%20Review) which includes the answers to questions on Tuition vs. Kollel, Vacation, Retirement, etc. The one you are looking for is second from the top, but you will probably want to reference the previous three.

Anonymous said...

Jewish Observer is not the final word in rabbinic opinion. Try asking your rabbi these questions, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about paying yourself vs. parents paying. I think one reason weddings have changed is probably that the funding is coming from parents in their 40s and 50s, often with high-paying jobs, instead of from the young couples themselves. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it means more money and often more of a tendency to splurge (in my experience)(I mean the parents tend to splurge, btw, not the couples).

Anonymous said...


I don't think they all necessarily have high-paying jobs. My wedding was very costly - because my MIL insisted it be so. As I've mentioned previously, my MIL will do anything at all for her children, which usually entails ridiculous expenditures of money which is one of the reasons they are very heavily in debt. The whole while my wife tried to get her to spend less to no avail.

So, I think a lot of it is the expectation that parents SHOULD have a lot of money - I suppose because they're older and for whatever reason people assume that all Jews make multiple 6 figure incomes and can easily afford it.

When children pay for it themselves there's no such expectations. After all, they're young, they're just starting out, even if they are making the "big bucks" they have loans to pay off.

It's a totally different set of expectations.

Lion of Zion said...


"A friend who is getting married soon is paying for it themselves for the most part (parents have no money)."

as i've said before, imho people should not be allowed to get married until they can afford to pay for their own weddings. this would solve a number of problems, starting with the mega-expensive weddings.

Anonymous said...

lion of zion--
In many cases couples could afford to pay for their own weddings, but the parents step in. Most of the young couples I know would prefer a standard wedding--hall, dress, 200 guests, band--but would be willing to have a potluck wedding in a shul if necessary. Their parents, on the other hand, would NOT be happy with the second option. In other words, making couples wait to marry will change nothing, as many/most parents actually WANT to pay for a fancy event rather than limit their guest list and rent a cheaper place.

Anonymous said...


You are right about asking my own shailohs of my own Rav. It hasn't come up yet as my kids are small. Moreover, I probably wouldn't ask at all because having been financially "potched" in the last few years, I'm going to keep my simcha spending to what I can afford. I don't need to ask a shailoh to decide that.

I guess I'm more concerned about a general communal impression that it's "kavodik" to pay for a large simcha even if you can't afford it. As long as this impression persists people will feel pressure to indulge in this extravagance.

Judging from things I read on this blog and observe in my own community, this practice seems to be more common than not.

I'm just wondering why it's so common. Given that people rely on rabbinic leadership for so many aspects of their lives, it's **possible** that this is a mainstream attitude among that leadership. The Rav Hutner quote which is the subject of this blog entry contributes to my impression that this is a mainstream attitude.

The simchas that I see going on around me thrown by people whom I know to be fairly broke (ie have to refinance their house several times over to pay for several daughters' weddings -- those days are over I guess) contribute to thsi impression.

The conversation related to me by a friend that *she* had with a friend where they concluded that one "has to spend $10k" on a Bar Mitzvah gives me the impression that this is common. (My friend related this conversation to me with alarm because she and her husband live paycheck-to-paycheck.)

If that's the case, and I'd really be interested to hear other people's direct experience with this, than I think a change of attitude, direction, something, would be really refreshing and would take some of the pressure off of financially stressed-out families.

I don't see the general frum community's behavior changing without some public changes in leadership behavior. Here are some ideas: 1) examples being set by prominent people (aka gvirim) who choose to have modest simchas, 2) by sermons given in which Rebbeim give over the halachic issues of going into debt and where our financial priorities should lie (not with weddings I'm hoping!), and 3) by Rebbeim being quoted in mainstream frum media expressing the sentiment that it is a moral priority to behave financially sensibly.

TDR (Anon 12:25 isn't really my name)

Anonymous said...

We got married in the early sixties. My kallah(wife of almost 45 years) was finishing college and I had been working for about two years.
The wedding was an average size wedding there were about 150 invitees for the whole thing. There were about 30 people that were invited to the smorg and chuppah. We had a 3 piece band(union requirement), therefore, nobody went home with a partial hearing loss. In the yichud room we exchanged kisses. During our engagement I gave my kallah a gold watch, that has recently been modernized with a quartz mechanism.
Sheva brochos were family and guest for dessert, so that we had a minyan.

The weddings that we made for our daughters were affordable and no debt was incurred. Both our daughters are happily and successfully married.

Life can be simpler. You do not have to keep up with the Joneses or Cohens.

Anonymous said...

The weddings in the yeshiva world in the 70s were basically the same as today. The main difference is that weddings were smaller. This is because families and communities were smaller. Not only were the fewer people to invite, parents (on average) had fewer children for whom to make weddings.

Concerning gifts: engagement rings and watches for the kallah were standard during r Hutner's life. Pearls as far as I know were given by chassidim and not particularly in style for a while. They became a standard gift in the 80s. Others often gave a necklace of some sort, say for the kallah's birthday, or at the engagement. Silver candlesticks were a standard gift. Sometimes leather bound machzorim were given. One new addition to the gifts to the kallah is a bracelet, which many people now give at the engagement. (I am sure the bracelet was started when some chassanim decided to do something "different" and it gradually became a norm.) The amount spent on such things may have gone up e.g. the necklace would have been gold, the bracelet has diamonds. Also, custom sheitls were not common, and sheitls were up to the kallah and her parents. One thing that may have changed is people's willingness to buy what they can afford, and not spring for more expensive gifts than they can afford.

People did have monogrammed invitations and benchers. They often had a vort. Sometimes the vort was in the kallah's house, sometimes in a rented hall. I went to a very elaborate vort in the mid 70s that was almost a wedding. Many sheva brachos were held in houses, but people also made some in restaurants or small halls. In the summer, people sometimes went to the Catskills for sheva brachas, sometimes renting a hall. Of course as families became larger, having most or all sheva brachas in the home became less common.

I think more people bought the wedding gown rather than rented, or so it seems to me. (Maybe I just don't know enough people.)

The main change in weddings is that they are larger.

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