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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev 5772

Ask the Rabbi: Wedding Spending

Rav Daniel Mann

Question:  What is the maximum that one should spend on a wedding?


Answer:  We have to find the balance on the tricky matter of wedding spending. We will start with the reasons to spend significantly, and then temper that tendency with counter considerations.

The major expenses that Chazal foresaw (including a dowry) to enable a couple to get married have to do with the viability of building a comfortable home. The bride’s father was expected to set aside one tenth of his net worth for this purpose (see Ketubot 68-69). When parents are unable to properly equip their children, it is a great mitzva to help them and/or the young couple (see Sukka 49b).

Chazal also gave the wedding celebration great importance, including in comparison to other values. The term hachnasat kalla classically refers primarily to the procession of the bride from her father’s home to the home where the couple would live. The gemara (Ketubot 17a) says that Torah study is suspended for people (in addition to friends or family) to join the procession and that if the procession meets up with a funeral procession, the wedding party takes precedence.

The meal that follows is a seudat mitzva, which one is even allowed to plan on Shabbat (Ketubot 5a). Therefore, one can apply the rule that it is praiseworthy to go about it generously (see Bava Kama 9b). There are strong indications that the outlay of energy and expenses is assumed to be substantial. One of the explanations of the old custom that weddings take place on Wednesday is to make sure there are three days available (uninterrupted by Shabbat) to prepare the meal (Ketubot 2a). The following shocking halacha shows how challenging it is expected to be to have a materially appropriate wedding and how important it is to protect that goal.

If the father of the groom or the mother of the bride dies right before the wedding, the burial is pushed off until after the wedding ceremony and meal. Then the burial takes place, followed by a week of sheva berachot and finally a week of shiva (Ketubot 4a). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the groom’s father and the bride’s mother are primarily responsible for the wedding’s material side and that if the wedding is pushed off after preparations were made, we are concerned that a future wedding will not be up to par. This is in significant contrast with Chazal’s view of burial expenses, which Rabban Gamliel reduced and standardized by example to ease the financial strain on families (see Ketubot 8b).

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 64:4) says that if the groom is not interested in having a proper meal and the bride’s side is, the bride’s side can force him to make a feast “according to his and her honor.” This hints at one reason we cannot usually make an exact calculation of appropriate expenses: the matter depends on the two sides’ subjective standards. Someone who has fancy cars and a fancy house should have a relatively fancy wedding. Those who are more modest in means and spending can honor the event at a lesser expense.

The above is true, but is only one side of the coin. The other side is that a wedding should not single-handedly ruin a family’s financial situation or harm the couple’s prospect of getting their joint lives started with tranquility and reasonable provisions. Children should also not impose upon parents expenses that are beyond the parents’ responsibility, interest, and capability. On a communal level, there have been numerous examples of takanot (enforced guidelines) with rabbinic blessing or initiative to curb the spending even of people who want to pay for a lavish wedding (see sources in Hanisuim K’hilchatam 13:56). This could be needed during hard financial times or, during times of prosperity, when spending starts getting out of hand in a way that affects some individuals, or when weddings become so gaudy that they exceed Jewish good taste.

How an individual or a community is to know where to draw the line is, as they say, the $64,000 question (and we pray that weddings remain well below that price tag).

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