Life in our Orthodox community is, in many contexts, from food to education to housing, overwhelmingly expensive. For some people, these expenses represent a barrier to entry; for others, a constant stressor; for others still, a reason to maintain aspects of our lifestyle that detract from our most meaningful sense of self but feel unavoidable. As a small attempt to catalyze conversation and perhaps offer something of a paradigm shift in our community, I’d like to share how we planned our daughter’s wedding this past summer. Weddings and other smachot, like many other aspects of Modern Orthodox life, are big-ticket items that can take a toll on a family’s budget. While the conversation about the expenses of Modern Orthodox life may arise most in an educational context – and, as a yeshiva high school administrator, I have a responsibility to rein in tuition expenses – I believe that many parents feel that they are getting good value for their investment despite its high cost. But I think that most parents would be nonplussed to realize that they are expected to spend as much for a five-hour wedding as for five years of tuition.
The Sefer Chasidim, a work of 13th century German pietists, asks, “Why does the Torah teach us so many laws in such an oblique way? Why use hermeneutic tools like a gezerah shava instead of just spelling out the details for us?” The answer is remarkable: to do so would inevitably make the Torah’s text much longer than it is, which would demand an exorbitant expense of additional parchment to write such a long Torah! This may feel like a surprising reason to us, so accustomed, as we are, to spending money in order to enable our Jewish lives. But we learn from this text that, at its foundation, the Torah communicates a message that God is concerned about the finances of the Jewish people. If the Torah itself was willing to be less lavish, perhaps we can do the same for our smachot.
We had the good fortune of seeing our eldest child married right before the Delta variant emerged this past summer. After the engagement, we discussed with our future machatunim what we could afford to pay for the wedding. Our daughter and son-in-law fully accepted the notion that there was a value in making the event more affordable while also ensuring it would be an incredible night to remember. Recognizing that catering would inevitably be the biggest expense, we first tried to pare down those costs. While different families will approach this calculus differently, depending on the aspects of the simcha they value most, we chose to create two tiers of invitations. The bride and groom’s friends, family and out-of-town guests were invited for the entire affair, including a beautiful dinner. All local friends of the couple’s parents were invited for the chuppah and first dance only, including passed hors d’oeuvres and other lighter foods. By having a significant group of people share in the simcha but leave before the catered dinner, we cut costs substantially while still sharing our joy widely.
I’ll admit that it was only a bit awkward when our friends left after the first dance – but really only a bit – because this is not the norm at our community’s weddings; anything different may feel strange at first. But if more of us choose this option, it will feel less awkward and also be more respectful of people’s time. Friends of ours celebrated with us and danced with us at our daughter’s wedding for three hours instead of six. They ate plenty of food, if not a sit-down dinner. And the rest of the event became a smaller, more intimate celebration.
This was just one way that we decided to make the simcha more affordable. Other families might make other choices: a more affordable venue outside of the typical Modern Orthodox scene, sharing decor and dresses from through a wedding gemach, skipping the “shmorg,” not serving alcohol, creating a wedding playlist with the couple’s friends, and more. For us, having a great band felt especially important; for others, food may be the most important element; for others, it may be flowers or photography.,
However, when our communal standard becomes – as it has – extravagance on all levels, we may create several issues: smachot can unfortunately become more about the show than about the sacred ritual and ruach at the heart of the event; we may fall into competitive simcha planning; and those who have less may feel that there’s no place for them in our community. All of these are reasons to pause and rethink our approach to smachot, enabling the day to be a beautiful celebration of a lifecycle event without feeling beholden to a particular set of standards that has grown increasingly unattainable with each passing year.
My daughter’s wedding was one of the best days of our lives, but we didn’t break the bank. I hope, too, that we presented a model that can be replicated by others who see, as we did, that joy is not diminished even when frugality remains on our list of values. We came up with what we thought was a creative way to have our wedding cake and eat it too, and I encourage others in our community to do the same.