Our parents want a lavish simchah, we don't - what do we do?

March 31, 2011

Question: My fiancé and I are happy to have a small wedding. But my parents want a larger simchah to invite all their friends and relatives, and are willing to pay even if it means financially stretching themselves. How do we sort out an increasingly stressful situation?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The last thing you need in the run up to your wedding is stress. Preparing for a wedding should be one of the happiest moments in the life of a young couple and yet, sadly, it can often be the opposite as the result of pressure and interference from well–meaning but misguided family and friends.

Clearly you and your fiancé share similar values, which is crucial when setting out to build a home and family together. You both seem to appreciate that a beautiful and meaningful wedding is not about the size of the hall or the number of guests in attendance. It is about the atmosphere created by those closest to you on this most important day of your life.

I do not know what motivates your parents to want a larger simchah. It might be that they genuinely want to celebrate with as much family and friends as they can, which is admirable. It might also be that they just cannot stand up to the peer pressure when all their friends have had large and lavish simchahs. Either way, it would be foolish and irresponsible to spend beyond their means and you are right to refuse to allow them to do so.

I believe that most people secretly agree that the amount spent on weddings and other simchahs has got out of hand and yet few have the courage to take a stand by celebrating a beautiful simchah on a budget.

Even if your parents can just about afford a lavish and large wedding without going into debt, I would argue that at least some of the money would be better spent on helping you set up home. It would certainly be a more meaningful and enduring investment.

Why not have a small and intimate, but elegant, wedding meal with your nearest and dearest and then invite a much larger circle of friends and family for dessert and dancing? This way your parents can celebrate with their extended family and friends, while at the same time keeping the cost down to a minimum. This has become common practice in Charedi circles. We should learn from this sensible and responsible approach to making a simchah.

It takes just a few courageous families to create the momentum for this model to become socially acceptable in the wider community. From your question I think you could be one of them.l

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The old Jewish saying, "Families fall out at weddings and come together at funerals" is a cliché precisely because it is so common.

Your example highlights two aspects of this. First, that the preparations for what is a wonderful moment - a couple pledging themselves to each other - can sour relationships.

So many people - not just parents, but grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles -forget whose wedding it is and pile in with their demands. They had their turn at their wedding, and should leave yours to you. Relatives can certainly give their advice and share their experience, but not use your day for playing mishpachology or for returning business favours. (Those couples who did have blissfully happy preparations should be congratulated on negotiating this minefield so successfully.)

The second issue is unnecessary expense, either out of a desire to show off, or from a misplaced sense of what is "expected".

Impoverishing yourself for years so that you can have one day of glory is not one of the 613 commandments. It might also be better to hire a less lavish venue and use the saved money to help the new couple build up a house deposit or pay the mortgage.

However, this is not a new issue; the medieval rabbinic codes have numerous injunctions against costly weddings, indicating both that it has long been a tendency of some Jews to prefer excess to modesty, and that rabbis have consistently fought against it. Matters became so problematic in Lithuania in 1637 that the numbers of guests a person could invite was taken away from them and decided instead by the local Beth Din, depending on their opinion of that person's income. Is it time to reinstate this rule?

One compromise could be to have a small wedding lunch, but have a larger informal reception afterwards. You can be inclusive without having to "keep up with the Cohens".

So explain to your parents that you appreciate their help, along with their willingness to make a sacrifice, but also why you have different priorities. Try to ensure that although you disappoint them, you do not hurt their feelings and cause lingering resentments after the marriage.

Perhaps ask your rabbi, or another mutually respected person, to sit down with all of you and help reach a sensible solution.

Last updated: 11:41am, March 31 2011