Q. A recent simchah I attended was quite extravagant, so much so that I felt it was way over the top and ostentatious, and the spiritual significance of the occasion was lost. Can something be done to make s’machot more meaningful?
A. There is something wonderful about a Jewish simchah (a festive occasion, such as a wedding, Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah). Once upon a time, Jews lived in such drab and dismal conditions that they welcomed any excuse for a celebration.
Now, of course, our history has taken a turn for the better, and our celebrations have become more sophisticated and sometimes more ostentatious, but to have a simchah is still an exciting prospect and experience.
How to put meaning into a simchah is suggested by the Midrash. As Rashi tells the story, Satan came to God with a complaint against Abraham. “At every feast which Abraham made,” said he, “he did not offer to You one ox or one ram.” God replied, “Whatever he does is for the sake of his son; if I were to say, ‘Sacrifice him before Me’, he would not hold back!”
This exchange tells us something about Abraham; it tells us even more about life in the time of the Talmudic rabbis, who must have been offended by over-lavish feasts in which God was forgotten.
But ancient days had no monopoly on extravagance. In the history of Jewish social life it is a theme that recurs in many places, times and contexts.
Even funerals were not exempt from lavish display, for Rabban Gamliel had to take action against showy funerals and to insist that shrouds and funeral procedures be simple and restrained.
His dictate was heeded throughout the centuries, though funerals in the United States sometimes break the bounds of propriety.
From time to time rabbis protested against extravagant dress, and demanded simplicity in both male and female garments. In 17th-century Poznan, Jewish tailors were not allowed to accept orders for showy clothing, and the ban was publicly proclaimed every month in the synagogue.
Frequently there was rabbinic outcry against extravagance at s’machot. In his “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”, Israel Abrahams describes the limits set by various kehillot on the number of guests, the table appointments, the food and the music; indeed fines were imposed for anything in excess of the required standard.
The purpose of these regulations was to avoid the hostility of neighbours, to ensure the poor were not humiliated, and to cultivate moderation and balance in Jewish social life.
The contemporary community tends not make such regulations (with the exception of a few Chassidic communities in North America and Israel), though maybe it should. But, in any case, people should have the common sense to know not to go too far.
When there is something to celebrate, it should be done sensibly and responsibly. Instead of going overboard with the arrangements (sometimes ending up with a simchah one really cannot afford), an inner sense of restraint would ensure that there is a simchah which is adequate without being mean, enjoyable without being out of proportion, and dignified without being austere.
In most cases it would be better to spend much less on the simchah and to make a significant contribution towards Israel, the local community, or even an endowment fund for the Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah or bride and groom.
We all pray that God may bless us with many occasions for s’machot; but let us not forget to bless God in the way we enjoy them.