Derek Taylor
Derek Taylor

Time for Sumptuary laws again?

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire) via Jewish News
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire) via Jewish News
The Chief Rabbi is calling for a reappraisal of the way we behave as a community. He is absolutely right in view of the constraints caused by the pandemic, but the problem is it means change and there is nothing more difficult to achieve than change.
Just two objections, for example, are the way we were brought up and the love of our traditions, which have kept us in existence for thousands of years. There is also a question of maintaining ones status in the congregation and, quite rightly, wives now have a voice as well.
There is one recommendation which is particularly pertinent. The pandemic has severely affected the finances of many a household and that is going to make the cost of a simcha even harder to find. The Chief Rabbi has said they should be less ostentatious as a result, which must be a sensible decision for many people. This can hardly be a novel idea though. The Chief Rabbi is backed up by Jewish traditions which go back, literally, thousands of years.
We’re talking about Jewish  Sumptuary laws. As far as our history is concerned, the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple were insistent that there should be no ostentatious celebrations for any simcha after such a disaster. Well, the pandemic could certainly be considered a disaster.
To further their views, where previously the bodies of the rich had been buried in gold and silver caskets, there was now the introduction of the plain wooden coffin, so that the finances of the bereaved family would not be identified.
  Moving on to the Middle Ages, a Jewish synod in Italy in 1418 restricted guests at a wedding to 20 men, 10 women, 5 girls and relations up to and including second cousins. In 1659 in Poland, only if you paid 6 Zlotys in taxes, (that’s £10,000 today), could you invite to a circumcision a total of 25 guests, including the rabbi, preacher, cantor and beadle. One sumptuary law at that time restricted the food offered at a bar mitzvah to a cup of coffee
Sumptuary laws didn’t just cover the number of guests or simply apply to Jewish communities. They also went into detail on the clothes you could wear. If you wore clothes above your station in Elizabethan England, you could be fined three farthings or be put in jail.
Sumptuary laws were very ancient. In Sparta you couldn’t go to a drinks party or have a house which needed more than an ax and a saw to build. The laws about forbidden clothing went back to ancient Rome where you weren’t allowed to wear silk or to use purple dye at all. Purple was restricted to the nobility, just as it’s associated with royalty in Thailand today.  In Lithuania in 1637 Jewish men couldn’t wear sable hats and nobody could wear velvet.
Sumptuary laws even spread to America. In Massachusetts in the early days there was a law that you had to have £200 or you couldn’t wear lace, silver or gold thread, buttons, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles or capes.
Partly, the sumptuary laws were designed to provide a lower profile for the Jewish communities; Jews were often accused of being ostentatious and many wanted to, avoid the criticism. Partly, they were designed to save the faces of poor Jews, who were impoverishing themselves to keep up with the Christian Jones and, in many cases, still are.
Jewish families, looking at the cost of forthcoming nuptials or other simchas have, therefore, a very wide choice of excuses for avoiding discussions with bank managers. who might not be cooperative in these hard times. Never let it be said that we don’t provide you with the ammunition you need to save a fortune.
Frankly, the money involved in putting on a simcha can also be spent on helping the young couple find the deposit for a home. So we have tradition which is one plus, and sound economic sense which is another. So why can I easily get 33-1 that sumptuary laws will never work, even if the Chief Rabbi is absolutely right?
Because there are three kinds of people who are dead against them; barmitzvah boys, brides and grooms. They want their simchas to be the best ever. They want to remember them all their lives and if we have sumptuary laws it diminishes the event. Common sense doesn’t come into it. Getting covid hasn’t prevented large wedding gatherings in North London even if over 60% of the charedi community in Stamford Hill have contracted the disease.
That doesn’t, of course, prevent our worthy leaders from trying. Another great Jewish tradition is that we never give up. I wonder what would happen if the charedi rabbis reintroduced sumptuary laws.
About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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