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Shabbat Weddings Revisited: The Pro Side for a Change

Originally published in The Reform Jewish Quarterly: The CCAR Journal, Spring 2012. Copyright (c) 2012 by Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved. Used by permission. The views in this essay reflect only the views of the author and do not reflect the position or views of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Rabbi Reeve Brenner shares his views on why rabbis should officiate at weddings on Saturdays – the Sabbath.

It is not that there are no reasons to avoid or refuse to officiate at Saturday evening weddings before sundown. It is that these reasons are so flimsy and lame and these reasons, discussed in this article, are outweighed by far in my mind by several firmer reasons to agree to officiate on Shabbat (with pleasure). We should welcome the custom of late Shabbat day weddings already entrenched and established as aminhag and see it as an opportunity to connect with many lives?most especially with a young couple. And, if the professional dynamics are well played out, it will serve to connect a few lives to the experience of Shabbat’s special sacredness.

Here are some of my reasons. I acknowledge that when you provide a number of reasons, it’s likely because there is no one good reason or there are no particularly good reasons. This applies to the traditional machmir reasons offered as well as the meikal reasons offered by the permissive side. Let the reader judge the reasons provided by both sides. But first, as in all good legal questions, a case study is the proper place to begin.

Jean converted to Judaism and will wed Jonathan. She has a large number of elderly guests coming to the wedding. Among whom are her Christian grandparents, one in a wheelchair. She wants to accommodate their needs, which calls for a wedding as early as possible in the evening so that they do not have to choose between staying up late or missing a part of the event. For various good reasons including work and vacation time, a summertime wedding is clearly advisable. Having the ceremony after the party is aesthetically a turn-off, and none of her friends who have been married recently were required to have their wedding ceremonies later, after the party and dinner. To this family, such an arrangement would be preposterous. In their minds celebrating thesimchah event before the wedding event would turn everything planned upside down. Many guests might be somewhat inebriated and perhaps unseemly boisterous as well during the ceremony. The Jewish side of the family would spend the evening being apologetic and rather embarrassed. And Jews and Judaism would, in their words, look bad inconveniencing so many over a dubious ruling.

The wedding had to be on a Saturday night for the out-of-towners, and in that case, Sunday would be an additional opportunity to interact with loved ones who come from afar. Everyone looked upon this arrangement as a good deed for a number of specific individuals they could name and not merely as an abstraction. Sunday is a day off requiring no rush to work. Besides, all her friends, mostly Jewish, had their weddings on Saturday before sunset? every wedding at about 6 p.m. That is the custom, the minhag. The family feels strongly that the ceremony precede the party celebration that is intended to celebrate the marriage, and because all friends on both sides have had Saturday weddings, toward evening, they wished the same. Also important is that sleeping over after the celebration, without going to work the next day, along with travel arrangements?for some a long drive of many hours?require a Saturday night/Sunday free event, giving the family an entire weekend. Any other time would keep some family members from a distant location from coming altogether. In this matter, there was nothing frivolous or convenient or expedient; it was rather an expression of common courtesy, decency, and consideration. And love for family.

One of the reasons against Shabbat weddings is that “it’s just not done.” It is a habit or a minhag based largely if not legally on the notion that unlike other life-cycle events, a wedding, as reflected in theketubah, was once a business arrangement. The ketubah reflected dowries of goods and cash and other financial considerations. That is not the text of the ketubah today. Today for Reform Judaism the language is of love, sacred bonds, covenant, relationship, commitments, and responsibilities?without reference to finances.

We learn from theShulchan Aruch[1] that at one time weddings were to be conducted only on a full moon and that, we are told, was the minhag then. Obviously that minhag is no longer our minhag todayRed ribbons are no longer hung in a room where a woman is giving birth. Yemenite Jews living in Muslim lands still practiced polygamy into the mid-twentieth century but have given it up and not because of trouble with multiple mothers-inlaw. Also ignored are otherminhagim and rulings such as that a wedding ring must not be bejeweled. A linguist at Columbia University, John McWhorter, refers to the notion that “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”[1]Minhagim change, often with good reason.

Moreover, it can no longer be argued that weddings on Shabbat just is not done, seeing that in the community where the couple lives, and many other communities, the custom of not conducting weddings on Shabbat does not exist; the prohibition is a thing of the past like full moon weddings. Rather, granting consent for late Shabbat weddings follows an established minhag with good reason, including concern for the elderly and for others who would otherwise not attend (and be separated from the community). These provide far better reasons to follow the minhag, the custom of late Saturday afternoon (usually 6 p.m.) weddings. If custom carries weight and it does according to the Talmud (we are instructed to observe and conform to the customs of the community), the minhag of prohibition has turned into a minhag of observance. And there is no question that the sanctity of Shabbat could be enhanced just as a bar and bat mitzvah and b’rit (and baby-naming) provide opportunity to sanctify Shabbat. A wedding on Shabbat can become a moment of Shabbat sanctity with a little effort and imagination. It may include conducting a creative Shabbat afternoonMinchah service before the wedding, should that occasion arise.

In the mainstream Reform halachic texts I consulted there is cited invariably the case of the woman who was involved in an exceptional wedding. The exception was that the rabbi, Polish Talmudist Moses Isserles, agreed to officiate late Friday night, after Shabbat began, out of economical considerations and sensitivity to the bride. This sensitivity translated itself into the working out of financial matters on her behalf. Most important, the ketubah was in that day and age clearly a business arrangement (among other things, to be sure) as the rabbi explained (unlike the ketubah in non-Orthodox use today).

Sensitivity to the feelings and needs of the bride was the justification for the leniency that allowed Rabbi Isserles to officiate on Shabbat. The rabbi did not wish to shame the girl and he therefore performed the marriage on Shabbat. The rabbi could have said, “You should have worked this out long before you came to me today. I will not officiate. Besides it is Shabbat and this is a business arrangement.” He did not invoke such reasoning and wisely made things happen by way of a radical departure from tradition. His departure from tradition is notable precisely because of money matters on Shabbat. And he married the couple anyway. Kal v’chomer, no such consideration need deter a non-Orthodox wedding officiant inasmuch as business and finances are not reflected in the couple’s ketubah.

Allposkim admit that the prohibitions are not biblically based but were issued by the Rabbis. All admit, as Walter Jacob notes, that “rabbinic arguments against a marriage on Shabbat rests on weak foundations. They fall in the category which includes swimming on Shabbat as a prohibition. The rabbinic prohibition was made only to keep individuals from writing the ketubah on Shabbat or the acquisition of property.”[3] There also was no question that any wedding conducted on Shabbat was to be considered valid in every sense. Theketubot today in Reform congregations are not business arrangements but love and marriage covenants. There are no last minute financial negotiations for a modern day Isserles to resolve.

Walter Jacob also points out that “the traditional prohibition against weddings on Shabbat in the Shulchan Aruch rests on foundations in the Talmudic tradition which we, as Reform Jews, no longer observe.” The prohibition, Rabbi Jacob continues, rests on “weak foundations” and “technically such a marriage may reflect only a minor infringement of Shabbat.”[4]

Nevertheless, Rabbi Jacob considers this “infringement of Shabbat” a “major matter.” A “minor infringement” may in certain circumstances develop into a major matter, apparently. Not a few minor matters, however, continue to decline in weightiness, standing, and relevance forK’lal Yisrael. (One might think of the use of thekippah at worship and in public among Reform Jews.) Is that not the very essence of progressive Judaism?

Economic reasons also dictate consideration of Saturday weddings because if all Jewish weddings were postponed for the following day, Sunday, the impact financially would be great upon caterers, their employees, and other staff people, all of whom would find their revenues more than halved and many forced out of business including several Jewish caterers, photographers, and musicians for whom a Shabbat evening prohibition would be disastrous. It is plausibly argued that a Shabbat wedding requires work on Shabbat. It does. Rabbis also work on Shabbat. One might suggest however that this is an individual choice concerning Shabbat and parnasah. And we must not make decisions for others that may be causing hardship on other people’s lives by compelling Shabbat observance on businesspeople and workers for whom the prohibition would impact seriously on their lives. This consideration invariably is ignored and often denounced.

Walter Jacob would prefer discouraging weddings being held even on Saturday evening for they involve preparations on Shabbat. Perhaps there is justification that such weddings be discouraged but should that influence or prevent our participation and officiation if the discouragement is outweighed by more substantial considerations, among them many valid reasons already named, especially Jewish attitudes concerning respect and regard for the needs of nechim and k’shishim? I think not.

Another reason given to discourage if not prohibit Reform rabbis from officiating at weddings before sundown is because other rabbinical bodies will look askance at our anti-traditionalism. They do so anyway. Do we not officiate at cremations? And at gatherings where non-kosher food is served? Automobiles and electricity? Disregard for the clock at other events and religious occasions? Patrilineal descent? And a large number of other Reform adjustments to reality as reflected in progressive Reform halachic traditions have become well documented by the most gifted poskim of our time, including Solomon Freehof, Walter Jacob, and Mark Washofsky, to whom we owe our gratitude. Moshe Zemer’s book on sh’eilot and t’shuvot is, after all, entitled Evolving Halakhah.[5] The conclusion is inescapable that consent or capitulation to the chidush-become-minhag in the matter of twilight Shabbat weddings, considering so many other weightier shinuyim with which Progressive Judaism is associated, will not change the attitude of K’lal Yisrael on the right despite our desire, in Walter Jacob’s elegant words of tikvah, “to advance the unity of the Jewish people.”

It has been said that when a number of reasons are provided for a ruling, it is often a sign that there is no valid reason or that reasons have to be conjured up with little justification for their existence. Such is the case in connection with weddings on Shabbat or Yom Tov.[6] The reasons are talui al blima (hanging on no support).

Of the five reasons Walter Jacob and the Responsa committee provide, economic considerations get the most space. Moses Isserles chose to proceed with a Shabbat Friday night chatunah precisely for economic considerations. On Shabbat. Also, as has been said, most importantly, Isserles agreed to officiate at a Shabbat wedding for reasons of sensitivity toward the feelings of the bride?as in the above case for the bride, Jean?saving her discomfort and embarrassment. But in truth today fi nancial matters are not dealt with at the time of the wedding. The wedding is pure celebration, a life-cycle event like a bar/bat mitzvah. One can also argue that a bar mitzvah has financial considerations (envelopes of cash and checks) as does almost every life-cycle event. The weddings I have conducted have never been financial except to pay the bills for the wedding party?after Shabbat.

Over the some thirty years serving as rabbi in the greater Washington, D.C., community, I have come to know a number of professional Jewish wedding planners who routinely organize and run Saturday twilight (before sunset) Jewish weddings. They invariably report not an occasional wedding of Jews at twilight time but that “nearly every Shabbat is booked through the summer before sunset.” The half dozen hotels and country clubs I know of must be secured as much as a year or more in advance much like a bar/ bat mitzvah date at a number of large Washington synagogues. Moreover, certain Reform rabbis in the area report that they routinely officiate at such weddings. The statistics anecdotally or systematically gathered may be seen as an additional verification that while “a minhag brecht a din,” many minhagim break down and dinim change as every Reform Jew knows.

It is difficult to identify a more ambiguous concept in Judaism than minhag. Custom, as a serious concept, suggests that there is great folk wisdom in flexibility, growth, change, and adjusting to new conditions. Jewish minhag, like Jewish law, does not twist with the wind or spring like a bungee cord (witness Napoleonic Jewry grappling with the emperor’s requirements) but knows to bend that it not break. Minhagim are not written in stone. Often dissonant and divergent, they are nevertheless hardly irrelevant.

In a popular book on the teachings and practices of Judaism, entitled A Basic Jewish Encyclopedia, the section on “custom” by Rabbi Harry A. Cohen (under thehechsher of Professor Louis Finkelstein), there is this conclusion: “the minhag, our sages tell us, should not be lightly abolished, for it aides in preserving tradition and it strengthens solidarity. On the other hand, the minhag often stands in the way of necessary change and causes harmful division. Furthermore, many minhagim are plain superstitions. One of the greatest Jewish authorities of all time, Rabbi Jacob Tam, grandson of Rashi, opposed many minhagim, pointing out that the word minhag (mnhg), when inverted, spells Gehinnom (ghnm), ‘hell,’ and declared that ‘if fools are accustomed to do certain things, it does not follow that the sensible should do likewise.’”[7]

In perhaps one of the greatest passages in all of English literature, Herman Melville in Moby-Dick reflects on the carcass of a whale to dilate upon entrenched but baseless minhagim:

Nor is this the end. Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the white mast blowing in the sun, and the light spray heaving high against it; straightaway the whale’s unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log?shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabouts: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy! . . . Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?

Minhagim are complicated, and determining what is and what is not a minhag has occasioned some of the finest rifts of Jewish humor and amusing self-derision. With good reason. It is axiomatic that?as a recent bat mitzvah youngster simplified? “Christianity tells you what to think. Judaism tells you what to do.” What we do is based on both law and custom. Arriving to live in a new Jewish community, one does not say, let’s find out what the community thinks and I will adjust my own thinking accordingly. Rather, we’re advised to follow the local minhagim to know what to do. Wisely, the tradition teaches, “separate not yourself from the community.” Needless to add, if a community is following a false messiah?not at all a thing of the past?or breaking Toraitic laws?the whole town including the Jews breakfast on bacon?everyposek would undoubtedly say keep away from the place or leave at once.

As has been noted, Walter Jacob lists five reasons for Shabbat weddings prohibitions.[8] Moshe Zemer offers one.[9] Notably not included among them is the Talmudic teaching, “ein m’arvin simchab’simcha[10]?not an outright prohibition?that we not amalgamate or incorporate the observance of two mitzvot/s’machot and observe them simultaneously thereby diminishing the importance of each. We separate our s’machot. One mitzvah needs no intrusion by another. They stand alone and no hasagat g’vul is to be permitted without good reason.

However, no mention was made of this well-known aphorism. It is surprising that this teaching was not cited. Philosophically it ought to have been raised in the matter of Shabbat weddings, but the sources, Orthodox and Reform mentioned in this paper, do not reflect that concern. Isserles, no less or more than our Reform poskim, ignores the teaching in officiating at a wedding on Shabbat. The absence of evidence is a kind of evidence. Of course, we don’t know how Isserles would have answered the question of overlapping mitzvot when he officiated as m’sader kiddushinat a Shabbat wedding. I wish he were to say, perhaps tongue in cheek, that the mitzvah of p’ru ur’vu precedes sh’mor et haShabbat in the Torah; indeed it is commanded even before the creation of Shabbat. Surely he would have said, in the not so arbitrary ranking of mitzvot, often one supersedes another. That is precisely the point being made in this article.

Furthermore, invoking that teaching and making of it a prohibition assumes doubtfully that there may be even a single guest who would otherwise be celebrating a simchah, performing a different mitzvah, perhaps davening Minchah andMaariv with aminyan or concerned with the requirements ofMotzi Shabbat andHavdalah. (We therefore must also leave aside the teaching that osek b’mitzvah patur m’mitzvah and similar teachings.) There are no potentially conflicting mitzvah opportunities from which one would have to choose but there is, by far, the rich opportunity for a rabbi of investing the lives of scores of people with whatever forms ofkiruv the rabbi alone knows may be best invoked given the Shabbat occasion of simchah.

If minhag is highly ambiguous, m’arvin is as much. In truth, the concern over m’arvin came to mind at once and undoubtedly crossed other minds as well, and it prompted a search for a reference by progressive poskim concerning the prohibition of intermingling joyous occasions among their commentaries on Shabbat weddings, but none could be found. It may also be noted that we do not expect a bar or bat mitzvah celebrant to be called to the Torah midweek on Monday or Thursday rather than Shabbat to avoid intermingling s’machot.

Rabbi John Sherwood points out that “It is an interesting but little known aspect of Jewish ritual history that weddings were often held on Friday afternoons in order to allow the wedding s’udah to take place and simultaneously be the family Shabbat dinner. This was never seen as a violation of ein ma-arbin simchah b’simchah.”[11]

It is instructive that there were a number of occasions (Rabbeinu Tam more than once) in Jewish history that rabbinic authorities were willing to “violate” Shabbat (a Toraitic prohibition) to conduct a wedding (a rabbinic injunction). The defining term then was “violate,” which does not necessarily mean that the wedding?the nissuim piece of the chatunah?brought about the “violation.” Rather the ketubah signing and the acquisition of property constituted Shabbat violation. Today these considerations are not relevant and do not cause a violation in Reform Jewish communities. Nor do we see ourselves bound by the earlier requirements of separating the betrothal from the marriage, the nissuim from the kiddushin. Judaism always adjusts to new realities.

The relevance of the citations by Rabbi Walter Jacob concerning the High Priest who had become a widower may be seen in that he is “required” to take a wife. Even on Yom Kippur before he officiates in the Jerusalem Temple! But that priestly requirement is as questionably relevant for Jews today as is driving to a Shabbat wedding in non-Orthodox communities. The reference to the Kohein Gadol is important in another sense: it strongly supports the theological significance of marriage?as distinct from Catholicism’s clergy for example?and undeniably the p’ru ur’vu mitzvah is profoundly a weighty imperative in virtually every one of these and similar considerations of weddings and marriage.

In short, it can be argued that Shabbat twilight weddings have attained the status of minhag (normal standard of conduct). They are no longer mere convenience. They bring families together and do not overlook the needs of the elderly and infirm and indeed other needs of the family including the heartfelt wishes of a couple to spend more time with loved ones. And this is not even bringing up the subject of determining the many different ways and procedures connected with how a Shabbat/holiday wedding may in fact be conducted to enhance rather than detract from a sacred Jewish Shabbat and festival day. For many it will be their only exposure to anything Jewish that day or any day. What else might be built upon that reality?

Should it ever occur that a couple asks a rabbi to officiate or participate in a Shabbat morning wedding (which has never happened in my fifty years of experience), the rabbi is obviously busy at Shabbat services but, under certain circumstances, might consider officiating during Shabbat services or directly afterwards at shul. Or if asked for a Shabbat afternoon, the rabbi might say yes or decline as have I the one time I was asked, because after services I need Shabbat rest having been on my feet if not on my toes all morning. But after Minchah, before sunset, after a long summer Shabbat day of rest and family and study? I’ll be there for the late Shabbat simchah. I’ll even stay awhile and do some rabbinical mingling and maybe meet someone for kiruv. Has happened.


1 Yoreh Dei-ah 179:2.
2 Quoted in David Brooks, “Tools for Thinking,” New York Times, March 29, 2011.
3 Walter Jacob, ed., American Reform Responsa: Jewish Questions, Rabbinic Answers (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1983), 412?15.
4 Ibid.
5 Moshe Zemer, Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).
6 Jacob, American Reform Responsa, 412?15.
7 Rabbi Jacob Tam: Irving Agus, ed., Teshuvot Baalay Hatosafot, 58; Teshuvot Maharam Mintz, 66. Referenced in Harry A. Cohen, A Basic Jewish Encyclopedia (Bridgeport, CT: Hartmore House, 1965), 113.
8 Jacob, American Reform Responsa, 412?15.
9 Moshe Zemer, Evolving Halakhah, 9?12.
10 Mo-eid Katan 8b.
11 Internet posting, Rav Kav, March 24, 2011.

Rabbi Reeve Robert Brenner

Rabbi Dr. Reeve Robert Brenner serves Congregation Bet Chesed of Bethesda, MD and is the retired Sr. Staff Chaplain, NIH. Among his books are The Faith & Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, Jewish, Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish? Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium and While the Skies were Falling: The Exodus & the Cosmos (soon to be published).