Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Sivan 5765 - June 29, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Marriage Customs from Bygone Days

by S. Fried

More and more people miss the simple weddings of old. Once, as the older people relate, weddings were entirely different: The musicians were different from the bands they have today, the quantity of people was different, the food was different, and so was the atmosphere — but most important, the simcha was of another kind. What follows is an anecdotal survey of weddings as they once were in Yerushalayim and elsewhere.

Our topic is: "Weddings of Old." We have the childhood memories and the stories of Yerushalayim of old and of the old yishuv, and there is the more distant past of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. There is no way we can cover all of these thoroughly. Let us glean some tidbits, from here and there, not necessarily in any particular order.

"Adorned like a chosson and bedecked like a kallah. Besiman tov uvemazal tov." Kol sosson vekol simchah kol chosson vekol kalla. On Yom Shishi, the 15th day of the month of Elul, to the sedrah of boruch atto bevo'echo, in the blessed year of — with the help of Hashem, our son, Eliyahu Mordechai and our daughter Hendel will enter into the chuppah and kiddushin, at a propitious time, and we are honored to invite you to participate in our simcha. We will be honored by your presence. Parents of the chosson: Yosef Chaim/Soroh Zonnenfeld. Parents of the kallah: Menachem Nosson/Cheryl Auerbach.

Reception: At the home of the honorable wealthy man, Rabbi Rachamim Mizrachi, on Hameidan Street. The chuppah: at the Almshouse, at 9:00 in the afternoon Arab. The wedding feast: At the home of the father of the chosson, on motzei Shabbos kodesh.


The invitation, which was particularly ornate and decorated with the best graphic ornaments that the printing house had then to offer, was printed by Eliezer Goldberg, who marked his work with his own name as well.

"9 o'clock Arab," incidentally, meant according to the Arab clock. You might also find on invitations of that period, "at 9 Turkish," or "at the ninth hour." Only "modern" Jews wrote, "3 o'clock in the afternoon, European."

It was all the same time. That was the hour for arranging chuppas in Yerushalayim at the beginning of the 20th century. And three o'clock meant three o'clock promptly, because on Friday there was no way you could "drag out" a wedding. And anyway, there was no chicken or schnitzel to be had there. No food at all, not even a borekas.


The weddings of old in Yerushalayim were always held on Friday afternoon, which was the custom in many Jewish communities of the Diaspora too. Perhaps the reason was that everyone was available on Friday afternoon, or perhaps because they wanted to save on the seudas mitzvah and merge it into the seuda of Shabbos. Or perhaps—- and this is apparently the true reason — there were deep reasons for it rooted in traditions. The serving of refreshments to the guests, and especially the songs and dances — what was then known as the mishteh — took place on motzei Shabbos.

Nowadays, it is not certain that people will even host a sheva brochos on motzei Shabbos. They have just had a long and tiring Shabbos, and had to take care of sleeping arrangements and three meals for all the immediate and extended family — they should only be well and healthy and go back quickly to their own homes. But in the not too distant past, Jews always liked to host a lively seuda on motzei Shabbos, which was known among yeshiva students as the "nitchada" — or something like that.

What was the source for that peculiar name? Was it Polish, perhaps?

Now here comes the surprise: From the recollections of an ex- Hebronian, it turns out that this was the custom of Sephardim in Hebron. As for the word — its origin is Ladino. From there to Yerushalayim, the distance was not so great.


There was an old joke that they used to tell in Yerushalayim, that went like this: Yentele of apartment number 21 — or maybe 41 — jumps rope with her friends in the large courtyard of Batei Ungarin. When she comes home, she is greeted joyfully with the news: "Mazel tov. You are a kallah!"

"And who is the chosson?" — Yentele dares to enquire.

To which her parents reply: "Yachne! You mean you have to know that, too?"

Things probably did not happen the way it sounds in the joke, but the reality was close enough. Girls, and even boys, got married at a very early age, though it was late in relation to what was customary in Yemen and, at certain periods, in European communities as well. HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, the rov of Jerusalem, wrote in his will to his sons that they should be sure to marry off their daughters before the age of twenty, and all his life he took steps in that direction. The parents initiated and finalized the shidduch, and even found their way into that meeting where a quick glance was exchanged between the chosson and kallah.

Were they less happy than today?


Let us go back to that magnificent invitation at the beginning of the article, where HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld invites guests to the wedding of his son Eliyahu Mordechai: that was still (1908-5668) a good few years prior to the First World War, when you could still arrange a "wedding feast" in Yerushalayim since most Jews still lived between the Old City walls and staunchly observed Torah and mitzvos.

What was served at the feast?

Lemonade, perhaps, cookies and "popitas" — roasted sunflower seeds.

HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld had not as yet been appointed rov and Av Beis Din of Yerushalayim; the chuppah was most probably conducted by HaRav Shmuel Salant.

A few years later, in the midst of the poverty and horrors of the war (as told in Yerushalayim Shel Maaloh), HaRav Zonnenfeld worked to make shidduchim among the children of the poor.

The above quoted invitation is part of journalist Dov Ganychovsky's collection, and in an article in Etmol, T. Sapir analyzes various invitations in relation to the places where the weddings were held. Generally, only one thing was not certain and conventional: Whether the wedding was to be at the "chosson's father's" house or the "kallah's father's" house. On the other hand, sometimes the chuppah was at the synagogue and the wedding in the house.

It is likely that only well-to-do families could afford to print invitations. For many it was sufficient to make an announcement in the shul, and the whole community would attend the simcha, give their good wishes and go home — with lekach or without it.

As the yishuv expanded beyond the walls of the Old City almost 120 years ago, it became necessary to dispatch invitations. Now there was a choice whether weddings were either held "in the Old City" or "outside the city, in Batei Ungarin." It was only at the end of the twenties, when the community had grown and began leaning towards the "new Yishuv," that weddings began to be held in public institutions like schools, and, for the wealthy — in hotels.


One of the invitations which appears in the article is that of a couple who were apparently "pioneers" who came to the country without their parents. Instead of "Naale es Yerushalayim al rosh simchoseinu" etc., there is just a star of David with the word "Zion" inside, and the text of the invitation is simply: "Avrohom Duber Shaulson — Pesel Goldberg, join together in the bonds of matrimony." Such a modern expression!

The wedding was held at the house of the kallah's uncle in Botei Hordona, without mentioning the name of the uncle, and the hosts are: "Dovid Kamin" on the chosson's side and "Chava Salz" on the kallah's side, distant relatives apparently or perhaps friends. The invitations were printed at Zuckerman's printing shop, which mentions that he is the "alef zayin" (we do not know what that is) of the chosson.

That was a wonderful period. There was no money, but a great deal of tznius and yiras Shomayim. Then the Zionists came and the European "Enlightenment," and they began digging away at customs from olden times.

In an announcement made in Yerushalayim in the period of HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, the members of the Mishmeret HaKodesh Besimcha Shel Mitzva declared: "We undertake bli neder not to go to a place where men and women eat in the same room, except on condition that the baal hasimcha has arranged beforehand that the men eat in a specific room for the men, and the women in a specific room for women, both on Shabbos and on weekdays . . . " For indeed, "mixed" affairs had also infiltrated to Yerushalayim . . .

Not only in Yerushalayim, obviously. In the book by Zvi Zohar, Hei'iru Pnei Mizrach (They Lit up the East), the author describes how the European Haskoloh Movement infiltrated the Jewish community in Egypt at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Together with the haskoloh came the new "open-mindedness," and the degeneration was very rapid. All the ingredients of what was considered French "culture" spread like wildfire among the Jews, especially in high society, among the wealthy who had contacts with Europeans.

Instead of being simchas shel mitzvah, weddings turned into balls, in which the wedding was just a pretext. There was a drastic change in the dress code too. The men flaunted European suits, and had no qualms about wearing self- professed shatnez, which was needed to stabilize the woolen suits. At the same time, the women wore immodest ball gowns. These balls had to be held at night, and therefore the "modern" Jews altered the traditional time for weddings from daytime to nighttime. The location of the wedding was transferred from being in the home or synagogue to hotels and coffee houses.

In Egypt

Egyptian rabbis tried to fight against the new trend as it appeared in their country, and in 1906 (5666) Rabbi ben Shimon and Rabbi Eliyahu Chazan managed to persuade the community leadership to publicize regulations determining both the permitted locations of the weddings and the permitted times: "We have ruled, with the consent of the leaders of the Holy Nation, heads of the community of the City of Yerushalayim to restore the former custom as was previously, that is, to make the chuppas specifically during the day. We instituted this procedure several times before, and we saw that in consequence there was order in our streets, especially when chuppas are arranged at the shul, and women came dressed very respectfully and covered in shawls due to the sanctity of the site . . .

"The haskomoh of the Beis Din Tzedek . . . we have instituted the law and established the decree, that from now on no Jew is permitted to arrange a chuppah either at guest houses or kal vochomer at public houses or coffee houses, Heaven forbid, but only at the home of the chosson or kallah. If their house be too small to hold it there, they may choose a synagogue . . . or . . . they may use a yard which is entirely vacant of residents and set up the chuppah there, should that place be tzonua."

Tzonua in both meanings of the word: modest in appearance and modest in cost. But especially in the sense of limiting oneself. Jews, throughout the generations, never had an abundance of money, yet they continued to make simchas over and above their means, perhaps because the "other side" requested it. Once in your life you could look like the town's rich man.

The rabbis and city leaders saw that this could really lead to a life-threatening situation, and they made very strict regulations about the number of guests at the seudas mitzvah and about the kind of food that was served there.

In addition, there was the fear of "lomoh tisro'u" — arousing the jealousy of the goyim.

Community Regulations

In 1793, the community of Ankona, Italy established, with regard to bar mitzvas, that: "It is forbidden to make a seuda, one is only allowed to serve coffee and saroydro (a type of biscuit) for those who come to the house to wish mazel tov." (Which shows, incidentally, that making a simchas bar mitzvah is not an invention of our times).

The Medina community was more generous, and proposed a choice of one of the following drinks: coffee, chocolate, tea or a rose drink. But no stuffed pepper.

As for weddings, the number of diners was limited to thirty- six, and on condition that either fish or meat could be served — but not both — at one meal.

Various communities determined the number of guests who were permitted in accordance with the tax that was raised for the community (which it immediately handed over to the poritz, prince-patron, or king's officers). There were genuine tax scales, which took into account the family's economic status. If you didn't have the means — why make an extravagant wedding?

The regulations dating from the end of the 19th century had an exact itemization. "One who pays taxes from 10 grand inclusive may invite no more than 25 men and their wives, aside from the rabbis and the chazan, one shamash, a preacher, and an untrephierer (best man) and two servershmeg (waiters) and all the residents of the house." One could not get into conflicts with neighbors, after all.

Furthermore, the chosson could invite 6 friends to mesameach the chosson, whereas the kallah could have an unlimited number of friends. Why? The reason is not clear.

The following regulations further limited the leniencies, and only allowed the inviting of five men, aside from the rabbi, etc., and also three poor people collecting tzedoko. The chosson and kallah were, as yet, invited.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the Ashkenazim even forbade that very well-known custom: "making a kolatch for the wedding or bris miloh and sharing it with the guests at the seudah." This was a special large challah baked for the simchah. Think what ancient traditions have been handed from generation to generation, generation to generation — up till our times. A "kolatch" — whose source no one understands today, but no one will give it up!

Incidentally: we see clearly from these regulations that the way the bris miloh is conducted today is exactly the same as the way it was done hundreds of years ago in communities all over, whether they were Ashkenazi or Sephardi. For example, we see this from the minhag of the "kvatter" — a word whose meaning and source no one knows. And chas vecholiloh anyone should arrive at a seudas bris uninvited!

There was one participant whom no one would leave out, not even in the most limited weddings: the darshan or badchan, the person who recited the grammen (rhymes) so beautifully. At Chassidic weddings today, there is always at least one.

As for yeshivishe weddings — we can still recall some very successful badchans, respectable bnei Torah who viewed it as a great zchus to mesameach the chosson and kallah and sing the praises of the mechutonim. Where did they disappear? Perhaps it was the advent of the loud bands, and the photographers who roam around unceasingly, "staging" the wedding, or maybe it was the necessity to end weddings at 11 o'clock.

Did he make jokes? Was it his intent to make everyone laugh? Absolutely not. The badchan used a mixture of tears and laughter to get his mussar across, to teach necessary halochos, to remind all those present that a wedding is the establishment of a Jewish home. It was all done in rhymes "sheyotzim min hasharvul" ("off the cuff").

He used to climb up on a chair, and all the guests would fall silent. The kleizmer would use the opportunity to take a break and maybe drink a cup of tea. Soon the kallah and her entourage would slip in at the side, since they were part of the songs.


Does anyone go to a wedding today? Mostly people drop in, making the rounds. Many nights in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak people have to go to two or three weddings. Some have to go to weddings in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak on the same night. This does not allow them the leisure of spending the night at a single wedding. And then if it is not too late they stop in at their neighbor's bar mitzvah as well.

Who brings presents today? What do you mean? I am a poor avreich/I have married off ten children — and I don't have any extra money. I won't give them and they do not have to give to me.

By the way, when did you last rush to get to a chuppah? At your brother's or sister's wedding? By the time your cousin's chuppah came round, you weren't in such a rush. Really, how much can a person spend on a baby- sitter?

Once, fifty or sixty years ago and earlier, it was not like that. The community was small and close knit. Everyone knew everyone else, that is, the people from their own community, and everyone felt like they were one of the main guests.

Nobody had much family in many circles. A lot of relatives lived in chutz la'aretz, and after the Holocaust, there was that dreadful general sense of orphanhood all over. Anyone who came from your town—-he was like your closest possible relative, and if anyone had any brothers, sisters or cousins in the country, then you felt rich indeed. Good neighbors were really like brothers. What a simcha! Royzele is getting married! At long last there's a wedding on the horizon! You could count on one finger the number of weddings each year.

"I always remember the first wedding that I ever went to. I was then about 8 or 9 years old. It was when there was rationing in the early years of the State.

"My parents' closest neighbor was marrying off her daughter at a magnificent hotel: the Herling-Warshavsky hotel in Zion Square. Only those with means made weddings there. The mother of the kallah stood at the door holding a white cloth bag in her hand. "Hast sheine gehat a kichelle?" she asked me, and pulled out a homemade cookie from deep inside her bag. After the chuppah, we went home.

"A few years later we were invited to an engagement party of a member of the family. They served fruit salad inside a glass goblet with a stem. For us that was "America." But then, no matter how poor everyone was during those prewar and postwar years, no one dared to come to a wedding without a present.

"One day my father took me to a wedding in Tel Aviv. We spent about two hours on the bus, after waiting in a long line at the Central Bus Station on Jaffa Road, in the yard opposite Dr. Ticho. After we had dropped off our suitcase at our relative's home, we went to a housewares store to buy a present. In Yerushalayim they did not have shops like that. I remember to this day that gorgeous present: a serving bottle for liquor and six cups."

In the 1940's, in the years before the Second World War, winds of various types were already blowing in the Jewish towns. The Yoravs of Tirat Tzvi collected letters from the head of the family relating about several couples who got married and emigrated to Israel.

Parshas Tetzaveh, 5th of Adar, 5694 (2.2.1934)

Parshas Vayakheil-Pekudei, 19th of Adar, 5694 (6.3.1934)

Mazel tov, mazel tov to my dearly beloved and fine children: Moshe Gelda Henich, may they live and be well with the yeshuo of all Israel. I am happy to tell you the good news (that makes the bone thick), about the tenoim of my son, your elder brother, Leib Avrohom, who was by us for the Purim seudah.

On Sunday of this week your mother and I, and Leib Avrohom traveled to Latzernovitch, arriving there at 2 o'clock. By that time the mechuton of Batashan was already there with the mechutenes and the kalla as well as my daughter, your sister Miriam. They had been waiting for us to come and finalize matters. But when it was time to go to the pure table of the Rebbe, which was at the yahrtzeit of his father, I went with the mechuton, and we sat by the table and were given these wonderful influences on the body and soul which were shed on Klal Yisroel. After davening ma'ariv we went to the guest house where the mechutenes was staying with the kalla as well as your mother and sister and we started to discuss matters because he had previously said in another language that there was no need for him to get the dowry before the wedding . . . So we did the handshake, wrote the tenoim, drank a lechaim and ate some sweets with joyful hearts.

Later the chosson and kalla went with Miriam to the railway tracks, and your mother, myself, and the mechuton and mechutenes went to the Rebbe to get a brochoh and mazel tov . . . After davening we again went with the chosson and kalla tot get the Rebbe's brochoh and we gave out drinks and sweets to all our loved ones . . . The chosson and kalla stayed in Czernovitz to get a present for the kalla, a "clock."

But we cannot do without that gold watch . . .


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