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Wealth & Worth – Sustainable Celebrations

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog: http://blog.bjen.org/, dated December 1, 2011)

The Maryland Chapter of the American Jewish Congress is developing a Green and Just Celebrations Guide for the Jewish community of Baltimore. Inspired by a guide of the same name published by Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC, it will be available (fall 2012) through synagogues and on the web, designed to make events and celebrations environmentally friendly, socially responsible, affordable and fun.

This is not the first time in Jewish history that the Jewish community has tried to wrestle with excessive and indulgent celebrations. "Sumptuary Laws" (provisions that sought to control extravagant personal spending and consumption) popped up over the centuries. From Rabban Gamaliel 2000 years ago (who sought to take the financial sting out of funerals, making them simpler and more affordable for the 99%) to the Rhine community in the 13th century to the Frankfort community in the 17th century to the Italian community in the 18th century.

The quest to control excessive consumption had two goals: (1) to relieve the social pressure on individuals and families who otherwise would spend more than they could afford; and (2) to avoid the waste of communal resources.

The challenge was how to do that. How does, how should, a community measure wealth and create just expectations for appropriate levels of spending?

Clearly, the definition of "excess" varies depending on financial capacity. The poor should not compete with or emulate the rich in their celebrations. But the rich should not flagrantly flaunt and waste their riches either. How, then, to figure out the right amount of whoopie?

The Council of the Four Lands (in the area of Poland today), came up with the following rules:

A. "The leaders of the community have agreed to deal severely with excessive and wasteful spending for festive meals…It is decreed that the number of participants at a simcha (celebration) be in accordance with one's financial position."

Clear enough. The expense of a celebration increases with the number of guests, so if you limit the number of guests, you limit the expense. And, the number of guests one can invite depends upon one's wealth.

Now the question was, how to assess a person's wealth, always a sticky task. But there was one way in which people's wealth was publicly known. Through their philanthropy.

B. "One who pays two golden coins [to the community chest] can invite 15 people [to a bris]; one who pays four coins can invite 20 people; one who pays six coins can invite 25 people… And every 10 invitees must include at least one poor person." (quoted from Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life)

One's wealth was known by the amount one gave away. Having money, building great big houses and wearing expensive clothes and jewelry was not the measure by which you earned rights to large celebrations. Rather, if you had all that money, you were obliged to help the community, commensurately with what you were "worth". One's "worth," this law reminds us, is not wealth kept, but wealth given to support the needs of one's community.

The Jewish communities of old knew that wealth conferred obligation, and it was the fulfillment of this obligation which in turn conferred privilege, and helped strengthen community.

And more, in the midst of the celebration, one must remember and care for the poor.

It is a lesson we are struggling to remember today.

So perhaps we can learn more than just good consumer habits from these sumptuary laws. Perhaps we can learn good citizenship.

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