The recent wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has triggered a spate of articles about interfaith marriage, rabbinic officiation, co-officiation with Christian clergy and the like. Considerably less attention has been focused on the fact that the wedding took place on a Saturday before nightfall. Perhaps this was deemed less newsworthy because it has become so commonplace. I’m asking myself whether the most publicized Shabbat wedding in American Jewish history might have the unintended consequence of questioning anew the propriety of performing weddings on the Sabbath.
The need for Shabbat is greater now than ever before. Folks from widely divergent population segments are beginning to reclaim the Sabbath in a variety of ways. There are the hundreds of secular Israelis gathering at the Tel Aviv port to welcome Shabbat with prayer, poetry and song. There are the innovative hipsters of the Shabbat Manifesto declaring a “national day of unplugging,” inspiring thousands of individuals to “put down their cell phones, stop their status updates on Facebook, shut down Twitter, sign out of e-mail and relax.” A best-selling book on the Sabbath was published this past spring that prompted several stories in The New York Times about the reconsideration of the Sabbath. Families are looking for ways to connect with each other, and to re-institute the family dinner at least once each week. The time is ripe for us to be more strident in our embrace of Shabbat, particularly in the public domain.
In addition, our increasing environmental awareness reminds us of our own place in the larger universe. Deciding to officiate at Saturday weddings after 6 p.m. is not only arbitrary but represents a kind of environmental hubris in which human beings think that they have the power to make the stars appear earlier. With all of our human knowledge and advancement, we still cannot cause the sun to set. We experience awe of the cosmos when we make ourselves subject to time that lies beyond our control.
The prohibition of marriage on Shabbat is a rabbinic ordinance connected to the concern that the ketubah might be written on Shabbat. It is based upon the notion that traditional Jewish marriage is a form of kinyan (acquisition). To be sure, rabbinic sources from as early as the 12th century have in fact permitted weddings to take place in particular circumstances and under emergency situations on Shabbat. But Shabbat weddings in contemporary Jewish life today are not the unusual circumstance but rather de rigueur.
And while Reform rabbis may not be particularly concerned with writing, and do not view contemporary marriage as a form of kinyan, there are hosts of additional ways in which today’s weddings, with their lavish array of photographers, florists, musicians, and caterers, are even more clearly incompatible with the sanctity of Shabbat.
In 1976, the question was raised with the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association. In a strongly worded responsum, the committee upheld the traditional prohibition on performing weddings on Shabbat. It noted that Shabbat weddings would weaken a revived effort within the Reform movement to deepen and intensify Shabbat observance, and went even further to discourage all Saturday evening weddings, even when held after dark, because “they involve preparations on Shabbat which are not keeping with the spirit of rest and holiness of Shabbat.”
While we might expect a wholesale rejection of the notion of kinyan in contemporary marriage, thereby opening up the possibility of Shabbat weddings, the Reform Responsa committee’s most interesting objection was anchored in this very notion. The committee recognized the economic considerations of marriage — such as property rights and insurance benefits — as aspects of kinyan that continue to this day and asserted that these constitute transactions inappropriate for Shabbat.
The boldest line in that 1976 responsum that sums up the committee’s objection to Shabbat weddings is that “we prefer to give allegiance to a hallowed tradition rather than to honor mere convenience.”
Shabbat is aspirational. It includes both the aspect of zachor (remembering the Sabbath), of honoring the day by what we do, as well as the aspect of shamor (keeping the Sabbath), honoring the day by what we refrain from doing. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Jews who ask us to marry them do not mark Shabbat in ways that curtail their activities. But people look to us to represent for them Judaism’s highest religious aspirations. Our mission is to make our best attempt to represent the ideal. Our role as religious leaders presents us with opportunities to model what it means to take time seriously, to honor a day, to live in symbolic ways that speak to the kind of Jewish world we would like to see and are committing ourselves to creating.
Let’s be as willing to defend the power and potential of Shabbat as we are about defending the right of couples to decide the precise hour and day of their wedding. I call on my fellow Reform rabbis (and cantors) to declare a moratorium on Shabbat weddings. n
Rabbi Leon A. Morris is spiritual leader of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, L.I.