Question: My husband wants a lavish bar mitzvah for our son next year. I think it’s wrong to spend $ 50,000 on a party for a 13 year old kid when so many of our fellow Jews are experiencing hard times. What does Jewish law have to say about this?
Answer: You’re right, sort of. And your husband is all wrong. Did you know that $50,000 can feed 10,000 malnourished African children for a week? I think I once saw that on a UNICEF box. Yes, Jewish law frowns on spending excessively and consuming conspicuously; but it’s not simply a matter of sensitivity to those enduring hard times.
Back in the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch law code called it a religious obligation for a father to a honor of his son’s bar mitzvah with a festive meal (a "seudat mitzvah"). But I don’t think they considered the possibility of renting out Dodger Stadium or the QE 2.
Even back then, Solomon Luria, in a commentary on the Talmudic tractate Baba Kama, bemoaned that Bar Mitzvah celebrations had become "occasions for wild levity, just for the purpose of stuffing the gullet." There is no mention of whether Luria was also annoyed at those endless candle lighting ceremonies or the mind-numbing games of games of "Coke and Pepsi."
Abraham was the first to host a "seudat mitzvah" in the Torah, preparing a grand banquet when Isaac was weaned. It is not known how much Abraham spent on the festivities, though he was famous for cutting no corners when entertaining guests, so at the very least we can presume that there was no cash bar.
Although one commentary suggests that Isaac was 13, it’s hard to imagine that even the Torah’s greatest mama’s boy took that long to be weaned. Abe’s other son Ishmael, however, was 13 at the time of his bris. Considering that Abraham also circumcised himself at the time, and he was 99, one could guess that the shindig was kept low-key.
The classic contemporary example of Bar Mitzvah-related excess was the infamous 1998 Titanic Bat Mitzvah in Pittsburgh, complete with phosphorescent artificial icebergs, 12-foot steaming smokestacks at the buffet table and a huge photo of the young lady’s face superimposed over Kate Winslet’s body, in Leonardo DiCaprio’s loving embrace. The dress alone reportedly cost $27,000. This Titanic disaster led many to wonder whether we were going overboard on these celebrations.
Frustration regarding over-the-top parties cuts across denominational lines, as excessive waste is considered to violate the Jewish principles of "Bal Tashchit," based on passage from Deuteronomy prohibiting cutting down trees during wartime. Judaism always emphasizes simplicity and modesty. It was around the time of the Pittsburgh party that Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s book, Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah," began to make its way onto family reading lists in Hebrew Schools across the land.
But your question does not presuppose that conspicuous consumption is wrong – just that it’s tacky to do it during hard times. So are you presuming that $50,000 would make more sense if half the guest list hadn’t lost their fortunes with Smilin’ Bernie? Or are you just concerned that these nouveau poor will assume that you are spending a fortune simply to make them stew in their misfortune? Is this a matter of waste – or simply bad taste?
Tell your husband that such extravagance is wrong even when times are right. But I also know that a scaled back Bar Mitzvah can still be pricy.
It’s easy to blame the caterers for the outrageous costs. And I understand that you’ve got to do something for Aunt Millie, before her hernia acts up, and Uncle Harold’s no spring chicken either. I know that families are scattered more than ever and that this is often the only time when they can come together, since, with people getting married later, you can no longer count on everyone making it to the wedding. I know that costs add up and yes, there are social pressures to keep up with the Steins. But the recession gives us a chance, at long last, to pull back from this edge.
Why not take some of that money and apply it to a family trip to Israel? How about cutting back on the accessories and double the amount your son contributes to his mitzvah project.
He does have a mitzvah project, doesn’t he?
At the very least, save some for college. Believe me, you’ll need it!