This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Please Honour Us by Your Presents *

I realize that the exchange of gifts is supposed to be a heartfelt expression of appreciation, gratitude or affection. And yet it sometimes takes on the character of an onerous ritual with very rigid rules and innumerable opportunities to cause embarrassment if a gift is overlooked, too cheap, too expensive or otherwise inappropriate. In our world, gift exchanges are associated with birthdays and anniversaries, Mothers and Fathers Days and assorted life-cycle events.

Be consoled in the knowledge that in earlier times, the burdens of offering and graciously accepting gifts were much more demanding than they are today.

One of the traditional gift-giving occasions that has lost much of its lustre is the institution known to the Talmud as "sivlonot"--presents that a prospective groom gave to his bride prior to the wedding. Because of the fact that in Jewish law the marriage itself is usually effected by the transfer of a ring or other object to the bride, it was important to establish clear guidelines for distinguishing between formal betrothals and more casual exchanges of sivlonot gifts, so as not to inadvertently create a legal marriage before the match was actually finalized.

By the sixteenth century, the Italian Jewish middle class had developed an extraordinary passion for exchanging gifts as part of the preliminary negotiations leading to a marriage agreement. Where earlier generations might have been satisfied with modest or symbolic tokens of affection, the prospective Italian grooms were expected to impress their brides (or the brides' families) with extravagant and frequent offerings of jewelry, gold and silver coins, articles of clothing, hair ornaments and culinary delicacies (chocolate was always a favourite!).

A favourite choice of gift in the Middle Ages was a book. Before the advent of printing, each volume had to be individually penned by a scribe, so each was a unique and prized item. Thus, a simple prayer book could be costly enough to warrant being recorded in the marriage contract. More ornate tomes such as illuminated Passover Haggadahs would fetch even higher prices. Several Hebrew manuscripts that are now housed in library collections sport inscriptions testifying to their prior use as wedding presents or as part of a bride's dowry.

In his definitive responsum dealing with the phenomenon of marital gifts, Rabbi Joseph Colon observed that in his day (the fifteenth century) it was the universal practice in all the Jewish communities of Italy to exchange valuable gifts immediately following the formal ceremony at which the two families agreed to the match.

But the matter did not end there. Proper etiquette demanded the bestowing of expensive gifts and the convening of elaborate feasts on numerous additional occasions between the sealing of the match and the wedding day. The list of gift-giving occasions could include: the days of the finalizing of the shiddukh and the setting of the wedding date, the groom's visits to his fiancée's home, the bride's immersion in the mikveh, her departure from her home, and Purim (when gift exchanges are mandatory anyway).

Conspicuous ostentation of presents served as a means of demonstrating a family's distinguished socio-economic profile. They would often hold on to all the gifts that were given to the bride by the groom's family, so that they could be pulled out for a lavish display at the wedding--after which they would be returned to the original owners since they had served their main purpose of impressing the guests. (This custom is comparable, perhaps, to renting a tuxedo or returning a glamorous designer gown to the shop after a gala celebration.)

Toward that end, it became standard, especially among affluent families, to maintain meticulous records of all the gifts that had passed between them, noting their monetary values as assessed by experts and the precise circumstances of their delivery. Several ledgers of this kind have survived in manuscripts. Since not all prospective couples actually made it to the wedding canopy, this insistence on detailed record-keeping made it easier to avoid legal squabbles when the time came to return gifts after the cancellation of nuptials. Nevertheless, disputes could still arise over intangible expenses such as transportation, entertainment or catering costs.

The conspicuous consumption of Italian Jews was addressed by their leaders in the form of "sumptuary laws," edicts forbidding extravagance in such matters as clothing or the number of guests invited to family celebrations. As far as I know, however, the culture of gift-giving was not targeted in these edicts.

Our contemporary model of courtship as the cultivation of a romantic connection between two individuals was quite different from the reality of marriage in earlier generations. In fact, the rabbis instituted several regulations that were designed to avoid confusion between respectable matchmaking and subversive courtships by impulsive Romeos and Juliets. Thus, it was decreed that gifts directed to the bride were not to be delivered to her personally, but via an intermediary, lest her acceptance mistakenly be construed as a formal betrothal. For similar reasons, the gifts should not be accompanied by personal missives, especially love letters, because their wording could also be mistaken for binding marriage proposals.

All of the above describes the gift-giving procedures as they were envisaged by the rabbis and the respectable parents who were eager to wield control over the mating process. However, real-world experience and literature (including a delightful Hebrew play of the time, Leone Sommi's "Comedy of Betrothal") tell us that the desires of the young people could not be disregarded entirely. Sometimes they had the irritating habit of falling in love, inspiring emotions that could not be expressed adequately by means of the impersonal transfer of fiscal assets between their families.

There is a quaint tale preserved in a Hebrew manuscript, in which a beau was able to communicate secretly with his lady Luna through a hole in the basement wall or through a window and persuade her to accept his gifts as a token of betrothal.

Clandestine exchanges between sweethearts of such trinkets as portraits or medallions bearing the images of the beloved had a subversive quality that (so it was feared) might even threaten to undermine the marriages that were being arranged by their parents.

We see, then, that there are gifts and there are gifts. In some contexts, they serve to uphold the social standing of respectable families, while in others they undermine the structures of parental authority. These are, of course, very weighty matters that should be pondered seriously before choosing your next gift.

At the very least, you should probably take care not to forget your next anniversary.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 19, 2010, p. 16.
  • For further reading:
    • Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.
    • Baron, Salo Wittmayer. The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1972.
    • Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
    • Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1990.
    • Sommi, Leone de'. A Comedy of Betrothal (Tsahoth B'dihutha D'Kiddushin). Translated by Alfred Siemon Golding. Carleton Renaissance Plays in Translation. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions Canada, 1988.
    • Weinstein, Roni. "Gift exchanges during marriage rituals among the Italian Jews in the early modern period: a historic-anthropological reading." Revue des Études juives 165, no. 3 (July 1, 2006): 485-521.