This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Gladdening the Bride*

It is generally acknowledged that there exists a religious obligation in Judaism to bring joy to the heart of a new bride. Although some authorities regard it as an expression of gratitude for having been invited to the wedding, most view it as a distinct mitzvah in its own right.

According to the Talmud, the obligation is fulfilled by singing the bride's praises--a requirement which is not mentioned with respect to the groom. One commentator explains this gender-imbalance by noting that the main purpose of the compliments is to reassure the hesitant young husband about the correctness of his decision. Since women are less demanding about their choice of mates, they have no urgent need for that kind of encouragement.

It was thus common at Jewish weddings to celebrate the beauty of the bride. This practice gave rise to the hypothetical question: What are we expected to sing when the lady in question is not a spectacular beauty? Must we maintain strict standards of honesty at all costs? Should we at least be diplomatically selective in singing her praises? Or are we allowed to lie blatantly in ascribing to her physical charms which we do not really see?

The above question of wedding etiquette is discussed in a well-known passage in the Talmud:

"How are people supposed to sing about the bride as they dance before her?" The School of Hillel state that each and every brides should be extolled for her charm and grace, whereas the School of Shammai insist that she be described exactly as she is, for Judaism can never countenance even the slightest deviation from the unvarnished truth.

The commentators are in some disagreement about the precise limits of both positions. One authority, for example, paints a picture of the wedding-dancers, following the strict view of the House of Shammai, belting out a rousing rendition of the lyrics "O bride, as you really are!" The meaning would be that even if her beauty is not apparent to our superficial appreciation, we recognize that her new husband must discern in her many attractive spiritual qualities, for otherwise he would not have married her. After all, did not the wise Solomon teach us that "Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised"!

Rashi paraphrases the School of Hillel's view so that the emphasis is on charm rather than beauty. He subtly alludes to the midrashic tradition that Queen Esther was gifted with a "thread of grace" that caused her to be admired in spite of the fact that she was in reality a homely and sallow ("greenish") creature. Presumably the idea is to focus on the bride's strong points ("She has a great personality and all her friends like her"!), but not to overtly misrepresent her deficiencies.

The Tosafot, on the other hand, argue that even the School of Shammai would presumably not insist that we be so insensitively honest as to serenade the couple with a list of the bride's blemishes or deformities. Since the Shammaites must also permit some degree of delicacy and discretion, the School of Hillel must be advocating a much more permissive position, allowing for unrestrained compliments, even if they are made at the expense of overt misrepresentation. Anything less than that--even diplomatic silences--would embarrass the bride by calling attention to the glaring omissions in the accolades. It is this interpretation that has been accepted as normative practice by the Shulhan Arukh and other law-codes.

The whole issue would not arise at all if we were to follow the stringent position of some rabbis who strictly forbade all those present, out of considerations of modesty, to gaze upon the bride's face . The most that these authorities would concede is that we may peek at her ornaments in order to verify that she has in fact been married!

But the issue, as I have described it, is surely a hypothetical one. I am after all quite certain that I have never set eyes on a bride who did not radiate beauty on her wedding day.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Feb. 17 1994.