This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Trimming the Guest List*

It is truly a gratifying sight when Jews find opportunities to rejoice, whether on the occasion of a wedding a B’rit, or any other festive occasion. But sometimes, it must be admitted, people do go overboard in such matters.

Whether they are impelled by high spirits, by the obligations of social position, or by the pressures to "keep up with the Cohens," there are too many cases in which the extravagance of the celebration exceeds the bounds of good taste or economic prudence.

It was a common practice in earlier generations for communities to issue ordinances known as "sumptuary laws" which set legal limits to the expenses and ostentation that could accompany festivities. There is nothing novel about this state of affairs, which arises naturally from some basic characteristics of the human personality.

By instituting these rules, which would be published on large posters and affixed to the synagogue walls, it was hoped that people would be prevented from sinking into unmanageable debts, and that the Jews would appear less flamboyant in the eyes of their neighbours. The communal leaders of Forli, Italy, described the situation as follows: "The hosts of weddings and feasts are overly generous, and go beyond their financial means, even more than the wealthy gentiles among whom we dwell, incurring serious economic loss."

Lavish spending could also kindle envy, and might shame poorer Jews out of holding more modest festivities.

The Jewish communities of old were no strangers to such excesses, and often had recourse to sumptuary legislation. Reading those by-laws can provide us with lively glimpses into the day-to-day lives of past Jewish societies.

The communal regulations issued in 1432 by the Jewish communities of Castille specified in meticulous detail the types of clothing and jewelry that Jews could wear. Gaudy apparel, a visible symptom of haughtiness, was a frequent target of moralistic preachers. The list of forbidden articles included silk and purple garments as well as ornaments of silver or gold. Italian statutes dictated the permissible colours, the width of veils, the quantities of real and imitation gems, how many times a necklace could be wound around the neck, and similar minutiae.


Exempted from the Castilian prohibition were unmarried or newly married women (in Italy too, brides were permitted to dress as they pleased when at home). The Castilian Jews had a reputation for allowing their women to dress glamorously while the menfolk wore subdued black attire.

Several statutes were aimed at limiting the numbers of guest who could be invited to festive meals. In Forli the maximum was set at twenty men and ten women (these numbers were halved for a circumcision), and all blood-relatives to the degree of second cousins. The stringencies adopted in Fürth (1728) declared that no non-relatives at all were to be allowed admission to weddings, no tea or coffee could be served there, and latecomers would have to forego the courses that had already been served. If the bride had to be escorted from a distant town, no more than ten horsemen and four foot-attendants could be employed. Some communities also limited the number of musicians who could be hired.

In Italy, sumptuary laws also set limits to the values of the gifts that could be exchanged at betrothals and weddings. In the seventeenth century the community of Metz restricted the weight of wine goblets that could be placed on the tables.

In a strategy that sounds remarkably like that of our provincial government, individual communities in Castille were given thirty days in which to present their programmes for the limitation of festive gatherings, in accordance with their respective economic circumstances.

Those found guilty of violating the sumptuary laws were usually fined. Thus, the Forli regulations imposed a penalty of one ducat for each extra guest, and ten silver bolognesi for each forbidden garment or ornament.

Though similar edicts were enacted in the Rhineland, Frankfort, Lithuania and Moravia, Fez and elsewhere, historians have remarked how ineffective the Jewish sumptuary laws were. The frequency with which they had to be reissued proves how imperfectly they were observed, and several sources lament how difficult it was to enforce them, especially among the wealthy and powerful strata who were their principal targets.

Perhaps this kind of clash is inevitable whenever standards of morality and sensibility are pitted against the forces of social pressure and human vanity.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 4 1998, p. 7.

  • Bibliography:
    • First Publication: Jewish Free Press, June 4 1998, p. 7. Bibliography:
    • Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, New York 1958.
    • Salo W. Baron, The Jewish Community, Philadelphia 1942
    • Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources Principles, Jerusalem 1973.
    • Finkelstein, Louis. 1964. Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages. 2nd ed, Abraham Berliner Series. New York: Feldheim