Armed with endless freedoms, modern man has the right to do whatever he pleases, to the extent of digging his fiscal grave. It was not always like that. In olden times, authoritarian rulers regarded it their responsibility to curb spending mania. Even pleasure-seeking Athens enacted laws to limit feminine apparel, restrict the size of dowries, cut down funerals to size, and limit guests at feasts. Similar laws were enacted in Rome, China, Japan, and the Muslim and Christian worlds. These rules are known as sumptuary laws – laws that aim to restrict sumptuous ostentation.
The Importance of Moderation
As a sixteenth century English sumptuary law explained in its preamble, uncontrolled spending is ruinous for both society and individual: “Lately, the excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares has reached such an extremity that the decay of the whole kingdom is likely to follow (by bringing into the realm such superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost… that the money and treasure of the realm must be yearly exported to pay for the excess).
Also, particularly, it causes the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen and others seeking who dress showily to be esteemed as gentlemen, and not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands their parents left them, but also run into such debts and shifts that they turn to crime.” (Abridged, modernized)
Of course, enacting such laws was one thing while enforcing them was another. To force men to live simply is to fight a visceral element of man’s psyche – the yearning for honor and distinction. Generally, these rules were honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Since earliest times, Jews also restricted their consumption, not only to avoid bankruptcy, but also to avoid the evils of excess and in consideration of the less prosperous.
As Yaakov warned his sons during the world famine, “Lama tisra’u,” why incur the envy of the sons of Eisav and Yishmael by appearing sated before them? Indeed, stirring up envy through exhibitionism is a hazardous enterprise. On one occasion, such behavior once endangered the entire Jewish community of Turkey.
This reportedly happened in 5345/1595 after Sultan Murad III heard that a Jewish woman had fl aunted a necklace worth 40,000 ducats in the streets of Constantinople and decreed wholesale destruction of the Ottoman Jews. Mercifully, the order was rescinded. In the same vein, a 5452/1692 sumptuary takanah made in Metz, France, emphasizes the danger that might accrue if non-Jews discover the extent of Jewish ostentation.
“It has been learnt that many women are having veils embroidered in the city by non-Jews,” the takanah warned. “This circumstance may give rise to a great deal of jealousy and animosity, for until now, the non-Jews might have supposed that the gold worn by Jewesses on their garments and clothes was imitation, while now they are sure it is genuine. For this reason, announcement is made and notice is given that beginning today, no person – man, woman, or girl – is permitted to have any veils, hats, borders of cloaks, or any other object of dress made or embroidered by non-Jews, whether directly or through an intermediary.”
“Those who have given some to be done outside by non-Jews must immediately recover those objects under penalty of a fine of twenty Reichstaler for the benefit of the poor, and the administration itself will have them taken back from the non-Jews.” In a similar vein, the Kli Yakar (Devorim 2:3) blamed the troubles of his time on Jews flaunting their wealth.
“…If a Jew in this exile enjoys a small degree of success, he should hide it all from Eisav, as there is no nation that envies Yisroel as Eisav does, since they think that all is stolen in our hands from them due to the blessings of Yaakov, when he took Eisav’s blessings through trickery… This is the opposite of what Jews do today in these generations in the lands of their enemies. Whoever has a hundred displays himself with glorious garments and large, magnificent homes as if he has many thousands. They incite the nations against them… This is the habit of most Jews and it causes all the travail we suffer…”
The Kli Yakar died not too long before the massacres of Tach and Tat.
The Poor Have Feelings Too
Another important reason for sumptuary laws was to avoid hurting the feelings of the poor.
As the Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 27a-b) says, in order to avoid shaming poor people, the Sages enacted that the rich too must provide food to mourners in plain wicker baskets, give them drinks in colored glass [and not in expensive white glass], cover the faces of all corpses [since a poor man might be black with hunger], and carry out all corpses on a simple bier.
Until Raban Gamliel had his body taken out in simple flax shrouds, says the Gemara, burying the dead was so expensive that people used to leave the corpse and flee. From then on, everyone could afford it.
Yet another reason for enactments against excess spending was to save people from driving themselves into bankruptcy.
As one takanah explained, “We the undersigned… have seen the envy of each man for his neighbor and how each one strives to show his superiority over his neighbor so that there is no distinction between rich and poor…”
Historically, most recorded Jewish sumptuary laws were enacted between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. A takanah issued by the Castilian Synod of Vallodoid in 5192/1432 was typical of the genre:
“No woman, except those unmarried or a bride in the first year of her marriage, shall wear costly dresses of gold-cloth, or olive colored material or fine linen or silk, or of fine wool…,” it reads. “Neither shall they wear a golden brooch, nor one of pearls nor a string of pearls on the forehead… but they may wear jewelry like silver brooches and silver belts provided there is not more than four ounces of silver on any of them.
“No son of Yisroel of the age of fifteen or more shall wear any cloak of gold-thread, olive colored material or silk, or any cloak trimmed with gold or olive-colored material or silk, nor a cloak with rich trimmings, nor with trimmings of olive-colored or gold cloth. This prohibition does not include the clothes worn at a time of festivity or at the reception of a lord or a lady, nor at balls or similar social occasions.”
Reacting to the Renaissance
The majority of such decrees were made in Renaissance Italy in reaction to the rising hedonism of Italy. Mantua used to issue a Pragmatica (sumptuary decree) every seven years and display printed posters of the rules in shuls and public places, while Rome and other places printed the rules in pamphlet form.
One famous Italian takanah was enacted at the Conference of Forli in 5068/1418. It mentioned how many North Italian communities have complained how Jews spent on banquets “more than they afford and more than the wealthy Christians among whom we live.” To fight this trend, for weddings one could invite maximum 20 men, 10 married women and five girls in addition to relatives up to third degree (second cousins), and for a bris – ten men and five women plus relatives. People wearing certain luxury garments or ornaments would be fined 10 silver bolognesi for each transgression, and failure to pay the fine would make one liable to be ineligible for Krias HaTorah or for inclusion in a minyan.
Takanos entered the minutiae of people’s lives. The 5526/1766 Pragamatica of Ancona specifi ed how many torchbearers were allowed to accompany a bridegroom when he was on his way to visiting his bride. The 5276/1615 decree of Cracow specified how many rings people could wear: “One is permitted to wear only two rings on weekdays, four on Shabbos, and six on Yomim Tovim.
Both men and women are absolutely forbidden to wear precious stones. An exception is made in the case of an expecting woman who is permitted to wear a ring with a diamond because of its curative powers [see Bava Basra 16b]. Otherwise, no exception will be made under penalty of three ducats.”
The Mantua decree of 5304/1644 discussed necklaces: “Necklaces or chains may be wound twice round the neck and not more, and the remainder must be well tucked inside the dress so as to be invisible… Earrings may be worn with pearls but not with precious gems… no woman may wear more than three rings, the wedding ring included… Brides in their homes may dress as they please.”
On occasion, kehillos scaled the rules according to people’s wealth or their tax payments. Thus, the Lithuanian Council of 5297/1637 exempted most families earning more than 20,000 florins, and the earlier 5288/1628 Lithuanian Council ruled that Jews paying less than 4 groszy tax on their property could not employ gentile maids, while those on relief could have no servants at all.
Sometimes, the takanah forced people to comply by ordering artisans to cease manufacturing luxury goods. As an example of this, the 5389/1629 takanah of Poznan decreed, “No tailor shall accept an order for a garment of satin or damask even from the leading families of the province, under the penalty of a fine…”
The takanos rarely mention bar mitzvahs for the simple reason that large bar mitzvah banquets were not yet invented. Perhaps the only time bar mitzvahs are mentioned is in the Ancona takanah mentioned earlier that says, “On the occasion when boys enter their fourteenth year, no entertainment may be given. All that is permitted is to serve coffee and a biscuit to those who go to present their congratulations at the house.”
As mentioned earlier, it was difficult to enforce these takanos, and many Jews were disgruntled at being nipped in the bud. One code enacted in Nice was insultingly called Takanah di biscottini, as it limited how many biscuits people could offer at celebrations.
In our times when it is even more difficult to enforce guidelines, it is up to each individual to understand the importance of moderation and heed the guidelines issued by various gedolei hador. In times of freedom, each person must be master of himself.
(Sources: 1) Friedman, Hershey H. The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law. 2) Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew in the Medieval World, a Source Book. New York: Atheneum, 1983. 3) Roth, Cecil. Personalities and Events in Jewish History. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961.)