Luxury – decrees against

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.)

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