Archive for December, 2013

Who came up with the idea of bodily resurrection after death? Like many people – Christian and Jewish alike – for most of my life I made the assumption that this was a distinctly Christian idea.

It makes sense that people would have this assumption. Christianity is so singularly focused on the resurrection of Jesus – and Jews have developed such a knee-jerk reaction against anything remotely resembling this concept – equating human resurrection with Christianity is a pretty natural thing to do. It was only as I got deeper into my Jewish learning that I began catching hints that maybe, this idea wasn’t entirely born out of Christianity at all!

In Hebrew, the word for "resurrection" is "gilgul"

Background: Jewish Biblical and Rabbinic Views

The Jewish belief in resurrection finds its origins in the Bible, but the only explicit references to human resurrection after death – two of them – are fleeting and appear in the later-written portions of Tanakh. (The first is in Daniel 12:2-3, and second is in Isaiah 26:19.)

It’s obvious that later exegesis would find allusions to resurrection in other biblical texts: For example, Deuteronomy 32:39 says of God: “I slay and revive; I wounded and I will heal.” Passages from Psalms, Job and Isaiah speak of misery and dire peril as death-like states, where the victim descends to Sheol and God “restores to life.” 

Despite these later interpretations, however, such passages are not explicit statements of a bodily resurrection after death. To interpret them as such is actually a contradiction of other biblical statements that clearly argue against after-death resurrection.  One clear example is in Job 7:7-9 when Job says: “Remember that my life is a breath; My eye will not again see good … A cloud dissolves and it is gone; So is one who descends to sheol; He will not ascend.”

This then leaves an unanswerable question: Did Jews living in the biblical era really believe in resurrection? It could be argued either way. I would suggest that given the relative dearth of clear statements in its favor, the concept was a later idea that was retrojected into the biblical era by late-era writers, or even rabbinic-era editors.

By the rabbinic time period, the Pharisees clearly did have an evolving belief in physical resurrection – and this was one of the most significant points of dispute between them and the competing Sadducees. After the destruction and the ascension of the Pharisaic viewpoint, this belief made its way into many rabbinic-era texts. Two examples from the Talmud include: Ketubot 111b, which states the dead will resurrect wearing their clothes; and Sanhedrin 72a, which says the righteous, whom God will resurrect, will not return to dust. The rabbis also canonized this belief in liturgy, such as the second half of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah.

How exactly such resurrection was viewed in the rabbinic era is up for debate. Louis Finkelstein, in his book Mavo le-Massekhtot Avot ve-Avot de-Rabbi Natan, offers two schools of thought on the matter, which he believes go back to the schools of Hillel and Shammai. In Shammai, the soul descends to Sheol upon death and inactively awaits physical resurrection of the righteous. In Hillel, souls arise to be judged immediately after death. The rabbis’ later use of the term “the world to come” is meant to be deliberately vague, so as not to side with one school or another, he says.

While Finkelstein’s view is not the only theory regarding rabbinic views on resurrection, it is a very intriguing one to me from the perspective of Jewish vs. Christian origins of the resurrection belief. If Finkelstein is right – there really were two major competing schools of thought coming from two major Jewish groups in the early 1st century – then that indicates that “resurrection ideas” were very much swarming in the cultural milieu out of which Christianity emerged. [Hillel’s lifespan is dated to around 60 BCE – 20 CE; Jesus is dated to around 5 BCE – 30 CE]. And the Christian view was firmly rooted in the Pharisaic, rather than the Sadduceean, tradition.

Mormon scholar James Edward Talmage indirectly echoes this idea when he points out that, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Sadducees are often depicted as opposing the early Christian communities “doubtless due to the prominence given the resurrection of the dead among the themes of apostolic preaching,” he writes.  [Jesus the Christ: The Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures, p. 73]

Resurrection in the Middle Ages

What we have established so far is that the idea of bodily resurrection found its origins in Judaism, not Christianity. It was perhaps in a nascent state of formation in the biblical era, and by the rabbinic era, it had been embraced and was being expanded on by one of the leading powerful sects of the day; and it was this sect whose ideas ultimately won out after the Roman invasion.

Resurrection was an idea that quickly became a part of early Christian communities, but there can be little doubt that it was Judaism, and not Christianity, that invented the concept. (In fact, to be clear, the oldest foundation of an individualized resurrection theology would best be attributed to the Greeks, but here I am merely trying to address the Jewish vs. Christian origins.)

It was not, however, until the Middle Ages, that we see the notion of resurrection becoming a popular topic of conversation and a cornerstone of belief – for both Christians and Jews – although there were clear differences in how, exactly, resurrection would work. Even within the Christian and Jewish worlds, beliefs were extremely fractured, to the point that it is quite difficult to generalize what the “medieval view” really was.

“Among the medieval Jewish philosophers there were many differences of opinion with regard to the resurrection,” explains the Encyclopedia Judaica. “These controversies depend for the most part on the fact that it was not clear, or certainly not explicit, that there had been controversy in the talmudic period. Consequently some thinkers accepted one of the talmudic opinions, and others contested their views, without realizing that they were simply following different sides of an old argument.”

Here are some highlights of how key medieval Jewish theologians viewed resurrection:

• Saadiah Gaon said dead souls remain in a treasury until the resurrection, but does not endorse a physical resurrection. This is in line with the Beit Shammai point of view.

• Maimonides lists belief in resurrection as the 13th of his 13 principles of faith in his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin. However, the little writing he did on the topic left him open to complaint that perhaps his views were not genuine. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a defense of his view, in Essay on the Resurrection. His explanation of resurrection was, however, somewhat unorthodox. He believed God, and not a human messiah, would bring about resurrection. The resurrection would also be temporary; a second “death” would occur and at that point, the human soul would be what is everlasting.

• Nahmanides challenges the view that the resurrected dead will eventually die. He believes resurrected bodies will be somewhat ethereal compared to truly corporeal bodies, and he does not believe that they will eventually die. This can be seen as a synthesis between the two rabbinic opinions.

• Hasdai Crescas is the first medieval writer to note that there appears to be a contradiction in rabbinic resurrection views. He maintained that everyone but the greatest sinners will be resurrected, that there will be a court of judgment, and that the righteous will live forever in refined bodies.

What all of these views do have in common – apart, perhaps, from Maimonides – is that body and soul are seen as important. The body is not merely a vessel for housing the soul, but rather is used as a way of ensuring accountability for human actions. “Whether it is understood that all people are resurrected for judgment, body and soul together, or whether only the bodies of the righteous are resurrected to enjoy the redemption, the central stress is the same,” the EJ explains. The human being is one essence, a unit, not merely a soul housed in a body which itself is of no worth.”

Over on the Christian side of the aisle, we see, at the meta-level, the same fundamental belief: human bodies do resurrect, and this resurrection is based on some kind of divine judgment.

In what is deemed the preeminent scholarly investigation into Christian views of resurrection, Caroline Walker Bynum traces, in meticulous detail, the evolution of the idea – and the impassioned debates around it – in Christian communities between 200 and 1336.  In doing so, she demonstrates that “Christians clung to a very literal notion of resurrection despite repeated attempts by theologians and philosophers to spiritualize the idea.”

Her book then goes on to analyze in detail all of the major Christian works to address this theology during this time period; suffice it to say, the sheer number of works produced, and the focus they took on the tiniest of details, far exceed any hope for summary! (Peter Lombard is captivated by such issues as what age, gender and height a resurrected body might be; Albert, Thomas and Giles debated endlessly over risen fingernails and embryos, not to mention the fate of genitals and intestines in heaven. These are just to name a few.)

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Toward the end of my first year in rabbinical school, I happened to end up in two separate conversations with seminary students studying to become Christian ministers. They both asked me a variation of the same question: “How much Jesus do you study in rabbi school?”

It’s actually a great question, and I couldn’t help but to chuckle at my own answer: “To be honest, he hasn’t come up once this entire year!” I told them. It was funny because I could only imagine how strange that must sound to them. They probably don’t go one hour without the J-word coming up!

After three years in school, I can amend my answer, but only slightly. Jesus has come up in our history courses dealing with the Judaism of the 2nd Temple period and the various apocalyptic movements that were proliferating at that time.

Later on in my studies, I suspect he might come up more often, as we begin studying the impact of medieval Christianity on Jewish theology and society. And it certainly becomes a part of discussions about our contemporary Jewish world – although that tends to be more about the Big C as opposed to the Big J.

These seminary students’ question, though, still comes back to me after all these years, because it’s actually a quite interesting topic! While we don’t have the time nor the reason to do any in-depth study of Jesus the Prophet (or any other prophet) in rabbi school, our tradition has preserved some fascinating stories about Jesus, some of which date as far back as some of the earliest Christian texts.

Of course, what we identify as a “Jewish text” versus a “Christian text” becomes murky the further back we go, as some of the earliest Christians were Jews. What I am referring to are texts produced by the rabbinic communities that rejected the early Christian claims, and who were essentially responding to them in the typical modes of rabbinic literature. These are found in texts as old as the Tosefta, c 100CE.

A wonderful book was published in August 2009 by Princeton University Press on this topic, called Jesus in the Talmud. Written by scholar Peter Schafer, the book explores the fascinating references rabbinic texts make to Jesus and Mary, and offers an insightful analysis of what they were really saying. This latter point is crucial, for the cryptic, abbreviated nature of rabbinic literature can make them quite difficult to figure out!

One of the most fascinating pieces of the story is learning that the reason these rabbinic-era texts are not found in our modern day editions of the Talmud, Mishnah or Tosefta is because they were cut out during the Middle Ages – and not by Jews, but by Christians!

Schafer explains:

“The earliest available evidence for our Jesus texts is the Firenze manuscript from the late 12th century. The latest manuscript is a Yemenite manuscript from the second half of the 16th century. Altogether, the transmission history of the Bavli text is hampered by the fact that many of the earlier manuscripts are lost because of the aggressive policy of the Catholic Church against the Talmud, which culminated in the many burnings of the Talmud ordered by the Church (at first 1242 in Paris). Moreover, after the (in)famous Christian-Jewish disputation of Barcelona in 1263, the Church began (often relying on the ‘expertise’ of Jewish converts) to censor the Talmud text and to eliminate (erase, blacken, etc) all the passages that the experts found objectionable or offensive to Christian doctrine. It goes without saying that passages referring to Jesus became the prime victim of such activity. In later printed editions, many such supposedly incriminating passages were left out by the Jewish printers themselves in order not to jeopardize the publication of the Talmud (or of other Hebrew books).”

One of the great strengths of Schafer’s book is how it is organized. If you don’t have the time, interest or attention span to read a detailed analysis of each of the texts he presents, Schafer’s first and last chapters provide great thematic summaries. Just by reading those two chapters, you will walk away with a good sense of what these texts were about, and the historical contexts in which they were written.

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This summer, Bride magazine published a sample budget for a wedding whose budget totaled $35,000. That total price tag is considered the “average” price for a wedding nationwide. Of course averages just being averages, that means there are many weddings that cost much more than that, and many weddings that cost much less.

The writer gave a line-item listing of what each element would cost and take a guess how much she budgeted for the officiant at this $35,000 event — for the person who stands up before all of your guests and crafts the very words and memories that are what make you married? Take a guess!

$900?Wedding budget piggybanks



Alas, not even that much. On a $35,000 wedding, Bride magazine thinks it’s OK to pay an officiant a measly $350. At that rate, the janitor who cleans up after the party is over is earning more money per hour than the minister or rabbi earned.

Compared to USAA Magazine, however, $350 for an officiant appears to be generous. That magazine recently ran an article on a couple who threw their “dream wedding” for under $480. I admire frugality and innovation, but the way they managed this frugality was by roping large numbers of people into doing things for free.

It’s one thing to ask your church social club to donate desserts for a potluck at your wedding; it’s an entirely other matter to ask someone like a Protestant minister to conduct a wedding for FREE, since conducting weddings is a major way ministers earn a living and feed their families! Protestant ministers have among the lowest annual salaries of anyone in the country — they earn less, on average, than teachers and even social workers. And yet, this couple, so focused on saving money for themselves, got a “family friend” to conduct their wedding for free. Did they ask themselves whether this request was fair to him, and respectful of the years he had spent developing the pastoral skills needed in a good officiant?

I’m going to take a gander here and guess No.

Folks, at some point, frugality is no longer about preventing financial harm to yourself; it enters into the realm of doing financial harm to another person. I can’t speak for this minister who said “yes” to this request, and can only hope that he had the financial means to give away his professional services for free — and that he loved this couple enough to do so without resentment.

I’ve been officiating weddings for five years, and I’ve had to learn many of the financial lessons of running this “business” the hard way. I’ve made plenty of mistakes.

Perhaps my worst mistake was the time I gave a couple a price quote for a wedding ($500) and a few months later, they moved the wedding to another state, an 8-hour drive away. It wasn’t until the day of the wedding that I realized that I had never gone back to the couple to discuss my fee, and point out that my time investment was now about 4x greater than it originally had been, not to mention gas, tolls and babysitting fees.

It would have been nice if they had thought about it; but they didn’t. Beginning to end, I spent about 25 hours on a wedding for which I was paid $500, and for which I paid out over $100 in child care costs. If you are doing the math, I made $16 an hour (not counting marketing costs, student loans, car insurance or gas.)

Yes, painful.cake party

Another mistake: The time I quoted a price for an at-home wedding that I was told was a 10-minute drive from my house. The day of the wedding, I typed the address in my GPS and discovered it was 45 miles from my house. They had moved the venue without telling me. Again … financial disaster for me. I basically didn’t get paid for 4 hours of driving and child care … again.

What are the insider-costs of trying to make a living heralding people into the covenant of marriage? Well, if you have read this far, I am happy to tell you the Inside Story behind the prices wedding officiants cost you. And from what I hear, they can be all over the map:

The Hidden Costs of A Wedding Officiant:

* I pay $478 a month for online advertising; rabbis or ministers who have brick-and-mortar congregations don’t have to pay for advertising because they have a huge referral stream in their own congregation, in addition to “phone book” referrals (the people whose first step to finding an officiant is to look up the congregations near their home or wedding venue. Freelance rabbis or ministers don’t have this perk, so we have to pay for our web presence. Without it, we’d have virtually no business at all, so nixing this expense isn’t an option.

* In light of this, I hope you will consider looking for a freelance wedding officiant! We usually have the same training as brick-and-mortar rabbis, and we usually have more time to dedicate to your wedding, since we have fewer other obligations. Plus, you can feel good for supporting what is essentially a mom-and-pop family business!

* Most years, I have no weddings to officiate for 6 out of the 12 months. Weddings are a hugely seasonal business. So, in an average year, I’m paying  $2868 in ad costs for 6 months when I am earning no money to pay for it! Ouch-o-rama. And no, I can’t suspend my ads during low-booking seasons, because the people who own online bridal sites require one-year contracts.

* Weddings are SUCH a seasonal business, the days and times you can potentially officiate a wedding and hence earn money is narrow. 95% of weddings are on Friday or Saturday nights, or Sunday mornings. Holiday weekends are popular. I had four people try to hire me for a wedding on September 15 this year. I have no idea why that Sunday was so popular, but it was painful to turn away three couples. By the time people shop for an officiant, their date is set, so, they went on and found someone else to officiate. How great it would have been to have spread those three couples onto the three other weekends in September and had four weddings that month! Alas, it doesn’t work that way.

* (Of course) no health care, 401(k) or any other benefits of traditional employment.

* Not all officiants have this cost, but for me, $15 an hour for every hour I’m not at home to pay for babysitting: If my meeting with the couple is at a coffee shop or somewhere other than my house, that is 2 hours of babysitting, plus: travel time to and from your wedding venue, arriving at least 1 hour early, staying up to an hour after the ceremony — on the day of wedding, I usually pay for 4-5 hours of babysitting for a local wedding, even though your ceremony itself only lasted 20 minutes.

* Gas and the asundry costs of owning an automobile.bold cake

* This final cost varies widely, but, the cost of paying for the education that led to an officiant’s ordination. Here, rabbis really take it in the gut. Protestant ministers are ordained after 2 or 3 years of study. Most rabbis have to complete 5 or 6 years of study; rabbinic ordination if roughly equivalent to getting a doctorate.

In the 1970s and 1980s, rabbis went through school basically on full-ride scholarships. That has changed. Nowadays, rabbis without family money or high-paying earlier careers  graduate a good $100,000 in debt, at least. And though our country is enjoying the lowest interest rates in history, the loan rates for Stafford student loans is 7.5%.

* This last issue also varies widely, but it’s a question you can ask as you shop around: How much time does your officiant plan to spend preparing for, getting to and officiating your wedding? My average time investment, for a wedding in the Philly metro area, is 12-15 hours. If you interview a candidate who lives several hours away from your venue, and they offer you some improbably low price of $200 or $400 — you might ask them this question about time. Because offers that sound too good to be true — well, they probably are!

Some other articles on marrying and dying:

“How can I make my Jewish or interfaith wedding unique, funny or even funky?”

Mainline Philly’s best-kept outdoors wedding venue secret (and it’s free!)

“We are an interfaith couple. Should a rabbi or minister marry us?”

Is it possible to be a religious atheist? Can a Jewish ‘atheist’ have a Jewish wedding? Short answer : Yes.

Interfaith rabbi for secular, interfaith or Jewish weddings, baby namings and funerals

Secrets to finding a wedding officiant you’ll love

Best place to get married in Philly — and the world’s best wedding dress website!

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imagesHow much can you expect to pay for a person to come to your location and officiate your wedding? What is a fair price ― a price that doesn’t seem like gross profiteering to you, and is a respectable wage to them?

Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with people about the economics of officiating a lifecycle event. Most of these were about weddings in particular, but they have also happened around vow-renewal ceremonies, tombstone unveilings (a Jewish funeral tradition) and baby namings as well.

Some, but not all, of these people made it clear that they were taken aback to discover the “going rate” for wedding officiation. One person put it more bluntly, in a comment she posted on the wedding site The Knot. Her vent to fellow brides was along the lines of this: “How can a person charge $500 for a 20-minute service!? It’s outrageous!”

Hmmm. Well, actually, it isn’t. And I’ll explain why.

In this post, here is what I hope to share:
• How much does it cost to hire a wedding officiant in metro Philly (or the East Cost in general)?
• How much should it cost?
• How can you save costs on a wedding in order to be able to hire the talents of a good wedding officiant ― as opposed to someone just “dialing it in?”
• Lastly, for the truly budget-bound, I’ll offer some even more frugal ideas.

As you continue reading, I’d like to challenge you to think of these questions:
• What kind of a price do you expect to hear when asking for a price quote?
• Is your expectation reasonable?
• Do you believe a person engaged in a “religious” occupation should be taking a vow of poverty?
• If you extrapolate out your price expectation, would the person be living in poverty?

How you answer those questions might influence how you have, up until now, thought about the economics of the people you are hiring to complete various aspects of your wedding.

So How Much DOES It Cost, Anyway? (Your cheapest option)images 2

In the state of Pennsylvania, you can get married for $90. Literally. Go to City Hall, request a “self-marrying license,” pay $90, wait three days (that’s a legal requirement), and then sign the license in the company of two adults. The witnesses will sign it too, and provide their addresses. Mail the license back to the court. You are married.

People often express disbelief when I tell them this, but it is the honest to god’s truth. This is how I legally married. You can thank the Quakers for this; the state has very easy marriage laws because it was founded by a religious community that believed ardently against hierarchies.

If I take one issue with the “wedding chapel” type businesses propped up around the state, it’s the fact that not one them ever admit this fact. As someone who worked in journalism for two decades, I’m a big believer in “full disclosure.” You can get married in Pennsylvania for under $100, and you don’t need anyone else to do it.

So, if you really can’t afford a wedding, don’t have one. Use a Quaker s elf-marrying license, and go on a honeymoon instead!

Your Next Budget Option

23987225_007_aNow let’s assume you do want to have SOME kind of ceremony with either NO guests or even just a handful of guests. Now you have entered the realm of Option 2. To save money, you will want to get your license at a county courthouse (Montgomery County is the one I’m most familiar with) rather than at City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. Philadelphia County charges $100 for their license but Montgomery County only charges about $55. Other counties also offer lower rates.

You can use a county license from any county in Pennsylvania anywhere else in Pennsylvania (as far as I know — you should always double check that at the courthouse!) In other words, bride and groom must go in person, to a courthouse somewhere in the state, pay the fee, show the right paperwork, and then use the license within the next few months, or it is voided.

Once you have your license, you need a place to get married and someone who can sign it. You can hire a freelance minister / rabbi / chaplain who will meet you at your home, in a restaurant or in a park (etc) and hold a short, simple ceremony. The cost of this depends on whom you hire, how far you want them to travel, and how much time they are going to spend writing the kind of ceremony that is just right for you. (I’ll come back to this option later).

But that option will not be as cheap as your next-lowest price alternative, which is to go to a place like the Philadelphia Wedding Chapel. They are located off City Avenue, about 20 minutes outside Center City, and their “standard package” is $375. They will recite a prewritten ceremony (just changing the names of the two people), between 10 am and 3 pm on Mondays through Thursdays, and limit the number of guests who may witness. However, their rock-bottom cheapest rate is $150. That ceremony is called their “elope” special and no guests are allowed. You are limited to the same times and days of the week.

Now, I have not seen them do their work, so I cannot comment on the quality. Since no one is spending any time getting to know you or talk to you in advance, you probably do not have any say in what kind of readings they do, whether they use “God language” or not, and they certainly aren’t spending time sharing aspects of your love story, or who you are as individuals. They are simply a business I have found online, and there are probably other budget options like them out there.

But I can help you calculate the math. Your total price for a basic legal wedding ceremony with no guests is the price of the license (which, remember, you got prior to the ceremony from a county courthouse for $50 to $95) + $150 at the wedding chapel = for a total of $200-$250.

If you want this kind of simple “justice of the peace”-style of wedding but want to have a handful of guests and perhaps some champagne in a clean, attractive venue — and you still are okay with getting married at 1 pm on a Tuesday — your bare bones budget price is going to be $50 + $375 = for a total of $450.

Having an Officiant Come to You

61If all of this is still too “bare bones” for you, you have now entered the realm of standard wedding officiation – where you are hiring someone to come to your event, wherever that might be, and deliver a heartfelt, meaningful ceremony before you and your guests. You plan in advance (in person or by phone), and you secure the officiant’s commitment at the time and place you have chosen.

I do see officiants sometimes advertise for this kind of ceremony for as low $350 for the officiant. For that price, an officiant will not hold any pre-meetings in person, will not spend a lot of time getting to know you or writing a personalized “speech” or blessing for your ceremony, and is probably not traveling too great a distance to the venue site.

However, one would hope they are still taking the time to customize a ceremony with readings, sentiments and God-language (or lack of God language) that matches who you are as people. (Again, one would hope). At that price, I can tell you that they are not really making a living at what they are doing. They are probably giving up a weekend or evening family time, they are probably spending most of what they earn covering the costs of online advertising, and they probably have some other vocation that is paying their bills.

A more typical price range for what I will call a truly customized service is $800 to $1,500. Factors affecting the price are: who is offering the service, where the event is being held (travel time), and perhaps even what season it is. This is the price range you can expect for a full-on, traditional half-day wedding. (Oh wait, you say! I only want a ceremony that is 20 minutes long!) That’s fine … but it will, in the still, still basically be 10 to 15 hours of work for the officiant, from start to finish, to pull off your ceremony, and your wedding itself will probably book a venue for 5 hours of time.

In this price range, you can expect to meet with the officiant beforehand. You and the officiant will communicate another half-dozen times shoring up details of your ceremony. The officiant will spend several hours on-site on the day of your wedding, plus however many hours traveling.

If the distance traveled is more than a few hours, it would be customary for you to offer to pay the cost of a hotel room for the officiant. I know I’m always grateful when people hiring me extend this option; I don’t always accept, because I have small children at home, but I appreciate simply having it as an option.

Couples also usually invite me to attend the reception. How officiants respond to this varies. Personally, unless I know the couple outside of this event, I usually decline. I’m touched and grateful that they have offered, but personally I feel like it’s a simple way for me to save the couple $100 by not going. Plus, couples are totally engulfed by people they have loved and often not seen for many years at their wedding receptions. It’s not a great time for me to try to get to know them anyway. If a couple really wants to have a more long-term relationship with me, I would suggest a fun outing with our families to Longwood Gardens or some other locale sometime after the event.

Here are three factors that influence officiants’ price:

print 61• The officiant’s educational investment. As in all professions, people who have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their learning tend to charge more than someone who, for example, was ordained on the Internet. (And all the shades in between).

This is why rabbis tend to charge more than ministers. Why? Two reasons.

One, because the length of our education is often five or six years of full-time post-graduate coursework. Most Protestant programs take about two years. Priests don’t pay anything for their training and are guaranteed lifetime employment. Hiring a rabbi is akin to hiring someone with a doctorate degree.

Second reason: Christian and Jewish communities are structured differently economically. Priests are paid salaries by a huge, wealthy, international corporation (the Vatican). Certain types of ministers are “appointed” to churches, which pay their salaries through a nonprofit, tax-free structure. Other types of ministers, as well as rabbis, are freelance agents who must constantly find work, negotiate and renegotiate their wages, and have no umbrella organization or nonprofit assuring they make a living.

• The season. Why is this? Well, there are a LOT of weddings in the spring. If you are struggling with a budget, you can negotiate better prices among all your vendors if you schedule in the off-season. I’ve never gotten a call to do a wedding in February! I’ll give you a great price in February! (LOL).

This spring, I got a call from someone pressing the price-panic button. I was very sympathetic until I learned their wedding was on a Saturday night in mid-May. I’m happy to give discounts to people in financial distress, but my Saturdays in May are going to be booked solid; can I really afford to take a huge cut in my usual fee when this means I will probably turn away another wedding that would have paid me full price? Especially when the wedding business (and hence my income stream,) is so erratic?

If you’re hoping to negotiate with your vendors, think about your timing. November weddings are much easier to negotiate than June weddings.

• Lastly, distance. If an officiant is traveling 4 hours to and from your wedding, versus 30 minutes, that’s a big difference. Not just in miles on a car and time in a day, but in my case at least, in the cost of child care! In my early years of officiating weddings, I actually lost money on several weddings because I failed to take travel time (and all its associated costs) into consideration.

Hiring a Wedding (or Ritual) Officiant: What You Are Paying For

So if you aren’t hiring a ritual officiant for the legal aspects of getting married, why hire one at all? And how can you weigh a “good” one from a “bad” one?

What you are paying for when you hire an officiant, is the skill, knowledge and heart of the person who is creating the ritual for you. Even if what you want is “very simple,” no officiant worth their own dignity is going to show up with some canned, pre-scripted script with just your names inserted inside.

But alas, some people actually would. When I see people advertising a “customized” wedding ceremony for only $250, all I can think is: “Well, it must not be very customized.” It’s just not possible to write a customized wedding, spend 3-6 hours on the day of the wedding getting there, doing your job and getting back — and then charge $250! When you compare ads and officiants for weddings, we all use words like “customized,” but we don’t necessarily mean the same thing.

Ask questions.

Get details.

Most people getting married think: “Oh, I don’t want anything fancy. It’s simple.” Well, it may be simple in how it looks on the outside, but in the details, there are a million different ways that I can stand up and marry two people.

• Do you want someone standing up in front of your guests, quoting passages from the Old Testament and talking about the role of wife as a “helpmate”? If you do … that’s fine! But you don’t want to hire me.

• How do you feel about the audience saying “amen”?

• How “spiritual” do you like to get? Is it okay if your officiant wears a big bright hat and flowing robes? Or do you prefer a more demure or formal presentation?

• Would you like your officiant to crack a few jokes, or do you think a wedding ritual should be more serious?

• Does 10 minutes sound about right? Or more like about 20? Or even 30? Does your officiant ask you what you want!?

• Would you like a guest or two to come up and do a reading?

• Do you know what readings you like? How many hours do you have to find some? (I have a PDF file 25 pages long of readings I’ve assembled over the years; some officiants really strive to give you all the options; others leave you to figure it out on your own. That’s why they are only charging you $250!)

•  Do you want to write you own vows? Do you need guidance on writing them? Will the officiant offer it?

Even though we wedding officiants DO recycle parts of ceremonies and readings here and there, there is no such thing as a “canned script.” At least not one that is going to do you or your guests any justice.

Without spending at least some time talking to the officiant, explaining who you are as people and what your preferences are, we have no way of knowing what is the “right” thing to say.

alanah and scott, ketubahIt Just Takes Time

Beyond this ephemeral thing called “skill” you are paying for in an officiant, the other thing you are paying for is his or her time.

It takes time for an officiant to field calls and return calls (some of which won’t yield work). It takes time to:

* think about the couple and all the ways something can be said;

* get to know both partners, outline the many ritual choices, sometimes even meet with their parents;

* plan ahead for their date and not schedule vacations or personal events on the day of their wedding;

* give up time with our own family, usually on a weekend and often in an evening;

* possibly hiring a babysitter;

* travel each way to the venue site, which often takes more time than the wedding ritual  itself.

In short, we are investing way more than the “20 minutes” presumed by that blogger on The Knot ― even for a “simpler” lower-budget wedding. We are investing many hours for that magical 20 minutes that looks easy and came off seamlessly. And hey, don’t knock the importance of “magic”. A wedding ritual should be magical, and it is worth way more (in my opinion) than having high-end napkins on the table, or having 2 buckets of flowers instead of one.

One other thing to keep in mind: How many people you have in attendance at your wedding or vow renewal has virtually no impact on how much time we spend working for your wedding. Caterers use a price based on head count, but for officiants, we factor based on time. The prices people quote you will be an indication of how much time, thought and energy they are planning to spend creating the ritual of your wedding.

Is it okay with you if your officiant shows up five minutes before the ceremony, reads a canned script that takes under 10 minutes to declare you married, and then dodges out the door the minute it is over? If you are okay with that, then go for the $250 offer.

But, if the ritual part of your wedding is more important to you than that; if you want to be more involved, have a choice of readings, perhaps even meet in person first; if you want your officiant to show up early and stick around a little bit afterward – you’ll need to anticipate a higher price.

So just what kind of price quotes will you get in the officiant bidding process? Assuming your venue is within one hour of the officiant’s home, a typical price for a full-on wedding, with meetings, ketubahs and interfaith discussions (which take longer), I would be surprised by any price below $800. Some rabbis are willing to bend on their price (I am, depending on hardship, and depending on location). And again, a wedding in the low seasons of February or March are easier to down-negotiate. A full-on customized wedding in the months of May, June or September, a standard price would be $1200.

Lastly for very small home weddings, esp. second marriages, with 10-15 guests, in a non-peak season, $600 is a fairly universal fee.

I hope this helps!

For more on weddings, please see some of my other posts:

“How can I make my Jewish or interfaith wedding unique, funny or even funky?”

Mainline Philly’s best-kept outdoors wedding venue secret (and it’s free!)

“We are an interfaith couple. Should a rabbi or minister marry us?”

Is it possible to be a religious atheist? Can a Jewish ‘atheist’ have a Jewish wedding? Short answer : Yes.

Interfaith rabbi for secular, interfaith or Jewish weddings, baby namings and funerals

Secrets to finding a wedding officiant you’ll love

Best place to get married in Philly — and the world’s best wedding dress website!

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To write your own wedding vows, or not to write your own vows: That is the question. About half of the couples whose weddings I have officiated have wrestled with that question. Most of them, in the end, decide not to.

What are the pros and cons of writing your own vows? What are the different ways it can be done?  This blog post strives to answer those questions, by offering some examples of successful vow exchanges I have seen.

Pros to writing your own vows:

● You get to say exactly what you want to say.

● It’s a chance to show off your fine verbal skills – and your sense of humor.

● It is sure to make half the women in the audience cry.

● It is sure to make half the men in the audience struggle really hard NOT to cry.

Cons to writing your own vows:

● It’s hard. Really hard. How do you boil down such sweeping concepts as “love” and “eternity” into the English language? That’s why we have poets. Not everyone is cut out for this work.

● It takes time. And time is one of the few things couples have before weddings. Don’t you have some centerpieces that need stuffed? And where in the world is grandma’s old blue garter belt anyway? Has that been found?

● You don’t just have to write it. You have to read it. Out loud. In public. Without making a snot-filled fool of yourself. Hey, if you can get through it, you have my endless admiration. I can never get through a wedding without losing a tear or two myself, and I’m the officiant. I’m the one person who is supposed to have it pulled together! So if you can write and deliver your vows and keep your composure while doing it, my kippah is off to ya!

Here are three different ways of writing your vows:

1)      The groom reads his words. Then the bride reads her words (or vice versa). Below is a draft of one groom’s vows to his wife, which I found particularly lovely. With his permission, I am pasting them below. The vows were kept as a surprise to the other party; I looked over them to make sure they were similar in length and tone, and made slight editing suggestions to make them “match up.”

2)      The groom and bride alternate sentences. This came off really well; the crowd was touched, and everyone laughed a lot too.

3)      The groom reads; then the bride reads. The couple planned their vows together, to play off the same words and phrases. The guests loved these vows too.

OPTION No. 1: Surprise Vows

Groom reads. Then bride reads. (Or vice versa). Only the officiant has checked their vows before the big day. Here is just what the groom wrote.


Example from their Jewish wedding, replete with military honor guards, at World Cafe Live:

Alanah: Two-and-a-half years ago, I asked you out for coffee, out on our first date and thankfully, you said yes. After that date, we so effortlessly became entwined in each other’s lives, it was easy to picture this day ahead.

Eighteen months ago, while on a very long distance phone call, I asked you to move with me from California all the way here to the East Coast, and thankfully, you said yes. It was a leap of faith for both of us; a fantastic storyline still unfolding.

One year ago, while on vacation in paradise, I asked you to join me up here, witnessed by our family and friends, under this chuppah we’ve since created together, to take my hand and be my wife, and thankfully, you said yes.

So now, in front of our family and friends, I have another question to ask, one that you spend the rest of our lives answering:

Will you forever be my partner in this adventure of life and lend your endless patience to help me create a loving household where mutual respect, communication and unconditional love reign over all. Will you continue to be an everlasting source of deep personal strength, the rock by my side through trying times and stay the reassuring voice of better times ahead. Will you forever be the smiling face by my side every morning, to lighten my days with the sweetness of your personality and continue to be the most genuinely kind person I’ve ever met.

Though we walked up here separately, in a few minutes you and I will take hands and walk down off this stage, and down the aisle past our family and friends, and into our future as partners, as husband and wife. I can’t wait.


OPTION No. 2: The Planned Back-And-Forth

(The couples exchanges one-line vows, which they clearly wrote together. Groom in bold. Bride in plain script.)


Example from their secular wedding at a funky nightclub in Manyunk:

Groom: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

Bride: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

I promise to cook for you

I promise to try your cooking and bake you treats

To have family dinners every night

To ask you about your day and tell you about mine

To listen and hear your point of view

To respect you

To always be honest

To tell you how I feel

To play with your hair

To fold your socks and do the dishes

To support you in achieving your goals

To be your biggest fan

To compromise

To share my bowl of ice cream, and other things in life

To control my temper

To always say ‘I’m Sorry’

To hold you in good times and bad

To make you laugh

To let you have the window seat on the plane rides home

To take lots of pictures so we can always remember the good times

To tell you that you’re beautiful

To love you even in the moments when I don’t like you

To take care of you

To try new things

To never stop traveling the world

To be open minded

To be the best father I can be

To be the best mother I can be

To always put family first

To kiss you every morning

And tuck you in every night

I love you

I love you too


OPTION No. 3: The Planned Paragraph Vow

(The couples takes turns reading their half of a script, which the pair clearly wrote together. The upside is it creates and plays off of the parallel structure and promises. The downside is, neither bride nor groom is surprised in the moment.)   


Example from their secular Jewish wedding at Morris Arboretum:


Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and my hand in yours.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your thoughts, your worries, your dreams and your concerns.

I promise to look after you. When you have a knot in your back, I will kneed it. When your head has a fever, I will cool it. And when you need ice cream, I will help you eat it.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From furry and mischievous kittens to your interests and hobbies, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are. When you wake up with only breakfast on your mind, I will steer you to Kashi. When we are out of Kashi, I will make you eggs.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will give support as you seek out your goals, when you are successful and when you fall short. When you achieve your goals, I will be there to celebrate. When you do not, I will be there to comfort.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.


Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and your hand in mine.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your zany, impossible ideas, your worries, and your dreams.

I promise to look after you. When you can’t figure out how to use our kitchen appliances, I will help you.  When you have a bad dream, I will comfort you.  And when you crave the mushroomy thing I make that you love, I will make it for you.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From kittens, to data analysis, to moments of peace and quiet, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are.  When you get so hungry that you forget to eat, I will bring you a snack.  When you need to double check something one more time – just to be sure – I will smile and remember that your careful nature is a wonderful part of who you are.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will be there with you as you pursue your dreams.  I will celebrate with you when you are successful, and I will comfort you when you fall short.  I will never let you forget how exceptional you are.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.

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If you have found this article, it is probably because you have just experienced the loss of a loved one and are trying to figure out “what to do next.” I am a rabbi living in Philadelphia’s Mainline and in addition to my work at a local congregation, I work with about 40+ unaffiliated families each year offering weddings or funerals.

In this blog post, I will let you know what the preparation process is like. While I sometimes officiate standard, or traditional, Jewish funerals, my largest clientele is families who are unaffiliated, have interfaith family dynamics, or who want a theistically secular funeral service. I will also give you some examples of specific prayers or readings that can be used in this type of ceremony.

Every funeral ritual is different: As an officiant, I try to match the liturgy and content with the beliefs and wishes of the deceased as well as the sentiments of his/her loved ones. Trying to do both is possible — it just takes some time, and some conversations, to figure it out.

Many Jewish funerals include two classic pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. But today, many people favor more contemporary readings on the issues of death and grief.  For an interfaith audience, a traditional reading from the Torah (such as Psalm 23 “The Lord is My Shephard I Shall Not Want …”) works well, and is recognizable to both Jews and Christians. OR, we can substitute biblical readings with selections that are less theistic in nature, such as an excerpt from the beautiful poem by Marge Piercy called The Seven of Pentacles.

We figure out what readings or liturgy are best to include, based on the conversations I have with immediate family members and friends.

During the memorial service, I love to include one to three guests who come up during the service and offer a few thoughts or memories about the loved one. We can also include an “open mic” of sorts, where we open up the floor to the guests for some impromptu memory-sharing.

I also love to include a short eulogy where I share highlights of the person’s life, her loves and interests, and what she will be most remembered for. Prior to my rabbinic life, I worked as a professional journalist for 20 years; this autobiographical information I glean from family members during interviews and write into a eulogy that I hope captures the spirit and life of the person who died.

So how, exactly, does all of this happen? The process for funeral service planning is the following:

1) An initial phone call to get acquainted and confirm the schedule.

2) If you live in the Mainline, an in-person meeting with one or two family members who knew the deceased really well. We will meet for about 1 hour in your home, and discuss what kind of service you would like, as well as share details about who the deceased was as a person.

3) If you live outside the Mainline, this planning meeting can be done via conference call.

4) Ask you to find out the deceased person’s Hebrew name. You might need to make calls to your extended family to find this out. It might also be recorded on a ketubah. A person’s Hebrew name is usually used during the memorial service.

5) Meet ½ an hour before the service begins to go over any final details or questions.

6) The service itself is usually held at the funeral home. If internment is going to take place, the service is usually followed by a much shorter graveside service, with just immediate family members attending.

If you are on a tight schedule planning your funeral, and wish to contact me, please send me an email, as well as a text. (I have several small children at home, so I’m not always deeply attuned to all of my technological gadgets!)

To contact me, please visit my website dedicated to Jewish funerals at SecularJewishFunerals.com and fill out the contact form.

May strength, comfort and peace be with you and your family in this difficult time.


Another article I wrote on this topic can be found here:



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