Ethical Smahot is a program begun initially in Washington D.C. to increase the expression of Jewish values in our celebrations. We have signatories from all major movements of Judaism and welcome organizations, such as local boards of rabbis, to sign on as well. We invite all rabbis and cantors to join the Ethical Smachot program by signing on to the Ethical Smahot Website and encourage you to use this document to begin a conversation in your communities.
"Rejoice in your celebration!" Jewish life cycle events, like weddings or b’nei mitzvah, are moments for celebration and renewal. These times of our rejoicing with family and friends are also opportunities for us to renew our relationship with God, Torah, and Israel.
"One should walk modestly with your God." The Jewish concept of modesty relates to all parts of a person’s life. Judaism teaches that us to be modest with our money, speech, clothing, and behavior. At these pivotal moments we have the opportunity to walk with dignity, respect, and humility with God by the way we plan our event. We should take care that the clothing we wear shows respect for our bodies. Our bodies are houses for our souls, made b’tzelem elohim–in the image of God. We should take care to dress in a way that encourages confidence and respect and minimizes the oversexualizing so prevalent in our culture. We should also take care not to dress in any other vulgar way, whether it is overly showy or flashy.
Similarly, we should avoid conspicuous consumption and overspending. Every family knows what it can afford, and of course, some families can afford to celebrate more lavishly than others. Still, it is a great principle of Judaism not to cause shame to others and we should take great care in planning our events so that others do not feel shame in not being able to afford the same level of luxury. This may lead to families overextending themselves economically so that they can "keep up with the Cohens." That could create hardships where people will be unable to meet their responsibilities to spouses and children, which would be a violation of Jewish law.
Ask yourself: do the clothes that I and my family have chosen portray each of us at our most dignified? Would I wear this on a visit to meet the president at the White House? Do these clothes encourage us to carry ourselves with respect as creatures made in God’s image and filled with a spark of holiness? In the choices I make in celebrating, is the focus on connection with God and community, or on material things? Can I spend less and use more money towards tzedakah?
Modesty should also be emphasized in our speech; we should take care in how we speak to one another. We should consider even during speeches and toasts, our language and ideas should be presented with consideration for the feelings of, and with respect for, the loved ones gathered together.
Kavod HaBriot (Respect for One’s Fellow Humans)
This is so important that it can under some circumstances even override a negative commandment. Certainly respect for all the members of our families should be at a premium, and we should do our utmost to behave with kindness and generosity to one another, perhaps especially in families split by divorce, or in joined families.
Ask yourself: Have I made my family and friends feel welcome? Have I treated everyone with the respect that our father Abraham showed for his guests? Have I made it possible for even the most strictly observant community members to attend and provided food they can eat? Have you arranged explanations for those who might not know or understand the service? Have I encouraged those who are knowledgeable to seek out and explain to those who are less knowledgeable? Have you thought to specifically ask those who are knowledgeable to "adopt" specific people who you know are less knowledgeable to make them feel more comfortable?
Talmud Torah (Study and Learning)
"This Torah shall not depart from your lips." Jewish tradition teaches that talmud torah is the greatest of all the commandments, because Jewish learning provides us with the knowledge and the understanding to be partners with God. By studying sacred texts and Jewish books related to our simha you can make the experience more spiritually fulfilling and meaningful. Time should be set aside for opportunities to learn at every Jewish event. Words of Torah should be spoken at every celebration.
Ask yourself: Can I take 15 minutes during the celebration to study a Jewish text? Can I take a few minutes of my celebration to learn something about the reasons for the celebration and the traditions and laws of the celebration? If I can’t do it myself, have I asked my rabbi or cantor, or a knowledgeable friend to lead a study session during the party?
Seudah (Festive Meal)
"For over three thousand years, Judaism has taught that how we eat and what we feed ourselves are sacred and communal matters, sanctifying us, educating us, nourishing our identity, and fortifying our morality. We need that sustenance no less than our ancestors did." We infuse our meal with the sacred by incorporating kashrut, as understood by our spiritual leaders and community.
Ask yourself: Have I made it possible for everyone to be able to partake of the (same) food at my celebration? What can I learn about how to connect to God through what we eat?
"Charity and justice is more desirable to God than a sacrifice." Tradition teaches us that giving tzedakah is an important part of tikkun olam: repairing our world. The act of giving not only impacts the recipient but impacts the spiritual welfare of the giver. Incorporate tzedakah into your celebration by donating 3% of the cost of the celebration to a charity and making sure that left-over food is given to a food pantry or shelter. Some caterers will try to avoid food donation, citing liability, however, federal Good Samaritan laws limit liability to encourage the donation of food. It is simply not true that caterers cannot do this.
Ask yourself, "To what organizations can I donate leftovers? What organizations feed the hungry from money that I donate?" Ask your clergy for suggestions.
Tzedek (Righteousness and Justice)
Justice, justice you shall pursue! Our tradition teaches that fair treatment of workers is an obligation and an important part of pursuing justice in our world. Jewish business ethics teaches that employees should work diligently. In return, employees should receive their wages on time, they may not be underpaid, they may form unions or professional organizations in order to set wages and benefits, and they should be treated with dignity and respect. They should be paid in accordance with fair market standards for their work and consideration should be given to trying to ensure that their basic needs, including health care, are taken care of. Our celebrations must reflect a commitment to fair treatment of employees by choosing places and businesses that treat employees with economic fairness and personal dignity, such as providing a living wage and health insurance.
When we select the venues and caterers for our celebrations, we should ask the following: Do your workers make a living wage; do your workers have access to mediation and a venue for complaints without retribution? Our joyous occasions should not be at the expense of the workers who toil to provide them.
Shomrei Adamah (Guarding the Earth)
God said to Adam, "All that I created I created for you. Consider that, and do not corrupt or desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you." Judaism views human beings as stewards and guardians of God’s world. The concept bal tashhit (not to destroy) teaches that we must not be wasteful and do our part to protect our environment. In all aspects of the event, we should keep environmental principles in mind and make sure that the event does not harm the environment to the greatest extent possible. Consider, for example, ordering invitations, benchers and other paper products made from recycled paper and soy based ink.
Rabbi Tarfon taught, "The day is short and the task is great. You are not obligated to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it." We, the Rabbis and Cantors of your community, want to help make your celebration a day of joy and holiness. We are available to guide you in asking questions and creating celebrations that are infused with the spiritual and moral teachings of Judaism. We ask you to keep these principles in mind to make your Judaism a living Judaism; in partnership with God, you can make every moment sanctified.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.