The Truest of Gifts
Three years ago, when the Coronavirus was just beginning to disrupt normal life in different parts of the world, an article appeared in Lehrhaus by Dr. Jeremy Brown, describing an old Jewish practice that was performed during times of plague. This practice became known as the “Shvartze Chassuneh,” or the Black Wedding, and it was performed as a measure to eliminate the plague from the Jewish community.
It involved the Jewish community finding a destitute pair of orphans who had no parents to marry them off, making a shidduch between the two, and sponsoring their wedding. The additional twist was that the wedding was held in a cemetery, usually near the graves of the holiest people in the cemetery.
In 1865, there was a terrible locust plague in northern Israel. The Jews of Safed made multiple Chuppot for orphans in the Safed cemetery, in-between the graves of the great tzadikim Rav Yoseph Karo and the Ari z”l. Shortly thereafter, there was a cholera outbreak in Jerusalem, and the Jewish community made a lavish wedding atop the Mt. of Olives. The wedding was attended with much fanfare by the entire community.
Surely, during a time of plague, communal fasts are called for, collective prayer services with Tehillim, all that we understand. But why do a wedding? And why in a cemetery, of all places?!
“Adam” vs “Ish”
At the beginning of Vayikra, the Torah launches into the sacrificial process (1:2):
דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיקֹוָק מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם
The Torah describes a human being as an “Adam.” This is an unusual term to describe a person who wishes to bring a Korban. Nowhere else in Leviticus, when describing a person bringing a sacrifice, is the term “Adam” used. It’s rather used only when describing a person, like a leper, who contracts spiritual impurity. Why does the Torah open the sacrificial order with “Adam” and not with the more normative word for a person, “איש” – “Ish”?
The simplest conclusion is that in order to bring a sacrifice before Hashem, which in and of itself is a humbling, self-abasing act, one needs to feel like they are like nothing, like the earth itself. Man is called Adam because he derives from the soil, the “אדמה” – “Adamah”. If we are describing a person who feels wretched about a sin they’ve committed and wishes to atone through a Korban, it’s natural to think that the word Adam should be used to describe him or her.
But the Midrash has a different approach. The word “Adam” hearkens back to the very first man, whose hallmark was not humility, but rather great holiness, purity, and righteousness. As Rashi cites: “Just as original Adam did not bring his offerings from stolen property, since everything belonged to him, so shall you not bring your offerings from stolen property.” This is just one example for expressing how one has to be pure not only in intent but also in deed when bringing their offering.
Why doesn’t the Midrash use the simple interpretation of Adam being a term of humility? Bartenura and others explain that the introductory verses of Korbanot do NOT refer to a person who is bringing a Korban because of sin; they rather refer to a person who is coming to the Temple because they are religiously inspired without need for atonement at all.
Such a person may not feel wretched because of sin, but is nevertheless inspired to become close to God. This person is like the first Adam, who is holy and pure.
The Midrash is teaching an additional lesson: If you wish to voluntary come to the Temple to bring offerings, make sure your motivations are pure, like Adam’s. Don’t come with animals to impress your friends or to feel important. Adam was the only person alive and so he didn’t need to impress anyone. He did it for the purest of intentions, and so should anyone wishing to bring a Korban voluntarily.
The Noam Elimelech & the “Shvartze Chasuneh”
One of the first recorded episodes of the “Shvartze Chasuneh” occurred in Poland in the late 18th century. The story is told about the great Chassidic tzadik, the Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk. He was once visited by a poor farmer who had a 36-year old single daughter, but had no dowry to offer a young suitor in order to marry her off. Since it was a time of plague, Reb Elimelech decided to arrange a wedding for the woman, and took Lizhensk’s 30-year old bachelor water carrier and arranged for the Chuppah.
Some of the greatest early Chassidic luminaries attended: The Kozhnitzer Magid played the violin; the Chozeh of Lublin was the “badchan” (wedding jester). The dancing and singing were intense as everyone immersed themselves into the simcha. Reb Elimelech walked with his student, Reb Shmuel of Kariv, to see the celebration, and he noted that there was a great fire of holiness surrounding the entire assemblage. He remarked to his disciple: “Ribono Shel Olam, I declare that in the merit of this dancing that we have participated in, at least one hot coal awaiting us in Gehenna has been removed from all of us.”
This story indicates that it wasn’t the fasting and sackcloth that helped to alleviate the plague. It was rather the selfless rejoicing for another. So often, we make celebrations to reflect to the world who we are. Even the weddings we make for our children are sometimes ways of shining a light on ourselves, and reminding ourselves and all of our friends how necessary we are to the bride and groom and how central a role we play in the lives of family and friends.
Appreciation for everything
It may be why the “Black Wedding” was held in a cemetery. It’s to remind those congregated that life goes on even without us. Every person who is buried here may have once thought: the world can’t function without me. But lo and behold, the world did just fine after they left. To really incorporate the lesson of a plague, we make a wedding for two orphans, people to whom we have no personal connection, whose wedding in no way is being made to impress ourselves or our friends about how important we are to the world and to the community. This young couple is NOT a reflection of us. We make the wedding for them, not for ourselves.
This is the original “Adam”. Adam served Hashem with joy not because he needed to show the world what he was doing and to be the center of attention, but rather because he appreciated so much how everything that he had in his life was a gift from God. This is why Adam is associated with the very first Korban mentioned in the book of Vayikra.
May we be similarly inspired to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God while being unconscious of our image being projected to others. May we continue to hear the “קול ששון וקול שמחה” of every bride and groom of the world, in Yerushalyaim Ir HaKodesh, bb”a.