Weddings Against the Plague

by Emma Zohar

May 11, 2020

Love is probably the first emotion that comes to mind when one thinks of weddings. The color white is the modern visual coding that will probably accompany this thought. But there are also Black Weddings: a Jewish religious ritual in which a wedding is held between two orphans (or other unfortunate individuals) in a cemetery, under a black canopy instead of the white one normally used. Both the black canopy and the fact the weddings are held in a cemetery symbolize the threat of death posed by the plague. Black Weddings are also called Plague Weddings and one even took place in Israel this year.
The link between weddings and plague may seem odd to modern observer, but since the Middle ages, Jews have used weddings to cure plagues. The tradition originated in Eastern Europe during the days of the Black Death. The community arranged the marriage and covered its costs because orphans, it was assumed, would probably not be able to finance and organize the wedding (traditionally done by the bride's parents) otherwise. With this act of charity, members of the community "bought" liberation and protection from the plague.
But despite the common belief that this ritual belongs to ancient history, Black Weddings were still taking place into the 20th century.
During the 1909 cholera outbreak in Palestine, a Black Wedding was held in Mount Olivet, Jerusalem. Newspaper editor Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote that in times of crisis people tend to place their faith in irrational practices:

“In any case of disease or plague in the world […] the common people try to fight it in supranatural irrational measures – wizardry, oaths, folks remedies […] this is true not only for the Jewish people, it is common to all people all over the world” (Hazvi, 'My Pain', 26.3.1909 [in Hebrew]).

Black Weddings were also held in Poland. An article in the Jewish-Polish newspaper 'Hamizpe' described practices and rituals performed by a rural-town Jewish community desiring protection from the Spanish Flu, such as shaving their hair, drawing black lines around houses, sleeping with their pajamas inside-out and nailing knives to the rooftops. When all these rituals failed, the community decided to try the well-known, 'proven' ritual – a Black Wedding. The wedding was held between Mendel and Susia, two of the town's mentally ill bachelors in the hopes that it would atone for the community’s sins and protect its members (Hamizpe, 'Black Wedding', 31.5.1918). Later, during the Second World War and the Holocaust, typhoid fever spread in ghettos, resulting in several black weddings.

In March 2020, more than 110 years after the last known Black Wedding took place in Israel, the most recent Black Wedding was held in the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei-Brak. Occurring at the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak in Israel, participants hoped that the ritual would stop the massive spread of the virus in the Ultra-Orthodox community, which was already badly infected. An unknown young couple, likely orphans, were married in a cemetery under a black canopy as tradition dictated. Social distancing, which was proscribed by the government, was not maintained during the ritual.
The use of weddings as a public-religious tool during crises demonstrates how emotions like love and intimacy– that have in modern times become associated with weddings – are sometimes secondary. Rather, some communities use weddings and marriage as the cornerstone of the family mainly as a tool to uphold social order. The ultra-orthodox Jewish community’s decision to use weddings to fight the plague demonstrates how weddings act primarily as devices of public-social-political order rather than as expressions of emotion between two individuals. However, 'Black' and 'White' weddings share some common emotional expressions. Both symbolize a fresh start and a feeling of hope. While the Coronavirus may have not been vanish following a Black Wedding, an entire community earned a (temporary) sense of hope.

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