They were called “black weddings” and the people hoped they would drive away a plague like cholera. P. J. Grisar explains in Forward: “The betrothed were often poor, orphaned, disabled or some combination of the three. Sometimes they didn’t even know each other before taking their vows. The hope was that the communal hesed — kindness or love — fostered by these graveside nuptials would stop the diseases cold. It was believed joining a couple in the presence of the dead allowed for a more direct appeal to be made to God to intervene.”
These weddings were celebrated mainly in Ukraine and the rest of the Pale of Settlement, the part of Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. Usually poor and far away from modern medicine, the villagers suffered horribly from cholera and other diseases. Some may have been celebrated in Palestine, though there not against disease but against locusts.
Villages seem to have begun celebrating them in the early-nineteenth century, and they became popular later, with the cholera pandemics of 1866 and 1892 and the Spanish Flu in 1918. Sadly, the villagers suspected attempts by the Russian government to bring modern health care, because the doctors represented the same state that had so persecuted them for centuries. Only Jewish efforts like the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population succeeded in a way that made the black weddings disappear.
Some were even celebrated here during the Spanish Flu pandemic, one in Philadelphia with a thousand people watching. Another was celebrated that year in a Winnipeg cemetery, upsetting many.
Writing in Tablet, Rokhl Kafrissen calls them “cholera weddings” or “plague weddings.” What it meant and why people thought it would work isn’t clear. “Some rabbis felt it was efficacious because helping to marry off a needy bride was a great mitsve [good word] that would please God, all the more so for the marginal of the community who were unlikely to marry in any case,” he explains.
“However, what comes across in many of the appalling descriptions of the forcibly married, and their reactions to each other, is that the act was far more callous than charitable. But it was enabled by traditional attitudes around communal charity. Those who had relied on it were seen as being, quite literally, property of the townspeople and thus had no say when their (previously reviled) bodies were needed to protect the town.”
The community gave the new couple many gifts, including food and money to set up their new home, and would sometimes dance and feast afterwards. The weddings, Grisar explains, “were a unique means of epidemic defense, because unlike study and prayer, they saw an entire community come together.”
But associated, Kafrissen writes, “to the treatment of the most marginal people in Jewish society, especially the disabled. And, perhaps it goes without saying, the attitudes toward those people were, in general, dehumanizing and often quite cruel.”
The photo is of the Jewish cemetery in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, and taken by Petar Milošević. It is used under license.