Shvartze Chassuna – „a black wedding” – is the custom known for centuries. Perhaps it was performed in the Warsaw ghetto in 1941.
At the end of March this year in a suburb of Tel Aviv an unusual event occurred. A wedding ceremony was performed for two orphans, in a cemetery, next to the grave of a great Rabbi and leader of the previous generation. The reason for this strange occurrence was the virus that has recently plagued the world.
This obscure custom has prevailed throughout times of plague and disaster over the centuries, and it was proposed to organise such a wedding during the tragic period of the Warsaw Ghetto. This custom was known in Yiddish as a shvartze chassuna, a black wedding.
Such weddings were intended to arouse divine mercy during times of plague, and references to the custom are found in several sources. An early reference may be found in the book Otzar kol minhagei Yeshurun, who explains the procedure as follows: “When an epidemic would occur in a town, they would arrange a wedding between two poor orphans in the cemetery…the reason being, that in the merit of performing the great deeds of giving charity and escorting a bride, long life is assured.”
An historical reference to this practice may be found in the Yizkor book of the Jews of Gorlice p. 96 with an account from a certain Mordechai Weinfeld: “There was an event that occurred around 1896, a plague broke out in our village and a remedy to stop the plague was to match up a pair of impaired persons with a marriage ceremony in the cemetery“.
”In our village there was an impaired young man by the name of Lazer, a water carrier who would deliver buckets of water to homes from the well in Dworzysko. People worked to marry him off, with funds from the community, to an impaired young woman. All of the Jewish townspeople joined together in happiness. They went out in a great procession, at their head a row of “Cossaks” on horses, escorting them to the cemetery to a chuppah that they had prepared for them there.”
A similar event may be found in the Yizkor book of Plonsk, p. 136, when during a cholera epidemic the custom of a wedding in the cemetery was revived. “The situation continued for some months, and finally the village elders decided to take drastic measures…to make a wedding in the cemetery. The ceremony was arranged for midday, and with the exception of those quarantined, almost everyone attended.”
Although we have no proof that such a wedding was actually performed in the Warsaw ghetto, documents state that the suggestion was definitely made in response to the typhus epidemic that engulfed the ghetto in 1941.
Judenrat President, Adam Czerniakow, in his diary entry dated October 27, 1941, mentions this unusual idea. “I received the following proposal from the Rabbis: Because the epidemic raging in our city is spreading from day to day, we propose to organise at public expense as a propitiating religious-rite at the cemetery, a marriage ceremony between a bachelor and a spinster, both of them poor people, immediately after the approaching Yom Kippur. This rite has been studied and tested, and with God’s help will certainly be effective in arresting the epidemic. The resolution was agreed upon at the meeting of the rabbi’s council on September 28, 1941.”
Similarly, a document from the above-mentioned meeting of rabbis may be found in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, stating that they intended to raise the subject with the Judenrat President.
Anecdotally, Emmanuel Ringelblum, in Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, 20th November 1941, states as follows: “The typhus epidemic has diminished somewhat, just in the winter when it generally gets worse. The epidemic rate has fallen some 40 percent…This is really an irrational phenomenon, there’s no explaining it rationally…At any rate, the epidemic has lessened.”
Ringelblum refers to a period of time which would have immediately followed the proposed wedding ceremony in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery.
David Berman – Talmudic scholar, researcher of Jewish texts. Born in Sydney, Australia. Studied in Gateshead Yeshiva in the United Kingdom where he obtained his rabbinical ordination. After relocating to Israel, he lectured and continued his studies of Jewish law and classical Hebrew works in various institutions specialising in in-depth analysis of halacha, among them the Tzanz Talmudic Academy. He resides in Warsaw.
The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow. Yad Vashem/ Raul Hilberg, 1999
Emmanuel Ringelblum: Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015
Otzar kol minhagei Yeshurun
Sefer Plonsk. Israel, 1963
Sefer Gorlitsah : ha-ḳehilah be-vinyanah uve-ḥurbanah. Israel, 1962
Photo: Otzar kol minhagei Yeshurun – chapter 42