But what kind of gift? Some people will actually go out, shop and buy an item to give as a gift. Sometimes the celebrant will have given a hint or an outright declaration of what type of gift they would like, should you be inclined to buy them something. Think bridal registries. Other people will reason that the celebrants should have the joy of buying what they want, and so they give a check. Fine, but now to the sticky, tricky part.
How do you decide how much to spend on a gift or how large a check to write out? A lot of people know what the "average" amount or range of money given for particular types of functions is in their community and they give accordingly. When I got married that "average" figure was about $36 per couple if you were just regular invitees. A few people gave less and a few people gave more, but that was the general target figure. Those who are closer friends may give more than this community average, or they may not. Some family members will give the community average; some will give more.
The question also arises as to how many people in a family are being invited to the simcha. The above discussion assumed a couple was in attendance. If single children who are very young are invited some gift givers don't factor them in when figuring out the gift amount. If the children are older singles the parents will usually up the amount given.
Now we run into some practices I am not at all fond of; in fact, I really hate them. Some people will arrive at the simcha with their check already written out, placed in an envelope and ready to give to the baal simcha. That's fine. Others wait to write out their check until they are at the simcha. Why? Because a whole lot of people are going to wait and see how much money the baal simcha spent in entertaining them before they decide on the amount. No, this is not a joke. The more extravagant the simcha, the more money has been obviously lavished in providing for the guests, the more some of those guests will give. Their "generosity" has nothing to do with how close they are or aren't with the baal simcha; it's predicated solely on a tit for tat arrangement: spend on me and I'll spend on you. That it is the young couple, at a wedding for instance, that will be getting the money because it is a gift to them, not their parents, is irrelevant.
There are some young married couples who give gifts when invited to weddings; others don't. Some of those who do not give a gift reason that everyone knows they are young and don't have tons of money and besides, why should anyone expect that they should take money from their own wedding money to get someone else started on their wedding money collection? Some of these couples figure that since the wife also contributed to the shower gifts they are "potur" from any further gift giving. A few of these young couples are related to the choson and kallah and figure that whatever their parents gave still covers them as well, married or not.
Among those who do give gifts, they don't give checks but do give presents. And as every kallah I have ever known can attest to, a majority of those gifts are what are called "pass on" presents. Frequently kallahs get doubles of gifts which they cannot return. Or they get gifts too strange to want to keep around. These gifts are passed on to the next kallah, who in turn will pass them on to the next kallah, who will then do the same. A friend's daughter received one of these gifts and her mom and I got a kick out of it. The original wrapping was still intact, if a bit frayed, and the store name embossed on the paper is what set us off. At the time the gift got to this friend's daughter that particular store had been out of business for at least eleven years.
Youngish singles who attend weddings rarely give a gift. The girls are covered by the money contributed to the shower gifts. (Just a note here: ask the girls who are organizing the shower just how many people promise to contribute to the gifts and never follow through, leaving the ones hostessing the shower with a huge bill.) The boys? You would first have to start to explain the idea to them of giving gifts as opposed to getting gifts. Or as one person once quipped, "It's their presence that is desired, not their presents."
I asked one fairly youngish couple how they determine the amount to either be spent on a gift or to be given as cash. Only when I promised complete anonymity did they respond. The husband put it best: "we ask ourself what is the least that we can get away with and that is what we give. If we can buy something for really cheap then that is what we give." The wife quickly qualified that: "it has to look expensive or have a name that people recognize as being expensive." I asked for an example. The wife said: "Last year we gave Lennox picture frames to everyone because I got a really great buy on them in a store going out of business. So we spent about $19 on each frame. But that doesn't matter. If the person getting the gift had to buy those frames they would be spending close to $90. It's not how much we paid for something but how much the thing is worth that matters."
I asked if they had ever given a "pass on" gift. The husband really laughed at that. He answered: "We gave those gifts for about the first 18 months we were married." Then he got a little bit defensive: "They weren't cheap gifts you know."
"What about cash?" I asked. They answered: "We avoid it. There's no way that we could ever get the numbers right so that someone wouldn't be insulted." "Tell her about your cousin," the wife pushed. "My cousin was going to be moving to Israel and my aunt said to the whole family not to buy any presents, just money. We were still in our first year of marriage and we didn't have much money but it was a first cousin so we made out a check for $54 and bought a nice card to put it into.. After the sheva brochos we got the check sent back to us by my aunt. She wrote that if we really could not afford to give more to our dear cousin then clearly we needed the money more than the cousin did and she was returning it to us." The wife was getting angry: "Since when does the receiver of a gift get to decide if it's enough or not?"
There's more than a little truth in the young wife's last line. On the other hand, basing your gift on whether or not you are going to be munching on sushi while sipping champagne or gobbling down kugel while chugging Coke doesn't sit well with me either.
Maybe what we need is a frum Judith Manners or Emily Post to write the definitive guide to frum simcha etiquette, particularly as regards gift giving. We have to be able to do better then we are.