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Diamonds: Not Every Girl’s Best Friend

August 26, 2009 – 11:22 pm20 Comments
Izzy Grinspan of the hipster blog Jewcy.com thinks this diamond is cool even though she acknowledges it won't 'solve the blood diamond problem'*

Izzy Grinspan of the hipster blog Jewcy.com thinks this diamond is cool even though she acknowledges it won't 'solve the blood diamond problem' *

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

Unbeknownst to some, the custom of giving one’s (female) beloved a diamond engagement ring only dates back as far as the twentieth century. It was introduced through one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, sponsored by the South African diamond mining and trading company, De Beers.

A diamond is forever. So sayeth the master copy-writer; though given the level of penetration in the Jewish (and Christian) West, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a biblical command.

I decided many years ago that I would never wear a diamond and since my partner and I announced our intention to marry, people young and old, religious and secular, Jewish and otherwise, have related the De Beers ‘wisdom’ to me. Some have even repeated the copy verbatim – Why don’t you want a diamond ring? Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Despite hearing more statements to this effect over the last three months than I ever could have imagined, I am happy to confirm that I still believe that my best friend is a person, and know that love cannot be immortalised by a rock however shiny.

In addition, I am aware that diamond mining, along with the mining of other very precious stones, is one of the most exploitative of all human trades. Conflict over land is often precipitated by the desire for jurisdiction over natural resources, and diamonds are no exception to this rule.

But in the case of diamonds, the exorbitant monetary value of stones small enough to be smuggled from a mine in a worker’s pocket, also promotes violence and exploitation in the diamond mining industry. Although it is possible to buy diamonds that are conflict-free (mined in a country that is not at war), it is still difficult to ascertain the work conditions in which a diamond was mined.

Whilst the various tit-bits of pro-diamond propaganda that I have been exposed to of late have not convinced me to start wearing a diamond on my finger, they have prompted me to think about why this young tradition has become so widely accepted.

In addition to Law, tradition has long been considered an important part of Jewish practice. So much so that some traditions (called minhagim) are considered to be halakhicly (legally) binding even though they are not based in Torah Law.

I am not suggesting that the diamond engagement ring tradition is so pervasive to have become binding minhag. I do wonder, however, whether the large group of secular but traditional Australian Jews who nevertheless feel very strongly about adhering to Orthodox Jewish tradition at life-cycle events distinguish between those customs that can be said to be more authentically Jewish and those, like the diamond engagement ring, whose origins are more commercial.

And as one secular-traditional Australian Jew said in defence of Jews wearing diamond engagement rings, every woman in [the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighbourhood of] Borough Park has a diamond ring. One could also add that every (married) woman in Borough Park has taken on her husband’s surname even though the tradition of taking a married name is as also foreign to the Jewish tradition. Ashkenazi Jews only started using surnames at the time of emancipation, circa 19th century. Prior to that they were known by their first names and the names of their parents, which obviously didn’t change after marriage.

So why do some non-Jewish life practices gain traction in the Jewish world, while others do not? This question begs another question about more ancient Jewish customs, many of which would also have been derived from foreign practices many years ago.

It is interesting that Maimonides argues that many Jewish practices were devised by God to be similar to idolatrous practices without actually constituting idolatry. For example, Maimonides argues that God commanded sacrifice precisely because it was already an established form or worship prior to the giving of the Torah; the idea being that the Jewish people were used to worshipping through sacrifice. By commanding them to offer sacrifices to God only, their desire to sacrifice would be channelled toward good and they would be weaned toward monotheism. (See Guide for the Perplexed, volume 3, chapter 32.)

Using similar logic, one could argue diamond engagement rings should become Torah law; so that when people wear them they do so for God rather than money. But I’d prefer to drop the extraneous tradition, and thank God that it was only commanded by De Beers and not Torah.

* http://www.jewcy.com/post/i_jew_engagement_ring_will_cut_you

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20 Comments »

  • Chaim says:

    It is insane. The price of diamonds when many can not afford it and end up taking exorbitant loans. (we wont even go into the price of the actual wedding…)

    There are so many diamonds in storage, kept from the market to artificially elevate the price. they would be worth pennies if they were opened up. Not to mention the “blood money” involved.

    I can only think that this practice was established to show off wealth (typical of Boro Park) but also maybe financial security for the wife?

    The trouble is that halacha which should be dynamic is more or less fixed until another san hedrin is formed.. It will be very interesting eventually to see what laws / customs will be kept.

  • Eliezer, patriach Avraham’s executive assistant (I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a much more PC term than “slave”), gave Rivka jewelery as a gift after identifying her as Yitzchak’s future wife (as an aside, to those who think nose-rings aren’t for the “frum”, she wore one).

    The tena’im (lit: terms), which is a pre-marital Heads of Agreement often signed upon the engagement of a couple, specifies that the father of each party much purchase gifts for the other “suitable for their honour” (as it happens, I was guarantor for one of these agreements just last night). These are probably related to the traditional dowry, which was indeed for the financial security of the wife.

    However, the kiddushin (betrothal) itself under the chuppah is traditionally done with a plain (gold) band that is worth at least a pruta (the smallest currency denomination of the time), which isn’t much.

    So while there are definitely sources for the notion of gift giving, the diamond ring was more likely a result of excellent marketing on the part of De Beers and others.

    It should be noted that in some parts of the frum world, a bizarre gift protocol has developed that has gotten totally out of hand and places immense financial pressure on parents trying to find shidduchim for their children. Contrasting this is the system instituted by the Gerer Rebbe many years ago which places limits on the spending associated with weddings so as to avoid extravagance, exclusion and embarrassment for those who cannot afford. We could do with more of that type of pragmatic leadership.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks for posting on this.

    I think it shows that there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness in the way some customs are heavily adopted (in a way where they acquire a false sense of gravity) and some aren’t — both within the Jewish community and the larger Western community.

    I’ve had a friend quote a secular halacha at me (the diamond should be worth 3 months’ salary) which suggested the parallel processes of legitimation have been quite similar and perhaps it will be codified.

    The only viable alternative is for halachic authorities to speak out against diamonds because of their social consequences in the same way as many rabbis have ruled against, say, white veal.

  • The Hasid says:

    Right on, sista.

  • Yahalom says:

    Being involved in the diamond industry I would like to point out that I believe that the main factor that thrives a modern woman to receive and/or buy a diamond today, is EGO. In the same way that men do when they go and buy themself that Ferari, Maserati,Hummer, Beemer or any other big boys toys.

    Having said that, I do not know if this is applicable for the frum comunity, but I have seen payes behind the steering weels of some expensive luxury cars and top of the range people movers.

  • Chook says:

    Haven’t you guys got anything better to do? I mean, really. Natanywho is in England, the swedes are reserecting the blood libel, to mension but two, and you’re talking about diamonds.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Chook,

    Galus Australis
    is not a Middle East conflict journal. We are primarily interested in running articles with a local focus. Of course we are very concerned about Middle East conflict and Israel in general. However, there are numerous Israeli online publications (Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Debka etc) that can deal with these issues in a far more comprehensive way than we can. Thus we typically only run Middle East or Israel topics where they have a local community angle.

    Having said all this, we are more than happy to hear arguments and suggestions from yourself (or anybody else) about the type of content/format we should be running. However, it might be better if further arguments and suggestion are made in our General Feedback section (click on this link, or just look for the picture of General Dayan).

    Thanks, and we hope you continue to be part of the Galus Australis community.

  • Chook says:

    Dear Frosh, as my name suggests, I was just after a bit of a chuckle.

    Love your work.

  • ariel says:

    Rachel this is a great piece, well done!

    David and Michael – I agree 100%.
    Recently the Gerer Rebbe’s injunction was copied by the Belzer (I think?) and others may follow suit.

    When I was in Israel last year, I read that a high profile Rav from the Hardali – National (Zionist) Haredi – movement ruled that just as a Jew who is m’challel Shabbat – a Sabbath desecrator – cannot serve as a witness in a Beit Din, so too a Jew who smokes and a Jew who drives recklessly cannot be a witness. Perhaps a ruling on those who buy diamonds ought to follow…

  • ariel,

    Don’t get me started on the shocking attitude to road safety in Israel, and especially that displayed by the charedi community. Walking around Bnei Brak watching kids “playing” in the street made me sick!

  • Yahalom,

    For women, a diamond actually goes further. While a man can show off his success with an expensive “toy”, neither man nor woman can show off their partner 24/7. However, with a big rock, a woman can show she has married “well” any time of the day (and no matter what her husband looks like).

  • Mordy says:

    Too bad for debeers that they can now manufacture flawless diamonds, so perfect that if rated with the 5Cs they rank in the highest grade.

    Halachicly though, its forbidden to do the “engagement” (or kiddushin done with a plain gold band under the chuppah) with a diamond ring. The reason is that if the woman assumes that its a diamond worth $X and it turns out to be a lets say “replacement” identical stone worth a completely different value, then the kiddushin is flawed.

    I agree with rachel, its a completely unecessary custom that is not based anywhere all. I dont believe that its widespread pervasiveness is a problem in terms of “minhag yisroel torah hi” because it was never given as part of the halachic aspect of marriage.

  • Deelzee says:

    David,
    Just commenting on your statement (“However, with a big rock, a woman can show she has married “well” any time of the day (and no matter what her husband looks like)”) – I think that a big diamond serves to boost a mans ego equally (if not more so) that a woman’s – as if purchasing a large colourless rock (the best function of which is that it can cut hard things and drill holes really well!) somehow proves that he is able to support his future family. It’s really a rather misogynistic concept, and just a tad outdated for our day and age in which gender roles are so much more fluid than they used to be. It’s a wonder that it’s still such a popular concept in the wider/secular community which often toots its own horn when it comes to issues of gender equality.

  • ariel says:

    I just realised that my only dilemma is whether or not to by my future fiance a diamond or not!!
    What if she’s expecting one?
    What if she isn’t?
    Is it appropriate to ask?

  • Zoe says:

    Ariel

    I was never asked and it wasn’t discussed and I didn’t actually have an engagement ring (first or second marriages). I would say that you should ask her, discuss with her. Basic requirements for a healthy marriage anyway over anything, imho. And if you can afford it, all well and good, if not… life is too short and relationships too important to be based on material goods (taken me 47 years to realise that :) )

  • Francis says:

    I agree with Deelzee – it is a matter of EGO – for the man that gives it!! My husband is so chuffed whenever somebody compliments the engagement ring. Quite frankly, if I had to choose, I would prefer if he cleaned up after himself promptly and put the milk back in the fridge than shelled out on an expensive rock, but I guess that’s a whole other post …

  • ariel says:

    Thank you for your wise words Zoe and Francis :)

  • Francis says:

    Hey Ariel – I said ‘if I had to choose’. You could always clean up afterwards AND buy expensive baubles :-)

  • SBA says:

    In the past year or so, the Satmar rebbe in America has introduced to his community many money-saving ideas (involving family celebrations, eg, engagements, weddings, gifts etc).

    One new rule is that the kallah no longer gets a diamond ring- but rather a Cubic Zirconia imitation.

    Another rule limits the price of a shtreimel to $1200 ($1400?). Before this, their price had reached $4-5000!
    I am told that the prices have tumbled even further.

    BTW one of the earlier Gerrer rebbes in Israel made a similar rule thus keeping the price of their ‘spodiks’ low.

  • frosh says:

    Here is a very different and positive diamond related story, centring around the great work of someone from the Melbourne Jewish community.

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/manmade-diamonds-could-unlock-bionic-eye-20120206-1r1tg.html

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