(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
State-employed rabbis will no longer be allowed to supplement their salaries from "presents" received for presiding over wedding ceremonies, according to a letter addressed to Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger from the State Attorney's Office.
In the letter to Metzger, Shay Nitzan, deputy to the state attorney for special missions, asked the Chief Rabbi to set clear directives for state-employed rabbis who receive money on the side for officiating at the huppa.
Writing in the name of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, Nitzan asked Metzger to formulate, in coordination with the Chief Rabbinate's Governing Council, the National Religious Authority in the Prime Minister's Office and the Attorney-General's Office, clear directives on what is prohibited and what is permitted to all rabbis in the public service.
Nitzan got involved after the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement's legal arm, and other legal watchdogs, quoting media reports, complained to the attorney-general that former Chief Ashkenazi rabbi and Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau was paid to preside over marriages that took place in Tel Aviv.
IRAC argued that Lau was obligated to provide his rabbinic services, including performing marriages, free of charge. They also said that all public servants, rabbis included, were forbidden to receive presents.
The attorney-general's office investigated the charges and concluded that although the Chief Rabbinate had released various directives on the matter, "no clear distinction was made between what is prohibited and what is permitted. And it would be difficult to prove that Rabbi Lau intentional transgressed the law," Nitzan wrote.
Nitzan also wrote that since Lau had received the money for the huppot in question regardless of the fact that he was Tel Aviv's chief rabbi. Rather, couples demanded Lau because of his personal charisma and history. Nitzan specified that only presents received by a public servant because of his or her status as a public servant are prohibited.
Nitzan also rejected IRAC's claim that Lau was obligated to preside over marriages that took place in his city - Tel Aviv - free of charge.
"It is not clear at all that doing a huppa for a couple that does not belong to the rabbi's community or even for a couple that does belong to the community, is part of the chief rabbi's duty," wrote Nitzan.
Attorney Einat Hurvitz, Director of IRAC's legal department, said in response that the attorney-general was "purposely sidestepping the issue of Lau's misconduct to avoid a confrontation with the rabbinic establishment.
"The attorney-general is using a play-dumb tactic when he denies that part of a rabbi's job is to preside of marriages," added Hurvitz.
"If it is too difficult for him to go to so many marriages, then he should restrict himself to a few a month. But being highly demanded does not justify receiving payment," she argued.
On December 24, 2002, the Attorney-General's Office issued directives to all rabbis employed by religious councils warning them that money received from presiding over marriages was taxable income.
The directives also forbade rabbis to receive money for performing huppot as part of their regular job as a supplier of religious services. Most rabbis understood this to mean that they were not to receive money for huppot in areas in their jurisdiction, but that it was permitted in areas outside of it.
Nitzan has demanded that the issue be clarified.