Jan 29, 2012

The Magical Minhag Tour

At the beginning of November, I posted about my curiosity when it comes to divorce and minhagim (customs) -- do you keep 'em? What if you're a convert, do you go back to being able to choose? Does it matter if you have kids? Does the length of the marriage matter?

Basically, I'm trying to figure out what constitutes minhag retention in the "frum" (religious) Jewish community.

In case you were wondering perhaps why traditions are so important. Check it, Proverbs 1:8.
I spoke with a rabbi recently about this question I had, and after some quick conversation, he said that he doesn't understand why I wouldn't be able to go back to choosing my own minhagim. So I'm researching and exploring Sephardic traditions, because for some reason, a lot of them seem to make a whole lot more sense to me. That and they're absolutely fascinating. (One Sephardic tradition has it that when you say havdalah, you are to look into the wine, and if you see your face, you laugh aloud after the bracha!)

But you're probably asking yourself: Wait, why would you choose your customs? Who chooses their own customs? Isn't the point of a custom that it's something that's passed down?

Well, when you grow up in a nominally Jewish family (you know, the kind of family where you know you're Jewish but have no clue what a lulav is) and become a ba'al teshuvah or when you choose to be Jewish and convert, you don't have customs. You don't claim any traditions, and when you do, they're typically the kind of things where you know what Chanukah is and you light the menorah. There are minimal traditional differences in lighting a menorah (right to left? gain candles or lose candles?)

So, in these situations, you're blessed with the opportunity to choose your customs, your minhagim.

Well, what if you're a convert, you practice nominal Ashkenazi traditions throughout your pre-conversion existence, then the moment you convert you get engaged, and then married to someone who also has nominal traditions that no one really practices, and then you get divorced from that person. What happens?

Let's say you grow up without any Jewish customs, you become religious in your early 20s, you meet a nice Satmar fellow and get married. You take on the stringent Satmar customs, and then, just a few years into your marriage, you get divorced. Are you bound to holding to those Satmar traditions until you meet someone new? And then what if that person isn't Satmar?

What if you're married, observing Lubavitch customs, and you get married and have three children. Then, you get divorced when your kids are all under the age of 5-years-old, and marry a Spanish Portuguese Jew. Do you adopt the customs of you new husband? Because your children are under the age of b'nei mitzvah and their father plays no role in their life, do your kids take on your new husband's traditions? Or do you raise them in the Lubavitch tradition of their father?

Is your HEAD exploding now!?

Over Shabbat we were considering all of the variations and complications that come with minhagim and the wide, expansive set of traditions that can vary from community to community and even family to family within that community. The glory of minhagim is that they are not law. As Rabbi Marc Angel says in "Exploring Sephardic Customs and Traditions,"
One needs to always remember that the purpose of observing minhagim is to bring us closer to God, closer to our tradition, and closer to each other. 
Furthermore, Rabbi Angel cites Rabbi Eliezer Papo who says that "God knows what is in a person's heart" and that minhagim are not meant to be oneupmanship. If the observance of a minhag results in presumptuousness, it's a very uncool thing.

So my question to you, readers is: Have you been married and divorced? How did you choose your customs, or did you just stick with what you  knew? Did you even think about it or consult a rabbi or was it just something that you didn't think about? If you did get to choose your customs as a ba'al teshuvah or convert, how did you go about doing so? 


Aliza said...

I grew up, frum from birth and married a mostly frum for birth (and certainly frum from a very young age) man. We are still married. Nonethelss, we had the opportunity to observe a lot of customs in the times we spent in other people's houses when we were working in the youth department in a shul outside of our community.

There were many customs that we liked and took on for our family. We never gave any thought as to whether or not it was "ok" to begin doing something (I'm not sure I particularly remember changing the way we did something, as opposed to picking up something new). If we saw something that we wanted our kids to grow up with, we added into our lives.

I see no reason why you can't choose how you want to live your religious life.

K said...

While I'm not Jewish, in our family we are still working on which traditions we are keeping since my parents' divorce and the marriages of my brother and myself (obviously not to each other). We are building our new traditions every year by talking about what is important to us and what we don't actually find meaningful now.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Here's some food for thought:

"The minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah" (e.g. Tosafot to Menahot 20b s.v. nifsal).

What do you guys think about that? It would suggest that long-held minhagim are halakah. I can't say that's something that makes sense.

Batya said...

My daughter always felt that the Sfardic way of looking at Halacha made more sense than Ashkenaz. She's now married to a Tunisian.
But as a single woman, stay flexible in terms of minhad commitments. Enjoy but say "bli neder."

Ookamisorah said...

Hey Chaviva,
Much respect to you and your decision to reevaluate the customs on which you wish to follow.
I'm not divorced, I'm not a ger, I'm simply a sefaradi. However, I dont know how much insight you could get from this, however, I have been discarding many practices labeled under the banner of 'minhag' that just do not align with the Halakhah and official minhag as given by the Sanhedrin. Minhagim that don't counter that, it's encouraged to accept whatever you like- trans-ethnic even. And actual Mesoroth isn't only for the community that has it, it's for everyone, like being able to discern which locust is kasher.
"Minhagim" like Kapparoth, for example were forbidden by Haza"l (Sanhedrin) and the Ge'onim, the inheritors of Haza"l's tradition said it came from pagan background and that no Jew is allowed to do it, though many Jews in their day did - so we can see it definitely is an old tradition - but not one that was ever validated.
I'm not Temani, however, if seeking for an actual good community with good minhaguth, they are it.
If not them, some amoungst the Ashkenazim which would be more to the LWMO or if amoungst sepharadim, either us S&P or Andalusim, you may find a good home there.
Some SY communities do accept converts even though it's not publicized - you have to be with those 'in the know'; and many Moroccans and Bukharim, unfortunately, are off in the deeper end far 'worse' than the background from which you were exposed to. Some Moroccans and maybe some Bukharim have good minhagim.
In any case, have fun exploring.
Shabua` tobh!

Mottel said...

Minhag is can in fact supersede halacha. Just as Eirivim alay divrei sofrim - that Rabbinic law has a special precedence over Torah law (not blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana that falls on shabbos) - a minhag has the inherent value of being sanctified by thousands of Jews following in its way.
Thus we find certain practices, such as interrupting Haman's name when reading the magilah, giving everyone an aliya on Simchas Torah (which is itself a minhag) are holy and special customs - despite the halachic problems they introduce.

In any event, it's important that whichever path you follow, it be consistent within that custom. A chollent - be it chollent, dafina, or chamin - only works as a dish . . . not as a path in avodas hashem.

It's also important to understand the halachic ramification of taking on a certain custom. Thus, Safardic women would not make a brocha on the various mitzvos asei shehazman grama that they do - lulav, shofar etc. etc.

sandra said...

If I had a choice, I would choose the Dutch custom of waiting one hour between meat and milk and the Sephardic custom of eating kitniot (legumes) on Pesach!

Yossi Ginzberg said...

Choose your own minhagim if you wish, but be consistent. Otherwise observers will question your knowledge of normative Judaism, and this can have unpleasant ramifications with visiting and children.

By the way, the reason for the custom you referenced (looking into the wine at havdolo) is to see the forehead, as "metzach" (forehead)is the Gematria of "hatzlacha" (Success), and at the start of a new week thats what we want.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

What does consistent mean, exactly?

A minhag is a custom, but it doesn't mean that I have to choose all and only Moroccan customs or all and only Spanish-Portuguese customs. That's not what customs are for ... if we lived in a strict community-based society, that would be one thing, but communities are mixed and minhagim are mixed as a result.

Ookamisorah said...

any custom that doesnt go against the halakhah as established by Haza"l (Sanhedrin) is A.O.K.
and as long as those customs arent imposed upon anyone as if it's halakhah.
There are literally no customs, outside what Haza"l established as minhaguth yisra'el, that has any binding nature whatsoever.
You are free to choose and drop any minhag you wish, as it's not in any of the 5 legal categories that make Halakhah what it is.

Mottel said...

I think it's important to define what a minhag is - as the term is applied to parallel, but different concepts.

-Eating gefilte fish - or Moroccan Fish - Friday night is a "minhag."

-Eating Shvartze Kashe (Buckwheat) on Shabbat Shira is a custom.

-Waiting Six hours vs. 3 hours vs. 1 hour between meat and milk is a custom.

-Saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a custom.

The first category is what we'll call a cultural custom - eating chollent v. chamim or the like. Obviously while there may be special cultural or communal importance behind it - but there's little binding a change.

The last categories are far more binding in their adherence (hallel on rosh chodesh is a minhag of the naviim - which are kept by all Jews) and the ways in which they must be kept.

Thus, by the third category, different customs in psak, one can not mix and match. If you follow ashkenazi v. eidot hamizrach v. sfardi v. persian custom etc. there are many halachic ramifications that exist - and by entering into one of them, you are bound by them all. If you're taking on the kulot of eating kitniyos on pesach, then you'll also have to keep the chumrot of six hours (and glatt) for meat, not saying a brocha on mitzvos asei sh'hazman grama (lulav, shofar etc.) and the rest.

When it comes to the second category of customs, those that have been picked up and passed down by Jews throughout the generations, it's important not to mix and match. A set of minhagim are a path in Divine service - they're a means, hallowed by generations of observance, to connect to G-d.

We're not talking (only) about eating a goose on Chanukah (a Yekkishe 'minhag') or wearing sfardishe styles of clothes, we're talking about a specific path in one's spiritual service.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with much of what you are saying. Minhagim are minhagim, as long as they do not contradict or subvert halachic precedent there is nothing wrong with learning them and enriching ones Judaism by them.
Take for example your comment,
"If you're taking on the kulot of eating kitniyos on pesach, then you'll also have to keep the chumrot of six hours (and glatt) for meat, not saying a brocha on mitzvos asei sh'hazman grama (lulav, shofar etc.) and the rest."
I believe this is inaccurate. First, the Rambam rules explicitly that kitnyiot are perfectly acceptable pesach foods (Hametz u'Matza 5:1). It is not a "kulot" to eat them since they cause absolutely no halachic problem. Conversely, one is not obligated to the stringency of halak beit yosef meat if one decides to eat kitnyiot. The Rambam in hilkhot shkitah 11:15 says that this practice (now referred to as halak beit yosef because the Maran codified it in his Shulchan Arukh) was never heard of in Sepharad or France and is INAPPROPRIATE because it leads to a loss of Jewish money. As for keeping six hours, not all Sephardim keep six hours. The S&P Sephardim of Amsterdam only wait one hour. My point being, Halacha is our bottom line, all else is negotiable.
Second, there is a very interesting matter recorded by Hacham Shem Tob Gaguine in his "Keter Shem Tob." On daf quf samek zayin, afef, H. Gaguine say's that the S&P Sephardim of London have a peculiar custom of repeating the kaddish yatom before the barchu of Aleinu. H. Gaguine found no reason to repeat the kaddish. If your analysis is correct that,
"When it comes to the second category of customs, those that have been picked up and passed down by Jews throughout the generations, it's important not to mix and match. A set of minhagim are a path in Divine service - they're a means, hallowed by generations of observance, to connect to G-d,"
then we should expect H. Gaguine to have said that the sephardi kehila was bound to this particular custom because it was their "unique avodah." But, what he in fact tells them is they make an unnecessary repetition and should refrain from continuing this custom.
Customs are not written in stone. I think a bit more sober approach to this issue is to be preferred than the one you are offering.
Kol tuv

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Someone passed this on to me, and I find it *quite* fascinating and appropriate for the conversation!

From: http://revach.net/halacha/tshuvos/Rav-Moshe-Shternbuch-Does-a-Baal-Tshuvah-Follow-the-Minhagim-of-His-NonRelgious-Father/5199

Rav Moshe Shternbuch: Does a Baal Tshuvah Follow the Minhagim of His Non-Relgious Father?
Rav Moshe Shterbuch was asked about a Ba'al Tshuvah whose roots were from a Chasiddishe family but his father strayed and now he found his way back, whether he was beholden to his father's minhagim or since his father doesn't keep this minhagim the chain is broken?

Rav Shterbuch (1:354) says the Pischei Tshuva (YD 214) says that if the son never kept these minhagim he need not start. The Tshuva MeiAhava (2:259) argues and says he is beholden to his ancestor's minhagim.

Rav Shterbuch says that this person is beholden to the minhagim of his Rebbe'im who are like his father in this respect. He furthermore brings a Gilyon Maharsha in the name of the Chavas Ya'ir who says that minhagim are not dependent on a person's father but rather the place and Kehila that one is part of.

Anonymous said...

Whats also interesting is; what happens when the people in the place and kehilla follow a plethora of different minhagim?

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