Jewish Customs Versus Laws

Minhagim have become incorporated into daily practice, like law.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Originally, the term minhag, “custom” (from a root meaning “to follow,” i.e. that which people follow) referred to a practice about which the law was unclear, perhaps where certain details were the subject of debate by the legal authorities. When it was observed that the people followed a particular interpretation or ruling, the practice of the people was decisive and this practice acquired full legal status. As the Talmud (Berakhot 45a) puts it: “Go out and see what people actually do.”

Development of Minhagim

But in the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, the people followed certain practices for which there was no support in the law; sometimes, such practices were adopted from the customs of the peoples among whom Jews resided. At times, the rabbinic authorities were suspicious of this kind of folk custom, but when it became too deeply rooted to be eradicated, even this type of custom was also incorporated into Jewish law, on the principle, evidently, of “if you can’t beat them join them,” and a new Jewish interpretation was given to the custom so as to render it innocuous.

A good example is the practice of breaking a glass at a marriage ceremony. It seems that this practice took root among German Jews, the Ashkenazim, because they were enamored of a similar practice they observed among German folk which was intended to trick the demons into believing that a catastrophe rather than a celebration was taking place; the demons would then leave the couple alone and do them no harm. The practice was eventually accepted by the Rabbis; the Jewish interpretation given to it was that it reminded the couple, on their happy day, that they should reflect on the destruction of the Temple, in other words, they should be aware, even on this day, of the sufferings of their people and not selfishly ignore them.

There was constant tension over the adoption of new customs. On the one hand, there was the need to cater to the masses and keep them faithful, but on the other hand, the pagan origin of some customs was too blatant to be ignored. This tension resulted in two contradictory sayings. One saying has it that the custom of Israel is Torah, that is, custom has the binding force of Jewish law. Against this is the saying that when the letters of minhag are transposed they form the word gehinom, Gehinna (hell). But, generally speaking, more of the folk-customs were accepted than were rejected.

Many of these eventually found their way into the Shulhan Arukh, the standard Code of Jewish law, through the glosses of IsserIes, the great recorder of Ashkenazi customs. In addition to the differences in matters of law proper between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, different folk-customs developed in the two communities so that there are Sephardi minhagim (plural of minhag) and Ashkenazi minhagim, in matters of prayer and its melodies, for example, and here the ruling is that the members of a particular community must follow that community’s custom and not adopt the different customs of another community.

In Hasidism customs took root in accordance with the specific ideas of the movement. Even in Hasidism, each master, the Zaddik, tended to have his own custom with regard to the practice of certain rituals and this became the norm for his faithful followers. The kabbalists developed their own customs through which specific kabbalistic ideas were given expression.

Examples of Customs

Considerations of space do not allow anything like a complete survey of the manifold Jewish customs. The following is no more than a sampling of customs for the purpose of elucidating the concept.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, Ashkenazi Jews perform the custom of Kaparot, or atonements. The procedure is to take a rooster, and wave it round the head while saying: “May this rooster, which is to be killed, be an atonement for my sins.” The cockerel is then killed and cooked and some, at least, of its meat is given to the poor. Rabbi Joseph Karo records in the Shulhan Arukh(Orah Hayyim, 605) that this is a superstitious practice and should be abolished, but in Isserles’ gloss the practice is not only accepted but all its details are recorded as if it were a matter of law rather than custom.

When the book of Esther is read on the festival of Purim it is the custom, Karo states in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 690. 17) to fold the megillah, the Scroll of the book, as if it were a letter, since the book refers to the “letter” Esther wrote to describe the events which led to the delivery of the Jews from the plot of Haman to destroy them. Isserles, in his gloss, refers to other customs in connection with the reading of the megillah, including the practice of the children to “boo,” bang stones together, or wave rattles whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. Some evidently objected to the practice as indecorous but Isserles typically observes: “No custom should be abolished or laughed at for it was not established without purpose.” Interestingly enough, this observation that the custom should not be scoffed at is made by Karo in his work on the Tur, though Karo does not record the practice in the Shulhan Arukh.

These last two customs were the subject of debate, as were many others. Some folk customs, however, became the norm in the majority of the Jewish communities such as the custom of bride and bridegroom fasting on their wedding day. When a Jewish couple marry and begin a new life together their sins are forgiven so that the day is, for them, a kind of Yom Kippur.

Another universally adopted custom is to wash the hands ritually when rising from sleep, by pouring water over them from a glass. Two reasons are given. One is that just as the priests in Temple times washed their hands from the hand-basin before beginning their service, so, too, a Jew should wash his hands as he rises to serve his Maker. The other reason is that a “spirit of impurity” rests on the finger-nails during sleep and this has to be removed by the pouring of pure water over the fingers. The ritual is, in fact, called in Yiddish neggel wasser, or water of the nails. This too is evidently an attempt at providing a more respectable reason for a custom that probably had its origin in superstition, although here the “rational” and the “superstitious” reasons appear side by side.

It is obvious that in many of the instances cited the reasons are given post factum. It is not a case of the customs being based on the reasons but rather of reasons being given for customs that were, in any event, deeply rooted in the practices of the people. Reform Judaism tends to ignore customs which clearly have their origin in superstition. But Orthodox Judaism, even when it acknowledges the base origin of some of the customs, holds that these have become part of the Jewish lifestyle and act as a bulwark against assimilation.

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