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February 9, 2016 / 30 Shevat, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘matzah’

Tzav: Holiness And Eating

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

The evil inclination likes to tempt us to indulge in material delights. It is important to know that these delights may have another purpose, too: kedushah (holiness).

As Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, explains, the fact that kohanim were commanded to consume the korbanos offered in the Temple reveals that eating itself has a highly spiritual function. When done in the right measure and with the right intentions, eating is very much an act of holiness and service of Hashem.

“In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the Ohel Moed” (6:19).

Kadshe kadashim, the more sacred offerings, such as the chattas (and the asham – 7:6) are eaten only by kohanim and only in the Court of the Sanctuary.

Thus the Torah states, “It is holy of holies” here (6:18) and regarding the asham (7:6). The minchah also, as stated in 6:10-11, is holy of holies and is eaten by kohanim in the Court (6:9) of the Sanctuary. A very great principle is derived from this procedure: “The kohanim eat and (thereby) the owner gains atonement” (Pesachim 59b).

Actually, the atonement is completed at the sprinkling of the blood on the mizbeach; even the offering of the korban on the fire is an additional mitzvah, which if not fulfilled does not invalidate the korban. Yet the offering of the parts on the fire is indeed a very important part of the service, which has many details of laws and procedure.

Now we also learn that the eating on the part of the kohanim is one of the forms of offering the korban; and like the offerings on the fire, that which is eaten also enhances the quality of the atonement. When the kohen eats in the sacred precincts, he becomes an altar; and the physical pleasure of ingesting the sacred offering is compared to the fire on the mizbeach. Certainly, he should eat with holy intention. But he may not swallow pieces that are not chewed because achilah gasah (an abnormal manner of eating) is against Torah law. He must chew and enjoy the sacred food, and despite the unavoidable pleasure he adds the intention of the service of the offering to Hashem.

Let us not underestimate the value of Hashem’s teachings. The fact that we, “the nation of kohanim” (Shemos 1 9:6) eat matzah on Pesach night with appetite is not a blemish on our mitzvah; on the contrary, we are admonished to refrain from much food during the day in order to eat the matzah with more appetite (Pesachim 99b) “because it is an honor for the mitzvah” (RSHI). The body of the kohen is sacred enough to consume kadshei kadashim but the body of every Israelite is also endowed with such holiness that it may consume kadashim kalim such as shlamim and todah and similar sacrifices.

The Sages derived even more from this principle: “He that desires to pour wine-offerings on the altar, let him fill the throats of talmidei chachamim with wine” (Yoma 71a). We learn the extremely valuable principle that eating with proper intention is a service to Hashem, and may even be considered as a form of kedushah (Mesillas Yesharim Ch. 26). In this are two elements: 1) the holy Intention, 2) and the holiness of the body of the eater.

The karbanos of lesser degree (shlamim, todah, and maaser b’hemah), which all Israelites could eat, were however permissible to eat only in Jerusalem: “And you shall bring there your olos and your z’vachirn and your maasros…and you shall eat there before Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 12:5). Thus even when the Israelite eats of the korban he is performing a holy service and therefore it must be done before Hashem.

Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.

For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.

Eating Matzah Before Pesach

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Question: What is the basis of the custom to refrain from eating matzah for a period of time before Pesach?

Answer: The Rema (Orach Chayim 471:1) rules that it is prohibited to eat matzah on the day preceding Pesach. Ba’er Heitev (471:5), however, cites numerous scholars who permit eating matzah on the night before Pesach. Some contend that the text of the Four Questions in the Haggadah actually supports this position since it states, “On all other nights we may eat chametz and matzah” (emphasis added). Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayim 471:4) specifically notes that the prohibition to eat matzah starts on the morning prior to Pesach at amud hashachar.

The Mishnah Berurah (471:12) notes that “rabbim – many people” have the custom of refraining from eating matzah the entire month of Nissan. Yet the Ma’adanei Shemuel (113:12) points out that some scholars scoffed at this stringency. They went so far as to state that the proponents of this custom should be designated not as “rabbim” but “reikim – empty [of Torah].” Despite this opprobrium, many sages follow this custom.

Regardless of how long one refrains from eating matzah, the reason behind the practice is the same: Eating matzah on Pesach is a distinct and special mitzvah and we should have an appetite for it. And absence – even if only for a day – makes the heart grow fonder.

Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has published eight books on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Amazon.com and Judaica stores.

Parshas Vayikra: ‘The Call Of Humility’

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

In his classic work, Tending The Vineyard, my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates the following vignette:

“At the time that my wife and I made aliyah, the Ministry of Interior required certification through the chief rabbinate that any new immigrants were Jews in order to qualify for citizenship and immigrant benefits. After an hour-long wait at the ministry to be interviewed, my wife and I sat before a hard-faced clerk. I did not have a letter from a rabbi certifying to my Jewishness, but I felt confident that since I was on the chief rabbinate’s list of approved rabbis whose letter would be accepted to verify the Jewishness of others, I would suffer no problem.

“Well, I was wrong. The clerk acknowledged that my name did appear on that august list of recognized rabbis but she sweetly said: ‘Simply because you are acceptable to say about others that they are Jewish does not necessarily mean that you are yourself Jewish.’

“This baffling piece of legal logic astounded me. I told my wife to continue sitting at this clerk’s booth and I hurried out and hailed a cab that delivered me to the house of a rabbinical friend of mine whose name was likewise on the approved list of rabbis. He wrote out a letter for me and I took the same cab back to the Interior Ministry. My poor wife was still sitting at the clerk’s booth as I breathlessly charged into the office and presented the letter to the clerk.

“The clerk smiled at us and said: ‘Now you’re Jewish!’ And so we were. Never underestimate the power of a letter written by a rabbi who is on the approved list of the Israeli chief rabbinate.”

Chumash Vayikra, also known as Toras Kohanim, is chiefly dedicated to the unique laws pertaining to the Kohanim and their daily Service in the Mishkan. It commences with a detailed account of the many laws endemic to the various offerings brought in the Mishkan.

Aside from animal offerings, there were also Mincha/flour offerings that could be offered. Although there were different types of Mincha offerings, flour and water were universal ingredients of every Mincha. Yet, the Torah warns that when the flour and water were mixed they could never be allowed to leaven or ferment. “Any meal-offering that you offer to G-d shall not be prepared leavened, for you shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or any honey as a fire-offering to G-d” (Vayikra 2:11).

As we are all aware, there is another prohibition of chometz, during the days of Pesach. Throughout the rest of the year there is absolutely no prohibition to eat chometz, in fact bread plays a central role in many food-oriented mitzvos. But on Pesach the mere ownership of chometz becomes a serious transgression.

The austere prohibition against owning chometz on Pesach and offering chometz on the altar seems to be interconnected. What is the deeper idea behind that connection?

In order for bread to rise, leavening must take place, catalyzed by yeast or another leavening agent. As oxidation occurs, air pockets develop. Nothing is added to the dough, but it gets bigger, propelled upward by warm air. It is nothing more than the process of nature which causes dough to rise.

Our egos are compared to the yeast in dough. Our ego comprises our sense of self, which is vital to a healthy identity. It is our ego which propels us to accomplish and to grow. But at the same time our egos are always in danger of becoming inflated with “hot air.” This occurs when our sense of identity becomes befuddled, and we no longer appreciate our uniqueness. A false ego can persuade us that trivialities are hugely significant and we can easily be distracted from what truly matters. Just as a healthy ego helps us love, be compassionate, and sensitive to others, it also can cause us to become self-absorbed, envious, and hateful.

Matzah, which consists of nothing more than flour and water that has not been allowed to leaven, symbolizes self-negation before G-d. It is flat and contains nothing but the barest essentials, demonstrating that we are nothing without G-d.

Chometz, on the other hand, symbolizes our sense of identity and independent contribution. Ultimately G-d wanted us to exercise our free will to contribute to His world and bring His Presence into it. In that sense Chometz is not a negative force at all. In fact, it is the source of all accomplishment and positive action. However, when one becomes arrogant and forgets his place things can easily spiral out of control. He loses perspective of where his independence and achievements come from and he begins to take himself too seriously.

Matzel Toff? Really?

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Punning might be the most annoying form of art save for mime (a punning mime, now that would be hateful). Check out the Monday NY Post (a paper known for outrageous punning, not enough mime) for verification. They claim that an outfit named Urban Nosh, which got its start making Matzel Toff, a chocolate-covered matzah, is adding a new, year-round version of the same dubious treat, called Matzel Bits, and are also conspiring to launch yet another new product, called Holy Macaroons. Help…?

A couple who disclose only their first names, Abbie and Philip, conceived the treat (which, incidentally, has been enlarging Jewish thighs for centuries every Passover). The legend goes as follows (on their website):

Phillip grew up enjoying his Bubbie Edith’s toffee-chocolate-matzah. Inspired by her recipe, he eventually honed his own recipe as a graduate student in New York City, where it became his beloved staple for potlucks and dinner parties. One bite into this scrumptious treat and his friend Abby was immediately hooked. But she realized that the matzah needed a gourmet makeover, and decided that toffee-chocolate was the perfect fit. Phillip and Abby teamed up to make Matzel Toff! available to everyone wherever unbelievably seductive candy is sold.

The Post says Urban Nosh, which started with $10,000 in 2009, “generated $25,000 in revenue in 2009 and has doubled its revenue every year since. Its products are now in more than 100 stores nationwide, including Dylan’s, Fairway Markets, Zabar’s and Dean & Deluca in the city.”

But wouldn’t you rather snack on an apple? Just asking…

Clean Jokes

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Welcome back to “You’re Asking Me?” where we answer questions sent in by confused readers who thought they were writing in to Dr. Yael. That said, I’d like to thank all the readers who wrote in. I’m going to attempt to address your questions, not so much because I know the answers, but more so that I have an excuse to get out of cleaning for Pesach.

Dear Mordechai,

I find that I’m very overwhelmed by Pesach cleaning. Do you have any suggestions?

Nervous in New Jersey

Dear Nervous,

What on Earth were you thinking buying the biggest house you could afford? My advice is to not think of it as cleaning the entire house – on a deadline. I say that you should start, a couple of months before Pesach, with something small and manageable, like a single drawer. Take everything out, make piles, scrub down the drawer, and then put everything back in so it’s parallel. Then move on to the next drawer. If you keep doing that, little by little, eventually you’ll realize that you’ve been cleaning for six weeks and you’re still on the same set of drawers, and you have yet to come across something that is actually chometz, or even food for that matter, and you have no idea what you were thinking starting with your pajama drawers, because how often do you change your pajamas?

So you pick up the pace, dumping out entire drawers, throwing out visible food, shoving everything back in, and promising that you’ll get back to them after Pesach. Which you will not, because if you ever had a chance to clean out entire drawers when you didn’t have to, you’d also have a chance to put things away properly to being with, rather than shoving them into the drawer and hoping they’ll find their way the right part of the drawer by themselves. And before you know it, it will be Pesach again.

But my point is that in the end, you’ll come into Pesach panting and sweating and realizing that amid all that fury of dumping and shoving, you didn’t have time to be overwhelmed.


Dear Mordechai,

I’m flying to my in-laws for Yom Tov, and I’d like to bring along some food for the Seder. Is there anything I can bring along that will make it through airport security?

Pat Down, JFK

Dear Pat,

Not really. A bottle of wine has too much liquid, matzah will be confiscated as a sharp weapon, and we don’t even want to think about what they’ll do to you if they find marror. Potatoes, maybe? Last year I ran into someone at the post office putting some stamps on a box of round matzah. Though I doubt it was still round when it got to where it was going.


Dear Mordechai,

I’m making Pesach this year, due to an incident last year when my in-laws, who don’t eat gebrukts, received a box in the mail on the first day of Pesach containing what was basically matzah meal. Anyway, this is our first time making Pesach, and I’d like to know what I’m getting myself into. What would you say is the most annoying part of making Pesach?

T.S., Monsey

Dear T.,

Honestly? I like that my house actually gets cleaned once a year, and I like that I’m forced to make foods that are out of my comfort zone.

What’s annoying is the part before Pesach where half your house is chometzdik and half your house is Pesachdik. You’re cooking in the dining room or eating out of a random room in the basement, you can’t bring Pesach stuff into this room, you can’t bring chometz into that room, you need to be on your guard the entire month to remind your kids about where they can and can’t bring food, they have more cookies to eat than ever before but there’s nowhere they can actually eat them, and your entire kitchen is Pesachdik except a couple of shelves in the fridge, so you have to take foods out of the fridge and move them around without putting them down anywhere. You spend all day cleaning for Pesach, but have to break in middle to figure out which chometz to serve the kids for supper, such as a random “this is what we found in the freezer” supper that consists of two hot dogs, three chicken wings, three types of French fries and a frozen bag of what was probably once soup. Should we have noodles? We’d have to make them on the travel range, and then strain them off the edge of the back porch without dropping any in the backyard, because the colander is too big to wash in the bathroom sink, which is where we’re doing all our dishes for the week. Sometimes we have to wait in the hall with a pile of dishes because someone is in there. Why on earth did we buy so many noodles?

Why Do We Read The Megillah?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

On Purim we read Megillas Esther twice, once by night and once by day. It is uncertain what the nature of the obligation is. Did the rabbanan obligate us to read the megillah as a part of Kesuvim, similar to the obligation of reading the other megillos (such as Eichah and Shir HaShirim) and similar to the reading of the Torah? Or is the obligation to read only for the purpose of publicizing the miracle (pirsumei nisa)?

It says in Maseches Sofrim 14:3 that prior to reading Megillos Rus, Eichah, Shir HaShirim and Esther one must recite the berachah of “…al mikra megillah.” The fact that the Mesechta Sofrim combined all of the megillos into one halacha implies that the obligation to read each of them is the same – namely to read Kesuvim.

The Yerushalmi in Megillah 3:4 says that the reason we are not allowed to read Megillas Esther on Shabbos (when Purim falls out on Shabbos) is because it is forbidden to read Kesuvim on Shabbos. If the obligation to read Megillas Esther were merely for the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, it would not be considered as if we are reading Kesuvim – and would therefore be permitted on Shabbos. The fact that the Yerushalmi prohibits the reading of Megillas Esther on Purim, when it falls out on Shabbos, clearly indicates that the obligation is to read Kesuvim.

Based on this, the Sefer Harirai Kedem suggests that we can answer the following question: The Gemara in Shabbos 23a and Sukkah 46a ask how we can say “vetzivanu – and He [Hashem] commanded us” in the berachah that we recite on lighting the menorah on Chanukah, for it is only a mitzvah mi’derabbanan. The Gemara answers that if one does not adhere to the command of the rabbanan, it is a transgression of the pasuk in the Torah of “lo sasur.” Therefore one can say that the Torah commanded him to perform this mitzvah. The question is raised: Why does the Gemara not have the same discussion regarding the mitzvah of reading Megillas Esther, which is also a mitzvah mi’derabbanan – but at which time vetzivanu is recited?

If we understand that the berachah of “…vetzivanu al mikra megillah” is a berachah that one recites when reading any megillah that is part of Kesuvim and not for the mitzvah, we can understand why the Gemara does not inquire as to how we can say vetzivanu prior to reading Megillas Esther. Since the berachah is recited even when there is no obligation to read it, the Gemara understood that the berachah is not recited because the rabbanan commanded us to read it, but rather because reading a megillah requires that this berachah be recited.

The Brisker Rav asked the following question: The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 690:3) rules, based on the Gemara in Megillah 18b, that one must read the entire megillah while looking inside the megillah. If the sofer skipped several words (up to half the megillah) the reader may recite those words by heart. (The Ramah says that this only applies if an entire inyan (topic) was not skipped. Reb Moshe Soloveitchik said that today we are not certain what an entire inyan is, and therefore we cannot rely on this halacha.) Reading Kesuvim must be read while directly looking at the words – just like krias HaTorah. How then can the obligation to read the megillah be to read Kesuvim, if one can read the megillah by heart? Rather, from this halacha, it seems that the obligation is to publicize the miracle.

The Sefer Harirai Kedem explains that the reason one may read part of the megillah by heart is because we apply the rule of rubo kekulo – the majority is considered as if it is the whole megillah. Since the majority of the megillah is written, when one reads the remaining part by heart it is considered as if he read the entire megillah directly from the megillah. The reason we do not apply this rule to krias HaTorah is because the rule can only be applied when the subject matter is a complete item but lacking a part of it. However, if the matter of discussion is not a complete item, even when it is in its entirety, we cannot apply the rule. As Megillas Esther is a complete item, we can apply the rule. But when one must read a certain amount of p’sukim in the Torah, those p’sukim do not combine to create a complete entity on their own. Rather they are only a part of the complete Torah, and therefore the rule is not applied.

If, though, there was a halacha to read the entire Torah at once, we would apply the rule and it would suffice to only read the majority directly from the Torah. Similarly we do not apply the rule when one must eat a specific amount of matzah (a k’zayis) and say that it suffices to eat the majority of the matzah since a k’zayis is not a complete item but rather an amount. As a result, we can suggest that the obligation to read the megillah is to read Kesuvim.

Our Mother’s Lessons

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

All societies survive through the retention of customs and traditions. If ritual law, halacha and Torah observance are the keystones of Jewish existence, the customs and traditions of Israel are the chain that has kept Israel bound to the Torah and its laws and values. The rabbis called the customs and traditions of Israel “the lessons of your mother” – in contrast and at the same time complementing “the teachings and disciplines of your father.”

Discipline and teachings are sometimes cold, harsh, demanding. Your mother’s lessons are warm, loving, comfortable and reassuring. Thus the relationship of the Jewish people to customs and traditions is a millennia-long romance. Infused with holy memories and meaningful vignettes and life’s wisdoms, customs and traditions have long been a dominant factor in Jewish life.

Customs evolve and many times are influenced by unknown and even non-Jewish sources. A people does not live in Spain for eight hundred years without becoming at least slightly Spanish in its customs and mores. The same is certainly true for central and eastern Europe (Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bohemia, Romania, Austria, etc.) Many customs that the Jews adopted in their long exile were not necessarily of Jewish origin. Yet over the ages, all customs that entered Jewish life, no matter what their original source may have been, were invested with authority and holiness – many times over the objections of the rabbis and sages of the time.

Customs had such a strong hold on Jewish behavior and lifestyle that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (eighteenth century) ruefully remarked that it was regrettable that the commandment not to steal was written in the Torah and was not a custom, for had it been a custom it would have wider acceptance and practice among the Jewish people. Thus the struggle between custom and halacha, between the sages of Israel and its masses, was and is a never-ending contest, and Jewish history attests that custom usually wins out.

The rabbis were willing to grant that custom takes precedence in monetary and commercial affairs, stating in essence that agreed-upon business custom is essentially halacha itself in that realm of human activity. However the main disputes concerned custom in ritual matters and prayer, Holiday and Shabbat laws, and the extent of rabbinic authority over the community and the masses.

An accepted principle that was adopted even in Talmudic times was that when there is considerable doubt and much dispute as to what the halacha actually is, the customs of the people in this matter will prevail. However, there were sages who stated that the customs that one should follow are only those that are stricter than the apparent halacha, but customs that introduce leniencies that the halacha did not countenance should be discarded.

However, both from the Talmud itself and from later works of the sages of Israel, it seems that customs that were essentially more lenient than the original halacha also had validity. Apparently this was in line with a Talmudic concept that there are times when the halacha itself is set as such and such, but nevertheless we do not teach it or follow it publicly. This flexibility relative to halacha and some of its decisions created the loophole through which custom marched and took hold in the Jewish world.

The upshot of all of this was that a certain consensus was reached regarding the relationship of custom and halacha. It may generally be stated that the consensus included the following rules: (1) When there was doubt as to what the actual original halacha is, then the custom will decide the matter; (2) when the matter does not really touch upon behavior that is forbidden or permitted, such as matters of blessings and prayer texts, then the custom even if not sanctioned by the prevailing rabbinic authorities is allowed to continue; (3) custom cannot prevail over established halacha in matters of Torah or Talmudic ritual law as to what is forbidden or permitted; and (4) when a major dispute exists among the halachic authorities as to what the halacha should be, the custom of the community or even the individual is valid.

In the later Middle Ages and early modern period, when the study of Zohar and Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, many new kabbalistic customs entered Jewish life. Even those sages who opposed the widespread study of Kabbalah among the masses, nevertheless adopted kabbalistic customs in their communities. Naturally this was not without dissension and division within those communities. Even so, kabbalistic customs were widespread throughout Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.

Both Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his “tablecloth” (Mapa) glosses to the Shulchan Aruch included many customs, kabbalistic and non-kabbalistic, in their monumental and authoritative works. Thus custom itself was enshrined in the major halachic works that have ruled Jewish life ever since the sixteenth century. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi, the seventeenth-century author of Nahalat Shiva, a well-known halachic work, attacked the concept of custom overruling halacha but apparently to little avail.

The rise of the eighteenth century chassidic movement, with its heavy emphasis on kabbalistic thought and mass practice, created many customs that were enshrined as obligatory behavior within the chassidic groups adopting these differing customs. Some customs such as the wearing of a ritual belt (gartel) during prayer services and other occasions became universal chassidic custom as did the change from strictly Ashkenazic ritual text of prayer to one that resembled Sephardic text.

Among Lithuanian Jews, many private customs of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, took public hold and were observed in synagogues and yeshivot. Some of those customs have become the accepted norm in today’s Jerusalem as well.

Even as late as the nineteenth century there were great rabbinic authorities who opposed the custom of kaparot – the slaughter of chickens before Yom Kippur – as being an expiation of one’s sins. Among Lithuanian Jews the superstitious custom was modified to giving coins to charity instead of slaughtering chickens. Nevertheless, the custom has persisted and even gained strength and followers especially in chassidic society, and the custom of kaparot with chickens is alive and well (though not for the chickens) in present-day Jerusalem even within “Lithuanian” society.

* * * * *
The line between custom and superstition is a very thin one and has often been crossed in Jewish history. In our day, the custom of wearing red strings to ward off the evil eye is quite prevalent. The origin of that custom is clearly not Jewish, it being part of Italian and Sicilian lore. Nevertheless it is certainly present in today’s Jewish society.

Perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting custom that has become a part of Ashkenazic Jewish life is that of the non-use of kitniyot on Pesach. This custom, which originated in the early Middle Ages, was apparently based upon the use of legumes to make a type of Pesach bread. The banning of the use of legumes stemmed from the confusion that might arise from people thinking that if bread made from rice, beans, peas, etc. was permissible, then bread made from oats, barley, rye, wheat and spelt was also somehow acceptable – these latter grains being pure chametz if not carefully and expeditiously turned into quick-baked matzah.

This custom is a very strong one and the rabbis over the ages have been very loath to relax its severity even in seemingly extraordinary circumstances. In fact the custom has expanded in our time to even include liquids derived from legumes and other such legume derivatives. The Sephardic world generally does not observe this custom of kitniyot, though there are some Sephardic communities that do not use rice on Pesach.

In our time, American corn, which was unknown to Europe and the Middle East until the eighteenth century, is also treated as being kitniyot. However, tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, cocoa, tobacco and other like ingredients are not considered to be kitniyot, though all of them were at one time or another discussed in rabbinic literature as perhaps being such. Among the masses, the custom to include garlic as being kitniyot was widespread even when rabbinic decision was almost unanimous that it not be considered so.


is one area where custom completely rules. The fact that the entire matter of kitniyot is absent from Sephardic Jewish communities only emphasizes the role of differing customs in different Jewish communities. Rabbinic wisdom decreed that instead of arguing over the efficacy of one custom over another differing one, each community should observe its customs and traditions. In cases of “mixed” marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the absence of agreement among the spouses as to which customs will prevail in the house, the usual practice is that the custom of the husband takes precedence.

Another contentious custom that exists in the Ashkenazic world regarding Pesach is that of the non-use of matzah-meal flour in conjunction with cooking and baking. This matter called “gebrokts” (literally, ground or broken matzah) was not widespread until the rise of chassidism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern Europe. The non-chassidic Lithuanian Jewish world never adopted this custom and even the chassidic world allows gebrokts on the eighth day of Pesach in the Diaspora. This custom apparently arose from the chance the matzah would not be baked thoroughly enough and thus a kernel of grain would remain embedded in it. When the matzah was made wet in cooking, baking or dipping, that kernel would begin to ferment and could become chametz.

Since the prohibition against chametz on Pesach applies even to the minutest amount of grain, this custom took hold in the chassidic world and is observed by most Jews of eastern European background even today. Jews of Lithuanian descent do not observe the custom of gebrokts and this often leads to a certain disconnect within families where generations of eastern European Jews with these different customs have married each other and the question arises as to who eats or does not eat matzah balls and the like at the same meal.

There is nothing quite like being Jewish when matters of custom are involved. To the outsider the issues may appear to be slightly amusing. However, in my rabbinic experience I have witnessed that unfortunately these matters are deadly serious to those involved and can tear family bonds asunder. Therefore, even observance of custom requires good sense, tolerance and prioritizing values.

* * * * *
There is one area of Jewish law and life which is almost completely governed by custom and that is the subject of avelut – the procedures of grieving, mourning and consoling the bereaved. Since we are dealing with the dreaded unknown, death itself, it is understandable that custom should have a strong hold on the matter. Kabbalistic customs rule in these areas. For instance the covering of mirrors in the house of the mourner is a custom that has acquired almost universal acceptance, even in homes that sadly do not otherwise observe basic Jewish law and practice.

Death is spooky and when it comes to spooks even the most hardened rational intellect wavers. Visiting graves, placing stones on the monuments, reciting Kaddish in memory or in honor of the dead, the Yizkor service held four times in the year in the midst of Yom Tov prayer services, lighting yahrzeit lamps or candles to mark the anniversary of the death of a family member and other such death-related customs connected to grief and consolation are all fairly late arrivals in Jewish life, mostly unmentioned in records of biblical and Talmudic times.

Much has been written about the Jewish way of grieving and consolation, mostly based on the customs that now prevail. Most of these customs have become Jewish law and halacha itself and occupy great space and discussion in rabbinic writings and scholarly works. Jewish law discourages undue mourning over death. It is the way of God’s world. The customs of Israel in these matters are meant to ease the mourner back into normal life and routine and somehow begin to assuage the pain of the loss and death of a loved one.

In a broader sense one may see that tradition and customs have eased the terrible exile for Israel and helped us preserve our faith and family structure against overwhelmingly difficult odds.

This is also apparent in the ironclad “custom of our fathers that remains in our hands” to observe a second day of Yom Tov on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the Diaspora. This observance was originally a matter of halacha, since there was real doubt as to which day was exactly the correct date of the holiday. However, with the establishment and acceptance of the calculations of the permanent Jewish calendar after the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century, the doubts regarding the exact date of the holiday were seemingly removed. But the second day of the Diaspora holidays then morphed from absolute halacha into custom.

And the custom became as binding as the halacha itself had been. It was the “extra” day of the holidays that helped the Jewish people survive the long exile. Those movements that did away with the custom of the “second” day of the holiday soon found that their adherents had lost observance of the “first” day of the holidays as well.

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The reformers and progressives among us have constantly underestimated the power of custom in the life of a society and a people, certainly in Jewish society and the people of Israel. The warmth and love of our mothers as represented by the customs and traditions of Israel are the mainstays of Jewish life even now in our land of Israel and its Jewish state and in a more favorable Diaspora atmosphere.
Jewish free thinkers and agnostics have mocked Jewish customs in every age and country of Jewish residence. Yet they have been unable to find any worthwhile substitute for the tradition and customs so much maligned by them, any other mechanism that would help ensure Jewish continuity and survival. Is it not perhaps that all of us have only one mother? And the one mother of Israel in this matter remains our sense of tradition and the customs developed over the ages to protect the Torah and enrich Jewish life.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/our-mothers-lessons-2/2011/08/17/

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