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.
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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.
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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 1997. His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.