A Modzitzer, Lubavitcher, Breslover, And A Clevelander - Chok L'Yisroel
Back in April, my good friend Yitz commented about Chok L'Yisroel as a way to consolidate my learning:
"For centuries, many Chassidic, Sefardic and other Jews have been learning the sefer Chok L'Yisrael. This is a daily portion of Torah, Nevi'im, Kesuvim, Mishna, Gemara, Zohar and Halacha. A piece of Mussar was later added as well. It's arranged on a daily basis, and according to the parsha of the week. The Navi part usually matches up with that week's Haftara, and the Zohar is usually on the parsha of the week, with some exceptions such as Shovavim and the Three Weeks. You might want to look into that."
Recently, I reconsidered Yitz's suggestion and discussed it Chabakuk Elisha and with Rabbi Lazer Brody, both of whom encouraged me to do just that. With the combined agreement of a Modzitzer chassid, a Lubavitcher chassid, and a Breslover chassid, how could I disregard this advice? I ordered a copy of Volume 8 [Parshas Chukas to Parshas Masei] and began learning it on Sunday.
My consolidated daily learning seder now consists of:
Degel Machaneh Ephraim
[* I will continue learning Likutey Moharan and Maseches Taanis on a weekly basis]
Chok L'Yisroel does not have the universal recognition today as Daf Yomi. To be honest, before Yitz commented on it, I had never heard of it. I asked Rabbi Tal Zwecker, a Clevelander chassid, why Chok L'Yisroel is studied primarily by Sefardic Jews and not more widespread today amongst the Chassidic world, given the fact that it was instituted by the Arizal.
Rabbi Zwecker responded:
"Although Chassidim follow many practices and customs based on the Arizal, I believe that most Sefardim today actually follow many more.
Ashkenazi Jewry did not advocate Arizal's customs for the masses ever until Chassidus came on the scene. There were certain individuals in Ashkenazi history such as Rabbi Noson Adler (Rebbe of the Chasam Sofer) and Rav Aryeh Leib Epstein of Koenigsberg (author of the Pardes and Ohr haShanim siddur one of the few books to get the approbation of the GR"A) who practiced Arizal customs and prayed using his Nusach and Kavanos, however they themselves did not advocate this approach to the masses. In fact, Rav Noson Adler had a Sefardi teach him the Sefardic pronunciation as well and also had the Kohanim bless the congregation daily a practice that caused him to be persecuted. Even these individuals never advocated these practices for the masses of Jewry. The majority of Ashkenazi Rabbonim and poskim rejected Kabbalastic changes in ritual and custom as either against Halacha and custom (Al Titosh Toras Imecha) and as dangerous for the masses (compare Shabtai Tzvi the false messiah who relied on Kabbalah ideas for his false ideology etc.)
In contrast, most Sefardim accepted the Arizal's changes and innovations much more readily, many of the Arizal customs are based on the Sefardic ritual and the Sefardic poskim themselves like the author of Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Karo were Kabbalists who used customs from the Zohar in their practice and adopted methodology in halachic law making vis-a-vis Kabbalah. (So that the Ben Ish Chai of Baghdad formulates the following rule - when in doubt as regards to a blessing the rule is we are lenient and do not say the blessing since it is Rabbinic in origin, the Ben Ish Chai posits that this logic is to be used against Maran the author of the Shulchan Aruch if he holds that a blessing in doubt should be made however we do not invoke this rule against the Arizal [note even though the Arizal is not a recognized authority in Halacha Jewish Law!] you see from the Ben Ish Chai's rule that Sefardic lawmakers took Kabbalah practices and preferred them to other customs)
So whereas the Gaon of Vilna, himself a great Kabbalist, rejected changes in law and practice based on Zoharic and Arizal custom when they changed previous Ashkenazi law and custom, the Sefardic gedolim accepted, instituted and incorporated and changed Sefardic law and custom with Kabbalistic emendations to the Siddur, and halacha in many cases (but not all cases - for example they never adopted the Arizal's changes to the writing of Ashurit script in writing sefer Torah, Tefilllin and Mezuzos and till this day follow the Shulchan Aruch's formula whereas Chassidic custom does follow the Arizal's letter system).
Chassidim became the Ashkenazi exception to the rule and when the Baal Shem Tov adopted the Arizal's nusach and many (but again not all) Kabbalistic and Arizal customs Chassidim became that exception. The Komarna Rebbe teaches in Shulchan haTahor that since we are in fact Ashkenazi that the Baal Shem Tov adopted a new path to the Arizal beginning with Nusach Ashkenaz and adding Kabbalistic changes based on Sefard and leaving many Ashkenazi customs in place (not sitting for Blessings like the donning of Tefillin, Yishtabach etc. where the Arizal holds one should sit, all poetic liturgy from Selichos to Piyutim in the Machzor follow Ashkenazi traditions not Sefardic, the Haftorahs read follow Ashkenazic custom even where Sefardic custom differs as we are still Ashkenazi). The Chabad school for example adopted the Arizal nusach to a more exclusive degree and their nusach of prayer resembles the Sefardic rite even more then some other Chassidic versions of Sefard.
As for Chok L'Yisrael specifically, I cannot explain the trend, however it is clear that today many more Sefardim study this then do Ashkenazim."
Replying to this same question, a chassid in Williamsburg wrote:
"First of all in Hungarian circles the learning of Chok is pretty widespread. Here in Williamsburg where I live, there are many Chok shiurim. The Divrey Chayim learned chok and since most Hungarian Hassidim have a connection to Tzanz that may be the link. Also in the hanhogos in the beginning of the "Sheeris Yisroel" the learning of Chok is highly praised, especially during the time of Shovevim. As for its popularity, somehow the learning of Chok is not very flashy, and the Chok learner are mostly elderly people. When people in China start doing Tai-Chi, is when people in Williamsburg start learning Chok."
Finally, on a side note, I am curious to find out how others are able to maintain their daily learning schedules, especially people like me who work a full-time job and also have small children at home. I find it easiest to learn on my commute to work and on my lunch break. However, on Sundays it is very difficult to find time. While I used to wake up early on weekends, this strategy appears no longer to be effective. Once we brought the new baby home, my two year-old son went from sleeping until 7:00 am to 5:00 am; waking up early to see the new baby.
* A website dedicated to those learning Chok L'Yisrael can be found here at eChok.com
(Picture courtesy of Judaica Enterprises)