Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Minhag Yisroel Torah He - Part 1
To most Chassidim, minhag (custom) is a high priority. Of course, this is logical, as Chassidim place great emphasis on the Tzaddik figure and his statements and actions, particularly those that can be emulated. But, truth be told, this is not exclusively Chassidic territory; many non-Chassidim are just as devoted to their minhagim. In fact, a substantial amount of Shulchan Aruch itself – the preeminent sefer halacha – is made up of minhagim. Moreover, within Halachah itself there are various strata: biblical laws; laws that are biblically alluded to, or derived from the Nevi'im; and various rabbinic decrees. So, the difference between halachah and minhag can often seem a little fuzzy; but, be it a Mitzva d’oraisa, d’rabanan, a gezeira, a takana or a minhag, they are all Divine. Through them all, we connect to Hashem and make the world more of a dira Lo Yisborach, b’tachtonim.
The most common metaphor used is that the King's stated will is halachah, while minhag is His unstated desire. We most certainly follow the halachah, as this is the King's command, but our following a minhag gives the King deeper delight. This explanation provides us with a deeper appreciation of minhag – in this sense, it is not really all that different from "hiddur mitzvah" – but once we get into specifics and find cases where halacha and minhag seem to be at odds, or where there are disagreements about minhagim themselves, this explanation can still leave us with questions.
In different regions or communities, different voices and opinions became dominant over time, and, for whatever reason (some known, some unknown), certain halachic rulings and customs became accepted practice. In many cases, there is often no clear reason why one shittah in halachah or minhag was considered more compelling than another. As a result, we have a relatively small group of people in the world – Klal Yisroel – and many, many, different communities that maintain strong opinions about what it means to properly live a religious life.
Yet these are our traditions, and tradition is extremely important to a traditional people. Aside from their primary purpose of clarifying the practical mandates of the Torah, halachah and minhag – i.e. time-honored tradition – provides the "flavor" of Judaism; they create the culture of our religious life, and culture is more powerful than text. Without proper respect and protection of tradition, the future of Klal Yisroel is at risk; those who rejected tradition have generally not stayed within Judaism for more than a generation or two – it is simply an exit ramp off the superhighway of Yiddishkeit. For that reason, in his battle against the Haskala and early reformers, the Chasam Sofer famously applied his wordplay on the phrase "Chadash assur min haTorah" to mean "all innovation is biblically forbidden." While this motto can easily lead to excessive rigidity which can crush the life out of a people, we must recognize that there is truth to it. If we do not remain loyal to the legacy of our tzaddikim and holy ancestors, we stand to lose both the "container" and the "contents," the vessel and the vintage wine.
In fact, one of the greatest challenges for Bnei Noach today is the lack of a culture, a way of life shared by a large group of like-minded people. Without a culture, values and ideals are incredibly hard to perpetuate. If we want to raise future Jewish generations, we first need to offer them a culture, and it is predominantly through psak halacha and minhag that this is done. This creates the protective shield for the Jew in the world; it provides a meaningful lifestyle, and it links the past to the present and future. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, in the culture of the Orthodox community we find the underlying and subtle beliefs and messages of Yiddishkeit. Through minhagim in particular, we develop a special bond to tzaddikim, to Gedolei Olam, to those exemplary figures who came before us. They initiated, wrote about, spoke of, defended and lived those minhagim, those rulings, that way of life. Indeed, we have a halachic principle that the strongest proof is "ma'aseh rav" -- the practice of the rav – which trumps textual data. This deepens our feeling of respect for those who came before us – they are our living “Shulchan Aruch.” And through this we also recognize that we are a part of something bigger, part of an environment – and we must do our best to maintain that environment to insure a Jewish future.
Yet, we see that with all this emphasis on maintaining the mesorah, things clearly do change. Innovations take place, and this has always been so. Yiddishkeit today developed over more than three millenia, and what we take to be Yiddishkeit is quite different from that of biblical, Talmudic, medieval, and even later periods. Even those who vigilantly defend the mesorah often have their own innovations.
For example, Nusach HaTefiloh – something for which we can find many sources that warn against modification – has been revised in some form or another in most communities: Piyutim have been added through the ages; Nusach Ashkenaz has mutated into the various versions of what is now called "Nusach Sefard (Ari)"; and accepted practices constantly fall in and out of favor (things once considered forbidden like clapping on Shabbos, or dancing on Simchas Torah, or even various segulos like wearing a red string are now commonly viewed as acceptable). How does this work?
A minhag is not simply something quaint, practical and useful, but in fact it carries quite a bit of weight: "Minhag Yisroel/Avoseinu Torah He – the custom of our forefathers is itself Torah" (Ramban Pesachim 7b, Machzor Vitry 503, Rosh RH 4:14, Tos. Menachos 20b, among many other sources). This principle essentially declares that our specific culture and practice is itself holy; and this is more than a legitimization of minhag, but in my humble opinion it's a deeper truth – Torah equals the minhag Yisroel: what normative, religious Jews do.
Of course, this isn't entirely arbitrary, and it works within a context (but that's beyond the scope of this essay), in the second half of this post I will address the 5 primary issues that I see are often a source of concern.