From My Jewish Learning

Jewish Custom and Jewish Law

Reprinted from My Jewish Learning

Jewish custom — known in Hebrew as a minhag — is a religious practice that, though sometimes very widely practiced, does not carry the force of Jewish law and is thus not considered mandatory by traditional Jews. Customs cover an extremely wide range of Jewish rituals, from variations in the order or language of particular prayers, to swinging a chicken over one’s head prior to Yom Kippur, to the nearly universal practice of smashing a glass at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony. Customs typically have folk origins, but there are instances in which they may have been imposed by religious authorities. Other customs were maintained for so long and adopted so widely that they have become enshrined as obligations in Jewish legal codes and are no longer, strictly speaking, customs at all. Still others may have been adapted from practices of the cultures in which Jews lived and were only later sanctioned by Jewish authorities.

Halacha (Jewish Law) vs. Minhag (Custom)

Jewish law is called halacha (literally the path or the way) and is grounded in the Torah itself or later rabbinic rulings. In the former category are obligations that are explicit in the Bible, such as prohibitions on murder, idol worship and certain sexual behavior.

Rabbinic laws are of two types:

  1. A gezerah (literally “fence”) is a rabbinic rule imposed to serve as a guard against violating a more serious prohibition, such as the ban on touching objects used to perform forbidden actions on the Sabbath;
  2. A takkanah (literally remedy or fixing) is a piece of rabbinic legislation enacted for some other purpose, such as the celebration of the holiday of Hanukkah.

Customs are established practices that are not legally obligatory and do not derive from biblical or rabbinic mandates.They cover a very broad range of religious practices, including (but not limited to):

  1. The manner, order and liturgy of prayer;
  2. Certain wedding rituals;
  3. Styles of Torah chanting and of decorative Torah scroll coverings;
  4. Various holiday practices.

Many customs differ based on Jews’ ethnicities — Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews observe many different customs from one another. Among them is the custom that Ashkenazi men begin wearing a prayer shawl only once they are married, while Sephardic custom is generally from a boy’s bar mitzvah. There are many modern congregations where Jewish women also wear prayer shawls.) However, there are also a vast number of variations in customs even among Ashkenazi and Sephardic subgroups. The post-Passover celebration of Mimouna, for example, is a custom that originated among the Sephardic Jews of North Africa. The wearing of long curled payot is a custom practiced generally only by Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews.

Some practices that began as customs became so well established in Jewish life that they are now broadly considered obligatory. One example is the wearing of a kippah by men. (There are many modern congregations where Jewish women also wear Kippot). The practice was described in the Talmud as the pious habit of a particular rabbi and codified by later rabbinic authorities as required at particular times — for Maimonides, during prayer; for the Shulchan Aruch, when walking more than four cubits. (The Shulchan Aruch elsewhere records the view of some authorities that it is forbidden to recite God’s name when not wearing a head covering). In the 20th century, the American Orthodox authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issued a special dispensation for men to not wear a kippah at work if necessary — implying that the practice is generally obligatory. Another example is the Ashkenazi ban on eating rice, lentils and legumes — known as kitniyot — during Passover. Though the practice of avoiding rice on Passover is noted in the Talmud, it only came into force as a broad ban centuries later. The ban remains in force among most Ashkenazi Jews today, though the Conservative movement, in a 2015 decision, overturned it.

Over the centuries, rabbinic authorities have employed various formulations to describe the obligatory nature of longstanding customs. When discussing the practice of observing a second day of festivals outside of Israel — originally instituted to ensure the proper day of the holiday was observed in places where word of the new month took a long time to arrive — the Talmud asks why the practice persists even after the establishment of a fixed calendar made it unnecessary. The Talmud replies: “Take care to observe the customs of your fathers that you received.”

Some customs are practiced by only small minorities of Jews. German Jews, for example, ritually wash their hands before reciting the Kiddush prayer over wine at the Sabbath meal, while most other Jews wash their hands after drinking the wine. Some Jews stand for the Kiddush, others sit, and some stand for the first half and sit for the second half. Among the Jews of Gibraltar, sand is added to the charoset dish on Passover to enhance its symbolism of the bricks used in building by the Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt. Another Passover custom, practiced by Persian Jews, is to whip seder participants with scallions in remembrance of the pain of bondage.

Where Did the Dreidel Game Come from?

January 10, 2021

Reprinted with permission from My Jewish Learning

The dreidel or sevivon is perhaps the most famous custom associated with Hanukkah. Indeed, various rabbis have tried to find an integral connection between the dreidel and the story of Hanukkah. The standard explanation is that the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin, which appear on the dreidel in the Diaspora, stand for nes gadol haya sham, “a great miracle happened there,” while in Israel the dreidel says nun, gimmel, hey, pey, which means “a great miracle happened here.” One 19th-century rabbi maintained that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed. Others figured out an elaborate set of numerological explanations based on the fact that every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent and word plays for the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin. For example, nun, gimmel, hey, shin in gematria equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of mashiach or Messiah! Finally, the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin are supposed to represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy us in ancient times: N = Nebuchadnetzar = Babylon; H = Haman = Persia = Madai; G = Gog = Greece; and S = Seir = Rome.

As a matter of fact, all of these elaborate explanations were invented after the fact. The dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries. In England and Ireland there is a game called totum or teetotum that is especially popular at Christmastime. In English, this game is first mentioned as “totum” ca. 1500-1520. The name comes from the Latin “totum,” which means “all.” By 1720, the game was called T- totum or teetotum, and by 1801 the four letters already represented four words in English: T (Take all); H (Half); P (Put down); and N (Nothing). Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N (Nichts = nothing); G (Ganz = all); H (Halb = half); and S (Stell ein = put in). In German, the spinning top was called a “torrel” or “trundl,” and in Yiddish it was called a “dreidel,” a “fargl,” a “varfl” (something thrown), “shtel ein” (put in), and “gor, gorin” (all).

When Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the dreidel was called, among other names, a sevivon, which is the one that caught on. Thus the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between imitating non-Jewish games and worshiping idols, but the irony persists down through the ages.

The Shema: How Listening Leads to Oneness

November 29, 2020

The Shema Prayer written in script

From My Jewish Learning, reprinted with permission.

שמע ישראל ה’ אלהנו ה’ אחד

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

These words, commonly known as the Shema, are traditionally recited by Jews as we begin and conclude each day. Bookending not just our days but our lives, the Shema is also commonly the first prayer we are taught as children and is the final prayer we utter on our deathbed as we pass from this world. The Shema is the mantra of Judaism, its message foundational to what it means to live as a Jew of faith in this world. The Shema begins with an imperative: Listen! Just that word alone is a powerful call. Listening is not an easy thing to do. More than the simple act of hearing, true listening requires us to open ourselves up to another’s experience so that heart touches heart and we are changed. It is — in philosopher Martin Buber’s  framework — what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it, relationship. Buber describes listening as “something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey so that together we can remove the barrier between us.”

A white room with a chair and Shema Israel written in Hebrew on the wallIn Judaism, the act of listening is the key to unlocking bounty and blessing. In Deuteronomy, as the Israelites wind down their wandering in the wilderness and prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses instructs them emphatically using this same word — shema. “If you listen, truly listen,” Moses says, all will be good. If not, curses will follow. On this verse, the Hasidic commentator the Sefat Emet references a line from the Midrash : “Happy is the one whose “Listenings are to Me.” Adding his own commentary, he writes: “‘Listenings’ means that one should always be prepared to receive and listen closely to the words of God. The voice of God’s word is in everything since all were created by God’s utterance.” Each of us, no matter how seemingly different we are from one another, is created by God. The Shema calls on us not merely to listen, but to remember that despite our differences, there is one force of connection and transformation in the universe that animates and unites us all. “The Lord, our God, the Lord is One,” the Shema continues.

Blurred Hebrew text with clearly written Shema Prayer in the middleThe force that we call Adonai, others call by other names. Each of us has our own particular path, but ultimately they lead to the same place. Beginning with listening and ending with oneness, the Shema invites us to deepen our capacity to listen — to ourselves, to the Divine, and to those around us, to develop an I-thou relationship with the rest of humanity. Its daily recitation reminds us to build bridges rather than barriers so that we may touch upon — even if only for brief moments at a time — that place in which we all are one.

Atah Chonen: A Prayer for Wisdom

October 2, 2020

Reprinted with permission from My Jewish Learning

Prayer offers us a daily opportunity to embrace God with words while seeking — through the language of petition and supplication — a way to articulate our most profound needs. It is in the searching and wrestling that we gain clarity. This kind of penetrating lucidity comes in that rare moment – and almost always when we do not set out to achieve it – that we are gifted with an intellectual or emotional breakthrough. The Amidah is the spinal cord of the Jewish prayer experience; all prayer that precedes it is preparation to ask God to meet our needs with a combination of humility and spiritual audacity. In the very first of our requests, we ask for the wisdom to be God-like in the day ahead. In the blessing Atah Chonen we recite: “You grace humans with wisdom and teach humanity perception. Bestow upon us Your knowledge, insight and understanding. Blessed are you the grantor of wisdom.” In this prayer, we ask that God offer us a sliver of divine insight. We firm up our minds to problem-solve and manage life’s complexities. Intelligence involves the exquisite and often contradictory balance of curiosity, instinct, patience, caution and risk. What may be sensible in one situation is foolish in another. Thus, we pray for knowledge and introduce every other blessing that follows in the Amidah with this request. On Saturday night we acknowledge the onset of the new week with a special prayer tucked into Ata Chonen, because we need this insight for the whole week ahead.

The practice of havdalah, or separation (also the name for the ritual at the close of Shabbat), requires the perception to categorize and compartmentalize, to know the difference between the holy and the profane. The idea of apportioning wisdom appears in the Hebrew Bible on numerous occasions. In the building of the Tabernacle, God tells Moses to appoint Bezalel: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge…” (Exodus 31:3). This is also extended to the craftsmen Bezalel employs: “…and I have also granted wisdom to all who are wise that they may make everything that I have commanded…” (Exodus 31: 6). This gift is far above skill and talent. The Hebrew uses the expression hakham lev, literally “heart-knowledge,” to describe the spirit imbued in each artisan. Apportioning wisdom is not only from God to humans. In Numbers 11, when Moses struggled mightily with a difficult flock, God apportioned 70 elders with the spirit of Moses’ wisdom: “…I will draw upon the spirit that is in you and put it on them” (Numbers 11:17). Moses needed many others who were like him to be allies in the work of community. Nothing requires more wisdom than managing people well. We open our litany of requests with the desire to know, to perceive, to understand, and to think because these capacities make us distinctly human. Yet our rational minds are in a constant tug-of-war with our irrational desires. We pray that wisdom wins the day.

What is Tisha B’Av

August 9, 2020

Reprinted with permission from My Jewish Learning

Large Fallen Stones near the Western Wall

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av (which coincides with July and/or August), is the major day of communal mourning in the Jewish Calendar. Although many disasters are said to have befallen the Jews on this day, the major commemoration is of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., respectively. Fasting is central to this day. Although the exact date of the destruction of each of the Temples, the ancient centers of Jewish life and practice, is unknown, tradition dates the events to Tisha B’Av. The rabbis of the Talmudic age claimed that God ordained this day as a day of disaster, as punishment for the lack of faith shown by the Israelites during their desert wanderings after the exodus from Egypt. Over the course of the centuries, multiple tragedies have clustered around this day, from the expulsions of the Jews from England and Spain to more localized disasters. Tisha B’Av is thus observed as a day of communal mourning, expressed by fasting and abstaining from pleasurable activities and diversions. A literature of dirges for this day of mourning has been created, beginning with the biblical Book of Lamentations on the destruction of the First Temple.

A three-week period of low-level mourning leads up to the holiday of Tisha B’Av; the three weeks commemorate the final siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It is traditional to refrain from public celebrations, such as weddings, and to refrain from shaving, as is done during personal mourning. The last nine days of these weeks culminating in Tisha B’Av are a deeper period of mourning. It is appropriate to avoid eating meat; some who did not previously take on certain aspects of mourning, such as refraining from shaving, will assume these signs of mourning during these nine days. Tisha B’Av is a day of intense mourning, similar to Yom Kippur in many respects. It is a day of fasting, and a day to refrain from washing, sexual activity, using perfume and ointments, and wearing leather. The Book of Lamentations, Megillat Eicha, and other dirges, kinot, are read in the synagogue. Visits to places of mourning, such as cemeteries, reflect the mood of the day, which continues even at the break fast meal at the conclusion of Tisha B’Av, when neither meat nor wines are consumed.


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