I recently asked blogger Rafi G, from Life in Israel, about the importance of minhagim. His well thought out answer is a must read.
Neil asked me for my thoughts on maintaining a person’s minhagim while learning in Yeshiva, and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to address you in his forum.
When I was in yeshiva I noticed a phenomenon. People were conforming to a standard method of behavior. They were no longer growing up doing things the way they had grown up doing them, the way they were raised to do them, but did things the way of the yeshiva.
I can understand why some people would want to change a personal custom for the more specific custom of a yeshiva. That being, people often do not want to stand out. Most of us do not want to look different. Somebody might think I am doing something the wrong way, so by changing what I do to what everyone else does, I protect myself.
There is also another reason I have found why some people change from their own customs to do things more generically like “most of the people around them”. That would be that they often do not have the confidence in what they are doing and that what they are doing is correct.
I know somebody, nothing to do with yeshiva – he is not in yeshiva but the example still works, who has begun learning halacha much more now, in his late thirties, than he ever did before. He is coming across halchos that he did know about before, things he did differently than they way the Mishna Berura, for example, might explain something. This fellow, when he comes across these halchos, frequetly decides he was wrong before and changes what he does. Sometimes I tell him off, or other people do, and say that perhaps there is another source for what he did. Just because the MB writes to do something one way does not mean you did it incorrectly before, and it does not mean you should change your ways. The he will continue learning, and sometimes later in the same sefer, soemtimes in a different sefer, the Aruch Hashulchan for example, he will find another opinion explaining to do it the way he had been doing it all along.
Another example, someone told me this story about themselves. He learned something about making a bracha and washing. I do not remember the details of the halacha he learned, but he was very disturbed by it because he grew up knowing that his grandfather did that differently. This bothered him that his grandfather did it incorrectly (according to what he had just learned), so he came up with some sort of explanation that his grandfather did it because x,y, z and in this situatuion he would also have followed the MB. I told him, why are you making up a story to explain what your grandfather did. You have no idea and it is all a figment of your imagination. Maybe your grandfather had a custom, maybe he had a source from another sefer, or maybe the rav from the town he had come from told his kehilla a different way of doing things as being the right way. Sure enough, shortly later he found another source for what his grandfather had done.
By changing customs, often out of lack of confidence as to the “correctness” of what you are doing, you are not only changing a family custom, but you are being motzi la’az al ha’rishonim. You are saying your anscestors did not know what they were doing, and you know more than them. And that is hardly true.
In Europe there was no such thing as we have nowadays – everybody keeping their own customs. If you lived in Galicia youkept the Galicia minhagim. If in Germany, the German minhagim. if in Poland, the minhagim of Polish Jews. etc. It is only in recent generations, the generations of post-World War II that we live together in a community and each still keep minhagim from previous generations that differ with each other. Technically there should be a minhag of Jews in Chicago, and a minhag of Jews in new York, and a minhag of Jews in London, a minhag of Jews in Haifa, Jerusalem, Melbourne, wherever. But there is not. We keep our minhagim of previous generations. I do not know why that has changed. I assume it is because of the melting pot the world has become – the global village of sorts. It used to be people stayed put. They lived there whole lives in one place. Nowadays, with the ease of travel, we move around from place to place, from community to community. Such a thing as a community custom might not even exist because everybody in the community comes from different places, merging various customs.
We all have customs how to do things. I wash before kiddush on Shabbos. I wore a tallis from when I was bar-mitzva even though I was not living in a yekkish kehilla (in the melting pot of America, and specifically Chicago, there are few community wide customs, so it is ok and common to see people in the same community following different customs). Did I have reasn to be embarrassed and refuse to wear my tallis or to wash before kiddush? I could have if done so. I stood out in the Litvishe yeshiva (Telshe) that I learned in. A teenager never wants to stand out. He is setting himself up for ridicule. But I did it. I continued wearing the tallis. I continued all my minhagim that I knew about.
I did so because minhagim are a piece of the rich history we have as Jews. We all come from different places with different backgrounds. They say the 12 tribes each had a different nusach of tefilla, and each had its own customs. We are not meant to merge and blend our customs into one. We should be proud of our anscestors, who often knew more than us, and we should follow in their ways. The variety of Judaism is the spice of Judaism. Don’t make Judiam bland by removing all the spice.