Monthly Archives: July 2008

Guest post by Rafi G: Minhagim-the spice of Judaism

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.


“If you had to name one thing that repeatedly makes you angriest, what would it be?”

This question is from the book IF…Volume 2 by Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell.

Keep in mind that the Bal Shem Tov taught that when we we see negative traits in others we probably have that same trait in ourselves.

Upcoming release from Artscroll

Black hat tip from A Simple Jew
A Simple Jew emailed me a link announcing a new book from R Zelig Pliskin, TAKING ACTION.  This is little book should be great.
As I was checking Artscroll’s website, I began to chuckle.  I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the website states:
Scheduled to be released on August 14, 2008. Pre-order today!
Pre-order?  HaHaHaHa!  That’s the best Mussar humor I’ve seen in a long time.  Yashar Koach to the folks at Artscroll.

To read more about this middah, click here

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, The Alter of Kelm
The words of our Sages are like sparkling stars hidden in the recesses of space.  The study of Mussar is a telescope that brings the stars within view of our human eyes.

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Rav Hirsh on the prerequisite to peace

“וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם, אֱהָבוּ” – You shall love truth and peace

These words from the end of Zechariah 8:19 are quoted thoughout Rav Hirsch’s writings.  R Eliyahu Meir Klugman eloquently write is his biography of Rav Hirsch that:

He explained that the concepts of truth and peace invariably occur in that order in Tanach, truth first and only afterwards peace, “For peace is not a father of truth; peach is the child of truth.  Win the people for truth, inalienable truth that can never be sold, nor even for the price of peace, when sacred causes are involved, and then true, everlasting peace will follow of itself.” (page 314)

During the Three Weeks we all try to be a bit nicer.  There are time that I succeed and there are times when I seem to not be able to get past certain things.  It’s a nesoyon (test) for me.  I accept that.  But, it seems that from the words of Rav Hirsch, making peace should not come at the expense of Emes.  In some cases, it’s not the other party that need to see the truth, but ourselves.  We must only be willing to really see what the Emes is, despite any difficulties that may result. 

A story about Rav Kook and Reb Aryeh Levin

(Picture from

SerandEz has an awesome post last week titled “A List Letterman Won’t Be Doing Anytime Soon ” . I had actually planned on posting the except below a long time ago, but had forgotten about posting it until I read the above mentioned post.
This story about Rav Kook and Reb Aryeh Levin from A Tzadik in Our Time is one that I tell my kids as soon as they can understand the lesson within it.

who taught him compassion

In his memoirs Reb Aryeh wrote:
I recall the early days, from 1905 onward, when it was granted me by the grace of the blessed Lord to go up to the holy land, and I came Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master R. Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory), who received everyone. We chatted together on themes of Torah study. After an early minhah (afternoon prayer-service) he went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and then he told me gently, “Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song (in praise of the Creator).”
Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved
themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for everything. (Pages 108-109)
There are many times when it would be faster to walk to shul by cutting across a grassy stretch of land on Shabbos or easier to ‘cut across the grass’ or even walk over the planted grass that for some reason is in the middle of a parking lot. There are times when it’s easier or quicker, I know. I, mostly, try to stay on the sidwalk, though. Mainly because of this story. If each blade of grass and stone has meaning, then even more so, each person.

Ideas for the three weeks

I often read this comment that Steve Briezel once posted at

Here are some relatively easy suggestions to implement:

1) Say Good Shabbos, etc to anyone-especially if they daven in a shul other than where you go to shul.

2) Learn Sifrei Halacha and machshavah that you might consider out of your hashkafic orientation.

3) Try davening in a shul that you night deem either too noisy, quiet, etc.

4) Assuming that you ive in an area with a valid eruv -don’t look down at those who either use or refrain from doing so.

5) Think about giving to a tzedaka that you might not-even if it is in less quantity than to one that had more of an impact on you as a Torah observant Jew.