My Shul, My Rules: The Power of Local Custom

A reader recently mentioned that she had attended a shiva house and been told rather forcefully that her choice to sit down next to one of the mourners was (1) inappropriate and (2) bad luck.

I have to admit that this particular custom was new to me, but that it didn’t surprise me. Communities and families have very particular customs around death because it is a frightening time: we seek predictability and tradition in an effort to make the world seem a little less terrifying. Also, the house of mourning is sometimes a place where tact is in short supply, since people are already upset. All we can do, when we stumble into a mourning custom that is old for someone else but new for us is to apologize and be kind.

Minhag Hamakom, “the custom of the place,” is a powerful force in both Jewish law and Jewish good manners. The simplest way to explain it is the maxim, “My house, my rules.” If I am visiting the home of someone who has the custom of cutting challah with a knife, I don’t complain, even though our custom at my home is to tear the challah. It is their house, so we follow their rules.

In the synagogue, this applies too. It is bad manners to visit a synagogue and then complain to the regulars that they are doing things improperly. A visiting rabbi has to tread very carefully in this respect, as does any other visitor. I can say my prayers the way I like quietly, but I don’t make a production of it.

Judaism is full of regional customs as well. The first time I visited a Reform synagogue in the Southeastern US, I was completely shocked, because the service seemed so different from the custom in my Oakland, CA home congregation. As I became better educated, I learned that there were reasons for the differences, and I grew to appreciate them. Fortunately, my mentors had taught me not to make a fuss, so at least I didn’t leave the good people of Louisville, KY, with the impression that Californian Jews are rude!

When we find a surprising Jewish custom in a new place, be it someone’s home, or a synagogue, it is traditional to conform as best we can to the local custom.  I find it is helpful to cultivate a curious mind about these things: “Oh! That is interesting! What is the reasoning behind it?” Just be aware that the answer may be “we have always done it this way” or “all PROPER Jews do it this way.” If you get those answers, you can always find an “Ask the Rabbi” online and leave the question there!

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

8 thoughts on “My Shul, My Rules: The Power of Local Custom”

  1. It’s like the old joke where a new rabbi comes to town, and there’s fighting over how to say the kaddish before the Torah service–sitting or standing.

    The warring sides go to the old, retired rabbi, and ask him. When asked if sitting is the custom, he says, “No.”

    So the standing side says, “Well, surely we’re correct.” He again says, “No.”

    The two sides begin fighting again, and the old rabbi says, “Now THAT’S the custom!”

    1. Yes! There’s another joke that I love… a new rabbi arrives in a congregation, and notices that there’s a particular place in the shul where everyone always bows. He asks several people and gets several answers. Finally, when he’s visiting the widow of one of the emeritus rabbis, he finds out the real reason. “Oh, that!” she said. “There used to be a heating duct in that spot, and my husband always had to duck under it. Someone decided to copy him, and they kept doing it even after the remodel.” What I find interesting, though, is that usually when a custom sticks, people have generated an explanation for it that has meaning for them. While the origin may be something quite banal, the later interpretations may lift it up in a way that becomes truly meaningful.

  2. Rabbi, I am wondering if you would give an example of a custom you grew to appreciate in Louisville. Most of my experiences have been in the Northeast and Midwest, so I am curious about what you encountered. Thank you so much.

    1. The service at “The Temple” in Louisville was what some would call a “Classical Reform” service: nearly all in English, pulpit robe on the officiant, no kippot (yarmulkes) in sight, and the German tunes of the early Reform movement. The music was what really threw me: it all sounded Lutheran to my recently-converted ears. I have learned to love that music, because it IS the music of early Reform.

      That was about 20 years ago, and I have no idea what the practice is today at the Temple in Lousiville. Perhaps I should go back and visit!

      1. Ah, I have heard of other people attending temples like that. They have expressed discomfort over their being “too Reform” for their tastes, but they were not being disrespectful of the synagogues themselves. Now I understand the context. Thank you for clarifying that.

  3. I love the story about the fighting over the proper manner to recite the Kaddish!
    That’s it, exactly! It had me laughing aloud, since I experienced something quite alike.

    And, if you visit synagogues of different denominations, be prepared for a hair-dishevelling journey!

    Kidduch is quite an experiment too: different ways, different spirits (I know hardcore Orthodox Ashkenazim who stick to a full glass of whisky or vodka…).

    I know an Orthodox family with old and deep roots in Eastern-Europe, who wouldn’t eat turkey meat. Since, tfor them, turkey is aggressive, ranging it in the predatory birds… For my part, I won’t make a fuss, since, to me, turkeys may die of old age!
    We’re lucky here not to have a Thanksgiving !

    Anyway Rabbi Adar has a point there : a curious mind is quite handy, asking genuinely for information regarding the matters is most the time considered with good mood, and the answers, if they may surprise, are the ones of a community in itself.

    1. Ha! Then I should not eat goose, since one bit me years ago, when I strayed too near its goslings! Hadn’t thought of that in years.

      Kiddish customs ARE interesting. Thank you for a great comment!

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