Image: A dark blue kippah on an open prayer book. (ESchwartz/pixabay)
A beginner asked me recently, “What is minhag? I know, I know, you are going to say “custom!”
She was right – I was going to say, “Custom,” and feel like I’d answered the question. After some conversation, I think I have a better idea what she was after – and I suspect she isn’t the only person out there with that question.
The proper name for it is minhag hamakom – the custom of the place. It is an element we must consider in Jewish decisionmaking, because it carries both official and unofficial weight.
In a nutshell, minhag is sum of all the things that are accepted in your Jewish community but are not necessarily required in every other Jewish community. For instance, it is the minhag in some places for adults to make Saturday morning kiddush over a liquor such as slivovitz (plum brandy.) In other congregations, if you brought out a bottle of slivovitz for kiddush, they’d look at you and say firmly, “We make kiddush over wine or grape juice only.” What they are saying is, “We don’t have that minhag here. Put that bottle away, we don’t care if it is ok according to halakhah!” [Jewish law]
Minhag can change over time. For instance, there was a time when if a man wore a head covering in a Reform synagogue, he would be assumed to be a visitor from a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. Nowadays in most Reform synagogues, many men (and women) wear kippot, but in most Reform synagogues one isn’t strictly required.
In an Orthodox congregation, if a man walks in without a kippah, he will be handed a kipa. Now, if you researched it, you would find that a head covering is actually not required by halakhah. It is, however, a nearly universal custom – minhag – in Orthodox and Conservative communities.
Our tradition recognizes that custom is an important part of communal identity. Therefore, we are taught to give weight to minhag in making decisions. If I visit a synagogue, I will make an effort to find out ahead of time what customs they have about dress and behavior. I will pray softly, so that my prayers blend in even if I do something differently. After one or two visits, I’ll have the drill down – but until then, I will try to be easy on myself about it.
How do you find out about minhag? As in the example above, if you have a specific question, by all means ask! And as for other things, don’t stress too much over it. If you notice some item of dress or behavior and begin wondering if your difference is OK, ask. If someone lets you know (I hope gently) that a behavior is expected or even required, don’t take it personally – it’s just minhag. If they were at a different shul, they’d be the ones who stuck out.
When in doubt, ask a rabbi. Every congregation has a few people who mistake their own opinions for the “Law from Sinai.” Those individuals are very sure of their answers, but they may be misinformed.
If someone seems rude or mean about the way they address it, that’s their problem. I assure you that God doesn’t mind. Let this be your mantra:
God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31
You’re good: you’re doing your best. And whatever it is, you can do it differently in future. And there will be evening, and morning, and you’ll be the only one still worrying about it.