What is Minhag?

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.

 

 

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!