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Home » Matot

Matot: Jewish Custom

Submitted by on July 30, 2016 – 11:48 pmNo Comment | 2,967 views

Importance of Custom

One of the common refrains I hear as a rabbi are the words, “Oh, it’s just a custom. We don’t need to keep every custom.” The supposition is that Jewish law is binding, but customs are arbitrary. One can adopt them or reject them at will.

All misconceptions are rooted in truth and this one is no exception. It is true that there are formal ways to opt out of a custom, especially a personal or family custom, but this doesn’t mean that customs are in any way arbitrary. More importantly, the perception that customs are arbitrary leads to a diminution of the custom’s significance, when customs are the bedrock of Jewish practice.

While there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish laws that touch on every facet of life, customs govern the non-prescribed areas of life that would otherwise be perceived as our personal life. G-d gave us many commandments, but after having fulfilled them all, one can relax and enjoy some personal time. Custom gives us a holy structure for our mundane endeavors in our personal time.

Abandoning custom is often the first step to abandoning Judaism. The customs safeguard our Jewish identity precisely where we are vulnerable. On our own time, when we need it most. To undermine Jewish custom, is to undermine the entire platform of Judaism.

Your Word is Gold

The custom is not arbitrary, it is not a personal choice that we can opt in and out of at will. The binding power of a custom is rooted in the power of a vow. Just as a vow is binding, so are customs. It as if we had taken a vow to do or not do the particular action governed by the custom. Vows render the otherwise permitted, forbidden and the otherwise optional, obligatory. Customs do the same.

It is generally understood that for a vow to be binding, it must be verbalized. Customs, however, are different. When we practice a custom with the intention of adopting it permanently, the custom becomes personally binding. The only way to annul a custom is to annul the vow that made it binding. When we take a vow, it is possible to annul it by explaining to a duly convened Bet Din, court of Jewish law, that we had not anticipated the difficulties caused by the vow and had we been aware of them in advance, we would not have taken the vow. At this point, the court formally annuls the vow.

Should a person perform an annulment of a custom in the way that vows are annulled the custom would no longer be binding.

This is only possible for a personal or family custom. Customs established by a community have a more stringent status. It is not possible for a member of the community to opt out of a communal custom. The only way a communal custom can be abolished is if the majority of the community or its elected representatives choose to annul the custom.

Once the custom has been annulled by the community, the custom is no longer binding on any members of the community, even those that disagreed with the annulment. They can take it on as a personal custom, but it will lose the additional binding power of the communal custom.

A community for the purpose of our discussion is comprised of a congregation. There can be a number of congregations in a single city and each is considered a separate community for purposes of custom. Lest a congregation assumes it is free to annul customs on the vote of its elected governors, I hasten to point out that this only relates to customs that are exclusive to their particular congregation. The community that establishes the custom, can annul it. But once a custom spreads to many communities, no single community can abolish it.

Long Standing Custom

Customs that have been in place for many generations should not be annulled. This is especially true of customs established by the early prophets or sages. Such customs are practiced by all Jews and have the binding power of Jewish law. Even if we are no longer aware of the customs’ reasons, we should assume that it was established for valid Torah reasons.

However, should incontrovertible proof come to light that the custom of a particular community was established for erroneous reason, the custom does not require annulment. It is self-abolished. The same is true of customs that are designed to prevent us from doing something that we thought was forbidden, but turns out to be permitted or customs that are established due to concerns that prove to be unfounded. All such erroneous customs do not require annulment. They are self-annulled.

A true custom is based on an opinion or concern in Torah. At times there might be two opinions in Jewish law and a community might bind itself to one of the two opinions by force of custom. Sometimes customs arise out of concerns that might lead to transgression. Such customs are absolutely binding and have the power of a vow behind them.

Further, their strength arises from the verse in Proverbs,” Listen my son to the teachings of your father and don’t neglect the Torah of your mother.” The mother in this verse refers to the Jewish people and the people’s Torah refers to custom. Hence the popular expression, “The custom of Israel is Torah.”

A Jew is thus not at liberty to select or deselect a custom at will. When we move into a new community, the customs of the new community become binding. This is true even if the number of immigrants is larger than the number of residents. The only way the newly arrived can maintain their separate customs is by establishing a separate congregation. By no means may they sit in the local congregation and diverge from local custom.

Even visitors, who are not bound by the customs of the congregation that they visit, may not violate the local custom in public lest it lead to confusion. They may do so in private or in the presence of Torah scholars, who would understand the context of their behavior, but they may not violate local custom before the laity.

When a woman marries into a new community, she adopts the customs of her husband’s community. When converts convert into Judaism, they adopt the custom of their chosen community. Even if a Jew has a particular family custom that dates back centuries, the day they take leave of their family and join a different community, they may no longer follow family custom if it conflicts with local custom. How much more so, if it conflicts with Jewish law.[1]

We close by noting that customs are precious to G-d precisely because we bind ourselves. Laws that are mandated by the Torah or legislated by the rabbis are given to us in a top down model. Customs are not obligatory until we oblige ourselves, which is a model of binding ourselves to G-d, from below to above. In law, G-d chose us, but in custom, we choose G-d. Customs are our gift to G-d. And that makes them precious. Too precious to throw away.[2]

[1] Ancient customs can override a law if the custom was set in place before the law was promulgated, but those cease to be binding when we move to a community with a different custom.

[2] This essay is based on chapter 13 of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought.