What exactly is the position of minhag (custom) in halacha (Jewish law), and when is someone bound to follow the community in something which is not purely halachic (according to Jewish law)? Where is the place of chumra (~strict interpretation) within Judaism?
Minhag has the force of Jewish Law when it is accepted by the community as such. The Talmud, in tractate Pesahim, argues that a custom accepted by one generation has the force of law upon future generations. And we do not simply get rid of customs from one generation to the next. For example, the custom of wearing a head covering (kippah) was first developed as a minhag – that is now accepted as a common Jewish practice. Other significant Jewish practices, like abstaining from legumes during Passover or waiting a longer period between eating meat and milk, also began as customs which later were included in the Jewish Law codes.
The bigger question you raise is about the individual’s responsibility to the community in matters of practice. From my Reconstructionist Jewish perspective, I would argue that the community has the authority to make decisions over communal practice. We do that through a process of values-based decision making in which we assess primary and secondary values, study Jewish tradition, build consensus, and make decisions on the needs of the community. Other communities establish their own processes to aid in decision making.
I believe that in a community where everyone is a stake holder, that the community is truly bound to one another – however voluntary. To me, that means when we make a decision we have to be intentional about the scope and mindful of the impact on the larger community. Certainly we cannot mandate practice in private matters. I don’t believe that a community should, for example, mandate that all members must never use disposable or compostable plates in their own home. We could make that same decision for community events held in public space, but the distinction between private and public is important.
It is hard to say what is and is not contained in halahah. By definition, halahah is meant to be all encompassing. Jewish Law is meant to govern everything from how we sleep and dress to how we eat and pray. There is nothing, I would argue, that is not contained within the framework of halahah when thought of broadly.
A humra (stricture) within Jewish Law is when someone wants to exceed the bare minimum that Jewish Law requires. Halahah is, in my opinion, meant to be flexible and is intended to grow and be shaped by the Jews who are living it in any given generation. I don’t believe that there is any one strict interpretation of Jewish law. Each community has the power to develop their own guidelines. In any instance, they may choose a humra or may choose to be more expansive – that is up to the community after consideration of their own values and needs. I would only argue that communities should be mindful of their own primary values and act in accordance with the needs of their community. Jewish tradition is also clear that the rabbis cannot make a rule that the community simply will not follow.
When a custom (minhag) gains enough currency and common acceptance within the community, it takes on the character of law (din). Indeed, the halakhic rule is: “minhag Yisrael k’din” — the formally accepted custom of the Community of Israel is law. Thus, for example, Torah-observant males wear yarmulkas and are prepared to go to great lengths to fight for that principle, even suing in the federal courts when that privilege would be denied, despite yarmulkas being rooted in minhag. On the other hand, an evolving practice that has not gained widespread currency among the community does not take on the character of law.
As a result, there is a sliding scale, a legal continuum, when it comes to determining whether halakhah requires that a certain practice be followed. Thus, a practice may have become so commonplace a custom in one geographical region or among one Jewish ethnic group that it is regarded as law in that society, while not so among other observant Jews elsewhere.
It often emerges that some who practice the law accept upon themselves additional strictures (chumrot) for any of various reasons. Some are more strict because that strictness demonstrates their love for and immersion in the life of The Law. The Halakhah for them is not only their life requirement but their hobby. They love The Law. Some other people, Jewish and non-Jewish, have the psychological need to impose restrictions on themselves because asceticism helps them navigate through life with all its myriad choices and seemingly endless freedoms. It is like alcoholics going “cold turkey” and never again sipping an ounce of wine for the rest of their lives. Even in Torah times, the laws of Nazir were given so that such people, who need a proper ascetic outlet, could embrace a Divine-sanctioned aspect of chumra. However, strictures that may have gained common currency and acceptance in one Jewish community — say, among a Chassidic group that will eat meat only if it is slaughtered in a unique way sanctioned by their Chassidic Rebbe — do not rise to the level of halakhah for anyone else outside that community if the rest of Torah-observant society has not accepted the stricture.
Because this question ultimately requires an experienced evaluation of where any particular practice lies along the continuum of Jewish law and lore, it always is desirable to consult with your local rav when you are not sure whether a particular minhag practice has gained such currency among the community that it has become halakhah.
Much of Jewish practice lies outside the 613 mitzvot given in the Torah and then expanded by the Rabbis. These two areas - Torah and Rabbinic based commandments - make up the system of mitzvot. Parallel to that system are minhagim, practices or habits. Some of these habits are quite widespread, while others vary from community to community. For example, the recitation of Kaddish for a mourner is a universal minhag with no corresponding mitzvah. Yet Jews have accepted it upon themselves as being just as obligatory as any mitzvah. Minhagim and Mitzvot together make up the system of Halakhah, the Jewish path of practice.
In such context, varying minhagim are generally viewed as equally valid practices. Spiritual value is uncovered in preserving the practice of our families with a recognition that there are other equally valid ways of finding meaning in a specific practice. Sephardic Jews see Ashkenazi Jews as having a valid way to hang their mezuzot. They just do it in a different way.
The mobility of the 20th Century has confused the issue of geographically determined minhagim. The two centers of Jewish population, the United States and Israel, are both composed of a hybrid of populations.
Jews in the United States tend to be Jewish omnivores. In the same way that they will try a new ethnic food, or travel to a different place, they easily pick up a new minhag that they may learn of or read of. Pesach Seders have seen a number of such practices develop over the years, from newly originated American practice like having an orange at the Seder to symbolize feminist issues to the widespread adoption of beating guests with a scallion during Dayenu from the Jewish Arabic tradition. The mixed nature of our communities mean we are exposed to a wide variety of minhagim from around the world. And, when they touch us, we tend to adopt them, at least for a time.
So when a family minhag is known, it should be maintained. Similarly, when a particular Synagogue or community has an established custom, it should also be followed at least in public. I also feel that people have the minhag in the US of choosing among various customs especially around holiday observance and celebration and so this is also part of our established practice.
Stringencies or humras are a whole different area. These are areas of practice where one person voluntarily accepts a more stringent practice. Such customs when adopted by an individual can be praiseworthy and a mark of real piety. When entire communities have these humrot pressed upon them, they are much more problematic. So for example in the area of modesty, most Halakhic sources prior to the 1900s agree that modesty is set based on the standards and context of the community. Today we see humrot promulgated as law about specific dress requirements. Such humrot are not “strict interpretation” but in fact in their strictness undermine the original sense of the practice.
Your questions speak to a tension Jews have wrestled with for centuries, which suggests that there is no clean answer. There is a terrific Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) where the Sanhedrin debates a matter of halakhah. Rabbi Eliezar ben Hyrcanus states that his interpretation is the only correct one, and stands in opposition to the rest. He asks heaven to prove his point multiple times, and miraculously a carob tree uproots itself, moves to a new location and replants itself, a river flows backwards, the walls of the study hall begin to collapse and a voice from heaven confirms that R. Eliezar is correct. R. Joshua, the head of the opposition, responds by saying (in effect) that ever since Sinai Torah has been in our hands – it is no longer in heaven and therefore it is for us, the majority, to decide. According to the Midrash, G-d responded with joyful laughter.
This story is just one of many examples in our tradition that demonstrate that halakhah is a process, not an answer. Each generation has added its own insights and in some cases emendations. At various times in our history posekim (rabbinic decisors) have been more or less flexible in their approach to halakhah, but certainly in the Talmudic period, there was room for differences of opinion. I believe that the rabbis’ flexibility is a core principle that has helped us to survive and thrive as a people through two thousand years of exile. For me, therefore, chumra is barely operative.
As for the position of minhag in relation to halakhah, that too is a process. R. Eliezar’s story is instructive here because it places such an emphasis on the will of the majority, regardless of what the ‘correct’ halakhic opinion might be. I generally try to follow minhag hamakom (local customs) when I travel out of respect, but there are lines in my own practice that I will not violate to do so. When there is a conflict I find a polite way to excuse myself. Alternatively, if you are struggling with elements of minhag in your own community, I would encourage you to speak directly with the rabbi there about your concerns – perhaps there is a solution or an understanding that eludes you.
Finally, I could not answer without providing at least a nod in the direction of Reform Judaism, the community within which I serve. In Reform we allow for personal autonomy as part of our covenantal relationships, meaning we have a say in how we practice. I would say the same is true for you. If you are struggling with the minhag of your own community, there is ample variation of practice in the Jewish world – just waiting for you to discover.
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