Minhag Hamakom: The Importance of Local Customs

Posted on January 08, 2018

I’m going to start with the joke because I know that once you hear what I’m speaking about, several of you are going to start wondering whether I’ll tell the joke. So, you might as well hear it now. It’s one of the best shul jokes around and I’m sure many of you know it already.

A new rabbi is leading his first service in his new congregation and when it comes to the saying of the sh’ma, half of the congregation stands up and the other half remains seated. The two different groups start yelling at each other and the rabbi is furious.

After the service, the rabbi approaches the leaders of the two factions and proposes a solution to avoid future disagreements. They would go ask the oldest member of the shul what the custom regarding the Sh’ma was when the synagogue was established and everyone would agree to follow that custom.

Everyone agrees with the solution. They go to visit Mr. Goldstein, a founding member of the congregation and the rabbi asks him: “Mr. Goldstein, when the congregation was established, what did people do when it came time for the Sh’ma? Did they stand up or remain seated?

Mr. Goldstein thought for a moment and said: “Well, as I recall, half of the congregation stood up and half remained seated and we had the most wonderful arguments about it each and every week.”

I love it.

Now, I have some good news for you. In a little less than 3 months, we’ll be celebrating Hag Ha’aviv, the “holiday of spring”. The bad news is that we may still be frozen solid by that point but it will be spring somewhere.

Seriously, it’s not time yet to begin preparations for Pesach. But, actually, I have already begun preparations in one important way. I have begun to study for the “siyyum” to take place on the morning before the Seder.

The day before Pesach begins is called Ta’anit Bechorot, the fast of the first born on which first born sons, and many daughters accept this obligation as well, fast in recognition of the safety God provided from the 10th plague. Since no one really wants to fast on erev Pesach it is customary to arrange a “siyyum”, the conclusion of a study of text and for all present to celebrate fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study with a seudat mitzvah, a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a commandment. So, here at Beth Israel we begin that day with an early minyan, the siyyum and the last bagels and cream cheese before Pesach begins.

I am responsible for the study and in the past I’ve studied tractates of the Mishna in depth but recently, I’ve taken to the idea of studying a tractate of Talmud, much more complicated, much longer, and with much more detail.

I want to be clear that I’m not studying it with the depth and critical analysis that my JTS professors would want me to study Talmud. But, I read through the text, understand it at least superficially and dive into areas that interest me. I also like to include the congregation in this study and will refer to it in classes or meetings and in sermons like this one.

The section I am studying is Masechet Pesachim, the section dealing with Pesach and in the course of this tractate is a section that I will teach in more detail at Shabbat Limmud next week. The Mishna teaches that there was a custom among some Jews not to work on erev Pesach, on the day before the Seder. The Mishna teaches that each person should observe the custom of the community.

The Mishna then brings up the subject of what should be done if one travels to a place where the local custom is different. The conclusion of the Talmud is that one should abide by the custom of the place one is in so as avoid a machloket, a controversy.

The general subject being debated in this section of the Talmud is the importance of what is known as minhag hamakom, the custom of a particular place. Our tradition asks us to deeply respect and honor local customs in synagogues and communities. These customs are cherished and should not be the subject of controversy. In general, a person going into a community is supposed to embrace and respect the local customs and do them even if they seem unusual or new.

Let me be clear that we are not talking about Jewish law here. If a community is violating a law from the Torah or a legal tradition from the rabbis, there is not the same amount of leeway. Going back to the Talmud’s discussion, we should remember that there is no law prohibiting work on erev Pesach. If there were, there wouldn’t be a discussion. We are talking here about local custom.

My friends, we have turned the page to 2018 and I think it is now appropriate for me to say this from the bima with a deep breath: in 6 months, you will have a new rabbi in this congregation. Before I say anything else, I want to express a deep gratitude and appreciation for all the work that has been done and will be done by the Clergy Planning Committee, the board of directors and by all of you who have filled out surveys and expressed opinions. This is not an easy undertaking and I recognize the seriousness of this work and have great hopes for the congregation.

Looking ahead to the time when a new rabbi is chosen, one of the most interesting aspects of that part of the process will be informing him or her about the customs of this place, the customs which you hold dear. He or she will want, as I did when I came here, to learn what we do as a synagogue both during services and beyond.

I hope that you will realize how important this aspect of the process will be. The customs we have developed in this community are dear to all of us and should continue to be. But, I also hope that you will be open to adopting new customs and to listening carefully and comply if the new rabbi wants to change some longstanding customs for good, sensible reasons.

I certainly had all of those experiences when I came to Beth Israel. I made some of this congregation’s customs my own, as if I had been doing them all my life. I initiated some new ideas which became our customs. And, I even did very carefully and tactfully over time suggest changes in customs which existed if I felt they were not appropriate.

So, in the next few months, we should all be thinking about the customs which define Beth Israel, realize how much they make us who we are and how dear they are to us and how eager you should be to teach them to a new rabbi. But, open yourself up to new customs as well and please try to avoid the machloket, the disagreement, which a change in customs can produce. Recognize where we are and celebrate it but be open to positive change.

We have some beautiful minhagim at Beth Israel. We have older custom such as the one instituted by Gerda Seligson, zichronah livracha, of distributing flowers at Neila on Yom Kippur and some newer customs like signing, etz hayim hee after the Torah. We eat pancakes on Simchat Torah, invite recent post b’nai and b’not mitzvah to read Torah, call each congregant household before Pesach to insure they have a Seder to go to and do so many other things which would qualify as cherished local customs. I hope that most of them will continue.

But, I also hope that new ones will be added as the years go along.