Jewish Customs

Minhagim have become incorporated into daily practice, like law.

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Many of these eventually found their way into the Shulhan Arukh, the standard Code of Jewish law, through the glosses of IsserIes, the great recorder of Ashkenazi customs. In addition to the differences in matters of law proper between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, different folk-customs developed in the two communities so that there are Sephardi minhagim (plural of minhag) and Ashkenazi minhagim, in matters of prayer and its melodies, for example, and here the ruling is that the members of a particular community must follow that community's custom and not adopt the different customs of another community.

In Hasidism customs took root in accordance with the specific ideas of the movement. Even in Hasidism, each master, the Zaddik, tended to have his own custom with regard to the practice of certain rituals and this became the norm for his faithful followers. The kabbalists developed their own customs through which specific kabbalistic ideas were given expression.

Examples of Customs

Considerations of space do not allow anything like a complete survey of the manifold Jewish customs. The following is no more than a sampling of customs for the purpose of elucidating the concept.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, Ashkenazi Jews perform the custom of Kaparot, or atonements. The procedure is to take a rooster, and wave it round the head while saying: "May this rooster, which is to be killed, be an atonement for my sins." The cockerel is then killed and cooked and some, at least, of its meat is given to the poor. Rabbi Joseph Karo records in the Shulhan Arukh(Orah Hayyim, 605) that this is a superstitious practice and should be abolished, but in Isserles' gloss the practice is not only accepted but all its details are recorded as if it were a matter of law rather than custom.

When the book of Esther is read on the festival of Purim it is the custom, Karo states in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 690. 17) to fold the megillah, the Scroll of the book, as if it were a letter, since the book refers to the "letter" Esther wrote to describe the events which led to the delivery of the Jews from the plot of Haman to destroy them. Isserles, in his gloss, refers to other customs in connection with the reading of the megillah, including the practice of the children to "boo," bang stones together, or wave rattles whenever Haman's name is mentioned. Some evidently objected to the practice as indecorous but Isserles typically observes: "No custom should be abolished or laughed at for it was not established without purpose." Interestingly enough, this observation that the custom should not be scoffed at is made by Karo in his work on the Tur, though Karo does not record the practice in the Shulhan Arukh.

These last two customs were the subject of debate, as were many others. Some folk customs, however, became the norm in the majority of the Jewish communities such as the custom of bride and bridegroom fasting on their wedding day. When a Jewish couple marry and begin a new life together their sins are forgiven so that the day is, for them, a kind of Yom Kippur.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.