Law, Minhag and Custom: Do You Know the Difference? by Nechamah Reisel
Law, Minhag and Custom: Do You Know the Difference? by Nechamah Reisel

Volume 2 , Issue 2

All Jewish life is governed by many laws (halakhot), minhagim, customs and traditions. They pervade and enhance civil and religious life from birth to death. A minhag is a custom, but a custom is not, necessarily, a minhag. While a full treatment of the subject of minhagim is far too complicated to be within the scope of a column such as this, a brief discussion of the topic is, perhaps, in order since we frequently encounter confusion surrounding the use of this term.

The Encyclopedia Judaica defines a minhag as a custom which, through accepted practice over a period of time has become binding and ?assumes the force of halakhah (sic) in areas of Jewish law and practice? ... It is?a prevalent religious practice or usage not enjoined by normative regulations, in contradistinction to a din, which is a nonnative prescription.?

In addition, there is the minhag hamakom, the minhag which is observed in a specific locality and is binding upon only that community. There are also liturgical rituals which are observed differently among Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and still differently among other divisions among the Jewish communities. These are also known as minhagim. Furthermore, there are family or ancestral customs which are binding on and within members of that family. It is in drawing the distinction between minhag and non-binding custom or tradition that confusion frequently occurs. Indeed, at times, in civil law, custom becomes minhag which then supersedes halakha, particularly when the minhag is more stringent than the halakha.

Differences in Observance

A perhaps oversimplified example of the differences among the three categories can be seen in some observances of the holiday of Pesach. The Torah orders us to observe Pesach and forbids us to eat chametz during the festival. This is, obviously, halakha. Ashkenazim also do not eat kitniyot (legumes). It is, however, the Sephardic minhag to eat these. What happens when an Ashkenazic person married to a Sephard visits his/her in-laws on Pesach? Ask your local rabbi! (We have seen some interesting complications in such marriages.) Similar problems arise when a woman of Eastern European extraction marries a German Jew. Here problems arise with respect to the waiting time between meat and dairy foods arise.

At the seder, too, while, in general, the basic order of the seder is observed by all, differences occur with respect to the types of foods served during the meal, the ingredients used in charoset, and the treatment of the afikomen. While these are probably only customs or traditions, whether or not they actually constitute minhagim within the families or communities is something only a rabbi can answer. Needless to say,all these customs, however observed, serve to enhance the appreciation or understanding of the seder and holiday.

In a similar vein, wecan examine the observance of Chanukah andits rituals and customs. Halakhaprescribes the kindling of the Chanukah lights for eight days, (but does not prescribe the eating of festive meals.) This is in commemoration of the miracles of the cruse of oil, the victory of the Hasmoneans, and the subsequent resanctification of the Temple and the salvation of the Jewish religion. All rituals associated with the observance of the festival serve to remind us of these events.

Chanukah Minhagim

Halakha also prescribes the saying of ?Hailer and ?Al HaNissim? on Chanukah. The custom of having festive meals has, in some families and communities, become a minhag. What is served at these meals is however, still a custom which varies from one community to another, although the serving of dishes prepared with oil is basic to all. Thus, among Ashkenazim, the highlight of the meal may be latkes, pancakes (generally made from grated potatoes, but not necessarily so) fried in oil, while among Sephardim, the fried-in-oil dish may be a type of doughnut, a sufgani. Also, in commemoration of the heroine Judith's role in the victory, dairy dishes are served. Are these only customs or have they become minhagim? Consult your rabbi!

Many halakhot govern the lighting of the candles, among them are the times when they are to be lit,where the menorah should be placed, who is obligated to kindle the lights, which blessings must be said, the order of the lighting with respect to the Sabbath lights and at the conclusion of the Sabbath, activities before and after the kindling, and the placement and use of the shamash and the light from the candles themselves.

Minhagim which have become law are the order in which the flames are kindled and how many are lit each night. We adhere to the order prescribed by Bet Hillel. We kindleone light the first night; then we increaseby one the number lit each subsequent night. (Nevertheless, even here variations exist within communities.) Within the liturgy, too, there is a difference in the order of some of the words in theprayer ?Al HaNissim.? Which additional songs and psalms are said also differs among Sephardim and Ashkenazim. ?When in Rome?? Better still, consult, your rabbi!

Other customs which serve to remind us of the history and meaning of the festival are the playing of chance games with a dreidel and the giving of Chanukah gelt and small gifts to children and teachers, more specifically, teachers of Torah. Here, too, customs vary from country to country and community to community. However, whatever the manner in which it is observed, one custom is universal during festivals and in daily life: namely, the remembrance of the poor with donations of money, food clothing, and with invitations to join family festivities. Are these customs, minhagim, or halakhot? Consult your rabbi, but with regard to charity, we all, surely, know into which category that falls!

More fascinating reading about minhagim and, specifically, Chanukah laws, customs and traditions, foods can be found in the following sources:

The Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 12, pages 3-31; Kolatch, Alfred, The Second Jewish Book of Why, Chapter 8: The Artscroll Mesorah Series: Chanukah; Art Scroll Judaica Classics: The festivals in Halakah, Volume II; Kitov, Eliyahu, The Book of Our Heritage, Volume I; Gordon Philip, The Hanukkah Anthology.

Nechama Reisel is a regular contributor to The World of Judaism

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