Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Navigating the Rocky Shoals of Custom

In both the secular and frum Jewish world there are laws and rules that must be followed. And in both worlds there is sometimes disagreement about what those laws and rules really are. What do the words of the laws really mean? How should they be applied? To whom and when and where?

And then there are customs. I'm going to venture a guess that more arguments, disagreements and confusion stem from customs than do from laws and rules.

So where do we get the customs we follow from? From everywhere. Sometimes we have a habit of doing something in a particular way and that habit becomes customary for us. Then our children see us doing that thing in our particular way and they see it as a custom for our family. And then their children see that same custom in their home and the home of their aunts and uncles and they, too, "adopt" the custom. So custom can come from immediate family and from extended family. And some time in the future, some descendant of ours is going to find themselves with a custom, a custom they follow but have no idea as to why.

Sometimes we take our customs from the actions of our peer group: our friends do things a certain way and so we do to. Sometimes we take our customs from our schools. Sometimes we take our customs from our shuls. Sometimes the customs are community proscribed--if you live in place X, the inhabitants of place X have custom X. Sometimes the custom is broader and is followed by people who come from a general geographic area--Yeki customs, for example. Sometimes they are religious sub-grouping specific--chasidishe customs for instance. Sometimes the customs are gender specific. In short, customs come from everywhere and anywhere. And sometimes customs are a matter of convenience, comfort and cost.

So what's the problem? There wouldn't be one if we just kept in mind that a custom is not a law. "Minhag Yisroel k'din" has limited application. Customs are analogous to taste--and you can't argue taste. So why do we spend so much time in arguing about customs, in denigrating the customs of others?

Let me give you an example that happened to me this past Shabbos. We were away for Shabbos at a family Bar Mitzvah. The community where the Bar Mitzvah took place is different in many ways from the community where we live, or at least many of the customs are. We knew many of the people who would be at the Bar Mitzvah, and they are a truly mixed bag as far as religious sub-grouping is concerned.

Those who live in the NYC area know that our weather on Friday and Shabbos was dismal. It was humid, overcast, drizzly and rainy by turn, and hot. The shul where we would be davening and eating dinner on Friday night was a good mile from where we would be staying. When packing I put in both hats and a sheitle. When getting dressed for Friday night I opted for a hat--it was too hot, too rainy and too sticky to suffer the long walk in a sheitle. It was practicality over pretty.

Shabbos by day we had the same one mile walk to shul and then from that shul to a different shul where the lunch would be--adding on another 3/4 of a mile. And then from that shul home again. The mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy (who wore a sheitle Friday night) opted for a hat on Shabbos day, as did one of the grandmothers and a different aunt. Again, comfort won, and I wore a hat. Shalosh Seudoh was blessedly about 100 feet from where we were staying, but I had planned on a hat because I had one that was "spiffy" with the outfit I was going to wear.

Why am I mentioning headwear in a posting on custom? Because I got at least half a dozen questions about my wearing hats on Shabbos. Because someone was confused as to how I could wear a hat to shul but wear a sheitle to a chasoneh. Someone wanted to know if this was the "minhag" in SI because her kids were considering moving there and that minhag wouldn't suit them. Someone kindly told me that I was sending a mixed message by sometimes wearing hats and sometimes a sheitle. Someone also kindly told me that it would have been "nicer," since my mother was wearing a sheitle all of Shabbos, that I follow her in this custom. Someone else asked me perhaps the weirdest of the questions: did I wear my hair covered all the time since I had chosen to wear hats for this Shabbos and hats are usually for those less religious, who don't wear their hair covered all the time.

Could we please, please learn to separate halachic issues from those of plain old custom? Could we please, please recognize that most customs have origins shrouded in time and that we have no foggy idea why they arose? Could we please not mix up wearing your hair covered with how that hair is covered?

Let me give you another example. One of sisters in law is very proud that her husband follows his father's minhagim perfectly for Pesach, including not drinking any kind of flavored drink except for club soda with syrup. We all happened to be together at the table one chol hamoed Pesach when this statement was made. I turned to my mother in law and asked if she knew why my FIL had had this custom--was it his father's? She gave a little laugh. Why no flavored drinks on Pesach? Because seltzer water and syrup were a lot cheaper when they were first making Pesach here in America. Because they couldn't afford the bottled sodas. And thus a habit born of necessity became a custom.

I can fully well understand someone's fighting to the death to protect Torah and the Torah way of life. I can understand being aghast at someone who goes completely off the derech but who is trying to convince others that this new derech is the real derech. What I can't and won't understand is sniper warfare over customs. You want to wear all black? Be my guest. You want to wear a kipoh srugah? Be my guest? You want to eat gebrokts? Be my guest. You want to stand or to sit making kiddush? Be my guest. You want to banish wearing denim? Your choice. But please, some common sense here--custom is arbitrary, and that applies to your customs as well as to mine.

If people don't have enough to do so that they have time to be puzzling about customs like wearing a hat sometimes and a sheitle other times, please let me know; I have a storage closet that needs cleaning out and it would be time far better spent.


Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Wearing a hat vs. sheitel is a minhag/halacha question?

Sheesh. Glad things are much more down to earth in my neck of the woods.

(And thats why we live exactly 30 seconds from shul...to beat the heat :)

Anonymous said...

I can commiserate with you about the hats-sheitles story. I wear sheitles outside and tichels in the house--just the way I do it and no particular reason. Most of my friends do it the same way. We were invited to a Shabbos sheva brochas from my husband's partner, more modern religiously then us, and I didn't know what to do about Shabbos to shul. I was at my mom's house before the event and a bunch of other women were there so I figured I'd ask for advice. Instead of this being an etiquette question or a question of custom suddenly I was getting all kinds of frumkeit and halacha thrown at me.

In the end I did what I should have done to begin with. I called the hostess and asked her. Her answer was whatever made me happy. Her friends wouldn't care and neither would she. I wore a sheitle to shul and she was right. Nobody commented and nobody cared.

Anonymous said...

Prof K- people actually said such things to you?! Oy.

Jameel- 30 seconds; out of shape, huh? :-P

SaraK said...

One of my biggest pet peeves. When I am married I will cover my hair; why it matters HOW that is done is so beyond me. I don't think I will ever understand why a wig is considered the most superior hair covering. I can't believe people said things like that to you, ProfK.

SubWife said...

I was under the impression that hats halachically are a much more preferred way of covering one's hair (provided it is completely covered) than expensive custom made sheitels.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, people make comments like the ones you got asked. I wore a hat to one of my sheva brochos instead of my sheitle. I wonder what these people would have had to talk about if I hadn't worn the hat? My Fil kindly took me to the side and told me that "your new family is not noeg with hats." That my new husband didn't care didn't seem to enter into anybody's head.

Anonymous said...

Don't know why anyone is surprised about people taking habits and customs and treating them like laws. It's nothing new. My mother tells me that when she was young it would be social suicide if you wore white shoes or white gloves before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.(Seen anyone wearing gloves in the summer lately?) Even stranger, in her day young women, married or not, wore hats to shul and to formal occasions. And absolutely no one wore black to any simcha--it was reserved for funerals. And the whole idea that wedding gowns have to be white is pretty modern too. And sadly people act as if these weird customs are carved in stone somewhere.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I were involved very actively in kiruv work out of NY for the first few years we were married. You're right that the halacha part was easier then having to explain how custom works for frum people. Sometimes I wore tichels, sometimes hats, sometimes falls, sometimes a shaitel. A few of the women asked me about that. My answer was that it has nothing to do with law and everything to do with style and personal choice. I did mention that there are some communities where all the women conform to the same style, but even there it is still style and not halacha.

One of the women we were working with once commented that religious Jews seem to be very competitive. I could hardly tell her no when all the evidence points to yes.

Anonymous said...

Any one else run across this one? We were in Brooklyn for a shabbos and the host where we were staying kindly told me that I shouldn't be wearing a tie pin on my tie. I was confused and asked why. He said that there is a machlokes on whether or not a tie pin can be considered either as muksah since it actually serves no purpose with the tie on Shabbos and then there are those who hold that because there is no eruv in Brooklyn and because the tie doesn't really hold up anything, like a belt holds up pants, that they consider it as carrying.He hastened to tell me that it wasn't a psak but that in his shul they are noheg not to wear the pins. If it's not psak halacha and I'm not from there should it matter if I follow the custom or not? Is this a social etiquette kind of thing? What would you all have done?

Knitter of shiny things said...

The one I never understood was the not eating garlic on Passover. Once upon a time people's ancestors in Europe stored their garlic with chametz and thus it was not useable on Passover. That I get. But now when garlic is kosher for Passover you don't eat it because once upon a time your ancestors weren't able to?!?!

Thus I make sure to eat garlic on Passover.

Anonymous said...

just a note on the standing/sitting during kiddush, there are halachik reasons for both sides therefore it isnt a matter of taste but something to ask your posek about, and if he doesnt have a psak he will probably tell you to follow your father's/husband's minhag

Anonymous said...

Sam, I would have worn the tie pin. A shul isn't a private place but a public place and they have to expect that people who are visiting from somewhere else won't have the same customs. A lot of the men I know from Brooklyn wear tie pins with their house keys on them. They can't carry the key because there is no eruv and they are allowed to wear the tie pin so a tie pin key solves their problems. If there is no psak then there should be no problem.

Re the belt for men, come on, how many men are really wearing that belt to hold up their pants? Plenty of suit manufacturers who make suit pants without belt loops because the pants stay up without a belt. So if the belt isn't needed to hold up the pants, does that mean you are carrying it? Would it become muktsah? There have to be more important questions we should be thinking of answers to.

Anonymous said...

Aviva -- My jaw is on the floor.
Your father in law said that you should have been wearing a wig instead of a hat? And your husband agreed? IMO, this is bad manners, or worse.

And btw, I agree with subwife -- a hat is preferable to a wig. A hat broadcasts to the world that you are married and covering your hair. A wig is a lot more ambiguous. If you really want to know, many chareidi types rail against even wigs, and make your father in law look moderate by comparison.

As for the host who told his guest what to wear on Shabbos, I'd like to know if the host was wearing a watch. If he wasn't wearing a watch, then he was rude but consistent. If the host was wearing a watch, then he was rude and inconsistent. A tie clip is part of one's outfit and serves a specific sartorial purpose.

And excuse me --- you can wear whatever you want to in shul, as long as it is respectful and not mechalel Shabbos. Wearing a tie clip is perfectly ok. Would he have asked you to not wear a blue shirt? Again: rude, wrong, and ridiculous. That's not Judaism.

Deborah Shaya said...

There is No codified Halacha that a married woman must cover her hair totally and constantly whenever she steps out of her house.

The Halachah has been MISinterpreted. When the Halachah refers to "Covering hair," it does not mean "Cover your hair with hair!" and "constantly for life." The Halachah is that:

A married woman is required to cover her hair when:

(1) she lights the candles to welcome in Shabbat and Yom Tov – lechavod Shabbat ve Yom Tov, and

(2) when she goes to the Synagogue, because that is the place of Kedusha.

The Halacha does not require anything more from married women. This is the true interpretation of the Halacha.

The misinterpretation of the Torah is completely Assur, and a twisting of the Torah.The Torah must remain straight.

Deborah Shaya said...

In ancient times, a woman would only cover her hair upon entering the Beit Hamikdash.Similarly for the Sotah-otherwise she would not be required to cover her hair ordinarily, day to day.

It is very important for people to know and realise that when a married woman covers her hair with 'Real Hair' the woman is covering herself with 100% Tumah. This is totally against the Torah.

Nothing could be more nonsensical than for a Jewish woman to cover her hair with someone else's hair -who was not Jewish as well!She can never fully be sure that this 'hair' has not come from meitim-despite any guarantee by the seller.This 'real hair' is doubly and in some circumstances, triply Tumah.

1.It will contain the leftover dead hair cells from another person - however much it has been treated, the tumah is still there.

2.This other person (likely to be a non-Jew who most likely was involved in some kind of Avodah Zarah) may have eaten bacon, ham, lobster etc, all of which are totally forbidden as unclean and non-kosher foods in Halacha.

3.If the woman happens to be the wife of a COHEN, then she is bringing her husband into close contact and proximity with meitim and Tumah Every day, and throughout their married life. This is clearly strictly against the Torah.

There is nothing more degrading and demeaning to a woman than to make her cover her hair FOR LIFE upon marriage.It is an abhorrent practice.

Any man who makes such a ridiculous demand on his wife, or wife-to-be, should similarly also be required by his wife to wear: long white stockings, even in the summer; a fur streimel; grow a long beard; wear a black hat and coat constantly, and cover his face when he speaks to his wife.Wigs -"la perruque"- were merely a fashion item in the time of Louis XIV-they are not for the Jewish woman!

Deborah Shaya said...

Rabbi Menachem Schneeersohn tz”l, gave the directive that a married woman must cover her head with a “sheitel.” This needs to be corrected. Rabbi Schneersohn a"h, was a Tzaddik, – but on this – he was, unfortunately not correct.

It is extremely unhealthy and unhygienic for a woman to cover her hair constantly.The hair needs oxygen to breathe.A woman's hair will lose its natural beauty and shine, she may have scalp problems, some of her hair may fall out, she may get headaches, and she may end up cutting it short like a man, when she always wore it long, in order not to have too much discomfort from her hair covering.

Do you think that HaKadosh Baruch Hu commanded this of women? I can assure you that He did not.The commmandments are not meant to cause so much repression and oppression in women.Was Chava created with a wig? Of course not! Did she start wearing a wig? Of course not!

Please Wake Up.

Use the spark of intelligence that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave to you and blessed you with.

And give your wig back to your husband if you wear one.

Deborah Shaya said...

1. To all the women who are wondering about the sources:

We have all been created, "Betselem Elokim" - "in the image of Elokim."
This means that we have been given something called "intelligence." The source is the very first Parsha, Bereishit - 1:27. It is time that people use the spark of intelligence and Kedusha with which Hashem has blessed them.

If your rabbi will tell you to go and jump into the depths of a glacier, presumably you would do that too – and give me a source for it?

“According to the Zohar”, I should also be covering my hair with a wig when I have a bath. “According to the Zohar and the Gemara” and all the sources that have misinterpreted the Halachah, and MIStranslated the Zohar, I should also have been born with a WIG on my head.

These sources and translations are incorrect, as they have deviated very far from the true and correct interpretation, of the Halachah.

Deborah Shaya said...

2.Remember that the Jewish women are very, very holy. They are much more holy than the men. Look at the exemplary behaviour of the women at Har Sinai.

The women never sinned at the Eigel, and so are greatly elevated. Many of the men, unfortunately, ran after a calf made out of a lump of gold – after they had just been given the Torah, and seen the greatest of all Revelations. The women refused to give their gold for the avodah zarah of the men.

The women were greatly elevated after such a wonderful display of Emunah, and they are regarded very highly in Shamayim.

That is why women are not even required to pray. They can pray at home on their own. Nor do women have to make up a minyan. That is how holy the Jewish women are. Men have to pray 3 times a day to remind them of their Creator.

The men are telling the women to put the hair of a non-Jewish woman who may have eaten things like snakes and sharks and alligators, and has worshipped in churches, Buddist temples or Hindu temples : on their own Heads. They had better wake up.

If the men don’t want to wake up to the truth, and the true interpretation of the Halacha, the women will wake them up – whether they like it or not.

3. Many righteous women influenced their husbands for the good at the Chet Haeigel and at the time of Korach.

It was these righteous women who succeeded in bringing their husbands back to their senses.

And because of these great women, the lives of their husbands were saved. Those men therefore turned away from the madness of avodah zarah, and the rebellion of Korach against Hashem's choice of Aharon, as Cohen HaGadol.

Deborah Shaya said...

4. Look at the Jewish women in history, and remember how holy they are.

(a) Yaakov, who was the greatest of the Avot, came to marry the 2 daughters of Lavan, Rachel and Leah. Lavan was not exactly a tzaddik. Yaakov went to Lavan, of all people, to marry his 2 daughters – not 1 daughter, but his 2 daughters. Nothing could be greater than that.

(b) Rut, who came from Moav, became the ancestor of David Hamelech.

(c ) Batya, the daughter of Paroh, was given eternal life because she rescued Moshe from the river. No one could have been more evil than Paroh.

(d) Devorah, was a Neviah, and also a Judge.

Women who came from such adverse backgrounds, were able to become builders of Am Yisrael. That is how holy the women are, and how much more elevated they are than the men.

This was never the case with men. It never happened the other way round.

Don't tell me it is holy for me to wear a WIG! Hair over my own hair? This is ridiculous!

Similarly, don’t tell me it is holy for me to plonk a permanent head covering on my head for the rest of my life. This is equally vile.

Please Wake Up.

Use the spark of intelligence that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave to you and blessed you with.

And give your wig back to your husband if you wear one.

5. Remember: Not a single “dayan” or “rabbi” has the slightest bit of interest in correcting the situation for the women. Therefore, the women will have to correct the situation................for ..................themselves.

Whether you wish to accept the correction – which is true – is up to you. Are you going to live by the truth? Are you going to use the spark of intelligence that Hashem gave to you and all women? Or are you going to follow rabbis and dayanim who tell you to wear a wig in a Heat Wave – and you thank them for it as well?

William Dwek said...

The next things the "rabbis" will come up with is to tell the woman to wear a CARPET on her head. Not a sheitel AND a hat, but a Carpet. Or you could go for 5 shaitels on your heads and a rug.

And do you know what the Jewish woman will say to her husband?
"Yes, husband! I am now wearing a carpet on my head!"

You women must either be extremely thick, or petrified.