Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On Minhagim

Conversation taking place in Somewhere, Earth.

He (newly married man): Honey, don't buy any flavored sodas for Pesach. It's my family's minhag not to use those flavored sodas on Pesach.

She: Is seltzer okay?

He: Yes, but only the kind you make yourself. You'll need to ask my mom where she buys those gizmos that put the fizz in.


She: Zayde B, you would be so proud. Your grandson follows his father's and your minhagim for Pesach to the letter. We didn't buy any flavored sodas or bottled seltzer.

Zayde B: Why not?

She: What do you mean why not? We're keeping your minhag.

Zayde B(shaking head): Mamale, that was no minhag I was holding, that was necessity. We couldn't afford to buy those flavored sodas so we didn't have them on Pesach. They didn't have bottled flavored sodas in Europe but my father always had seltzer and wine spritzers on Pesach or seltzer and fruit syrup.


She: Zayde B, you would be so proud. Your grandson follows his father's and your minhagim for Pesach to the letter. We didn't buy any flavored sodas or bottled seltzer.

Zayde B: What? Did Mayim Chayim lose its hechsher?

She: Err, no, but it's your minhag not to use flavored sodas on Pesach.

Zayde B: Minhag, shminhag. Back when I was still making Pesach at home there were no flavored sodas with a reliable hechsher, so we didn't use them.

She: You mean you would drink flavored sodas today?

Zayde B: I would, but my son doesn't serve them in his house so I can't.


She: Zayde B, you would be so proud.Your grandson follows his father's and your minhagim for Pesach to the letter. We didn't buy any flavored sodas or bottled seltzer.

Zayde B: Oy, so he got his grandmother's allergies did he?

She: What?

Zayde B: You didn't know? Babi was very allergic to something in the sodas so we didn't use them on Pesach for the rest of us so she wouldn't be tempted.

She: But your son, my father in law, doesn't use the sodas either.

Zayde B: We came to him for many years for Pesach and he didn't want to tempt Babi with something she couldn't have.

She: But Zayde, Babi is no longer living. Why is there still no flavored soda?

Zayde B: I guess we all just got used to it. Takeh, I should tell my son to bring home a bottle of black cherry soda. It tastes the best with the Pesach formula.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. This scenario gets played out in places all around the globe. Something that someone once may have done in a far long ago past gets set down in stone, and future generations continue to do things in that same exact way. They don't know why this came about or how. Sometimes the minhag was not an intentional one at all: an action done by accident. Other times the minhag was a reaction to a particular circumstance, a circumstance that most likely does not exist for future generations or that definitely does not exist today. Sometimes no one has any idea how and why a particular minhag arose; it seemed to pop up out of thin air.

Obviously some minhagim have a perfectly rational explanation for being, a reason that continues today. Some minhagim have their basis in halachic issues. Some minhagim make complete good sense. And then there are the others.

Visit any frum family and you're going to see a wide variety of minhagim, particularly when it is yom tov time. Some of these minhagim are idiosyncratic to a particular person or family; others are held by groups that came from the same geographic area, or perhaps who attended the same yeshiva, or studied with the same Rav. There are family minhagim and there are community minhagim.

Here's the thing, a minhag, once begun, is not on the same level with one of the Aseres HaDibros. Our history is replete with rabbinic rulings that did away with minhagim that had been followed for a long time. Communities, as history shows us, changed their minhagim. Certainly individual families did so. This is particularly true where a minhag came into being due to a particular circumstance that existed in a particular time and place.

Many today will not use garlic on Pesach. What's the reason? It's not that there is a question of whether or not garlic is echt chometz or is kitniyos--it's not. So why the minhag, one that is held by many people of European extraction? Essentially it boils down to the garlic being shipped packed in flour or in wheat to keep it fresh and unbruised. Because there was a real possibility of chometz being attached to the garlic, people didn't use it. Except of course for those who did. Those, for instance, who grew their own garlic and kept it in braids hung from a cellar roof.

There are those who will not use any vegetable or fruit on Pesach that cannot be peeled. Again, the concern was because of the chometz that these vegetables and fruits might have come into contact with when they were transported or stored. Root cellars were routinely lined with straw and wheat gleanings. This was my friend's family minhag and she continues it today. She uses no herbs or greens on Pesach, because they cannot be peeled. She has made a concession and uses tomatoes on Pesach, but she peels off the skin. When I asked her why garlic was forbidden but onions were okay, she mentioned that she throws away the outer third of the onion and only uses the inside portion. She peels her celery stalks, inside and out. (Note--have you ever tried to peel the inside of a stalk of celery? What is basically left after peeling is not much.) I don't ask her but the question comes up in my mind: if you eat nothing that cannot be peeled then how are you drinking wine? I am pretty much certain that they don't peel the grapes.

In many cases the reason behind a particular minhag no longer exists, but the minhag continues. If your family likes the minhag then there is no harm in continuing it. But a lot of these minhagim have taken on a life of their own and have strayed into being a community standard. When people are questioned about the origins of the minhag or why it is still being observed, they shrug and give the standard "minhag Yisrael k'din."

Let me end with this little anecdote. To celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of one family's founding parents all the descendants came together for a family reunion. It was decided by the organizers to create a book containing the family's treasured minhagim and treasured recipes. They asked all the various generations to submit items for the book. Many of the submitted items were duplicates, or at least sort of duplicates. It seems that when this couple's four sons married and started families of their own they brought with them their father's minhagim and their mother's recipes. Or at least what they remembered those minhagim and recipes were. And when their children left to homes of their own they, too, brought these minhagim and recipes with them. Sort of. What this family discovered, generations later, was that as the minhagim and recipes were passed down there were some slight variations that developed, maybe not intentionally, maybe intentionally, but there nonetheless. And what this family discovered is that while they claimed to all be following the minhagim passed down intact from generation to generation many of them weren't holding the same minhagim at all. Example: the great great parents did not eat fish on Pesach in Europe, going back generations. Minhag? Kashrus issue. The live fish were kept in wooden barrels and fed bread crumbs. The barrels were chometzdik, the water was chometzdik and this chometzdik water was inside and outside the fish--ergo no fish on Pesach. When they arrived in the US they simply had gotten used to not having the fish, had no pesachdik recipes using the fish, even though fish storage no longer used any chometz, so they still didn't use fish. Fast forward and three out of the four sons' families all use the fish on Pesach, because it is no longer a question of their being chometzdik. The fourth son's family holds the "minhag" of not having fish on Pesach, except that all the women who married into other families do use fish on Pesach.


mother in israel said...

Those scenarios were funny.

noch a yid (NAY;-) said...

"minhag Yisrael k'din."

It is a distortion to invoke such an expression with regard to anything practiced by any Jew.

While there are statements in our tradition concerning the importance of minhogim, they are limited in application and don't go for every custom. Like the expression you mentioned. I recall something along those lines - but my recollection is that it refers to certain monetary matters/business practices, that vary based on local norms. Some people took, should we say poetic license, and used it to try to buttress their 'no change under any circumstances' stance, but that is not what it means for purposes other than rhetoric. Similar perhaps to what is invoked in the name of the Chasam Sofer that 'chodosh ossur min haTorah' - which is a real statement in our tradition, but means new wheat before the omer, not anything new, but was used metaphorically to mean all new things.

People should realize that we have in our teachings also the concept/category of 'minhag shtus' - a foolish, baseless custom, that could/should be ignored/discarded. There is also a 'minhag vasikin' - a minhag of the spiritual elite. So it is clear that our sages z"l did not take the approach that all 'minhogim' are equal.

I think that some of the attitude that you describe is connected to an Orthodox reaction against changes and reform in the old country. Some Orthodox, particularly Hassidim, and particularly among some in Hungary, countered with a claim and public stance that they would not change anything, even the smallest 'minhag'. It is ironic and humorous actually, since the Hassidic movement itself made great changes for its followers, in davening and other practices.

Something Different said...

My father is extreme on minhagim. We don't even attemp to change his mind. But I mean, some of them are ridiculous. We are one of those who don't eat garlic. And we don't eat any spices either so you kind of miss the garlic...
And we do the no soda thing also. And everything else. I fully intend to lose weight on pesach. (At least something good can come out of all this. ;)

Anonymously said...

Funny that you should pick flavored sodas for the scenarios. That was an issue as long as my grandparents were still living. Zayde did not allow bottled sodas on Pesach. He believed he was following his father's minhagim. No one wanted to insult him, but where he lived there were no bottled sodas, Pesach or not, so of course his father didn't use them.

But there is one minhag that can cause bloodshed and that is gebroks or not gebroks. I don't care what anyone else does. I just ask that they don't mix into my pots. We don't brok. That doesn't make us more religious. It's our minhag. Can't tell you how many times though that people will hear that we don't brok and feel required and allowed to comment. NAY above talked about minhag shtus, and I've heard that applied to those who don't brok, usually by those who do brok. Isn't there something more important, more vital that we should be concerned about then what minhagim our neighbors follow?

JS said...

What you don't say explicitly, is what would happen if poor zayde had died and wasn't able to tell his granddaughter-in-law the source of this supposed minhag. Of course this would be another minhag shtus that our holy ancestors kept.

Another point, many people forget or are simply embarrassed to admit that theit holy ancestors may have been am ha'aretzim - few people were sufficiently educated in halacha to know what was or wasn't a problem. For example, I highly doubt a fish fed bread and kept in water with breadcrumbs, etc is chametz. Same with the garlic stored in wheat. It's likely just the overheated passion people have about meing machmir on pesach combined with true ignorance. But when you phrase it that way, it takes all the power out the minhag and then it's simply not fun anymore.

Tuvi said...

Not sure that I totally agree JS about the chometzdike fish. I don't think anyone would argue that if you put bread into water and put it into a wooden container then the container is chometzdike. You can't kasher that container using hagalah. I don't know any people who use chometzdike containers that can't be cleaned by hagolah to hold pesachdike food on Pesach. Changing to a new barrel wouldn't have helped if they were still using the bread crumbs to feed the fish. Sounds like it was a practical way to deal with what could have been a problem at that time. It doesn't exist today but that doesn't mean that it wasn't something to think about then. But I agree that holding the minhag to not eat fish today is ridiculous given that we know why they may not have eaten fish back then in Europe.

Trudy said...

Bravo to JS for bringing up what nobody likes to talk about. The way the European generation is talked about today and held up as THE example of frumkeit that none of us are ever going to be as good as doesn't mention that most of those Jews weren't educated, could barely read Hebrew, if they could, never mind sit and learn a gemorah, assuming that they could afford to own one or had access to one. Were they sincere in their beliefs? I'll give them that, but most were not educated enough to separate fact from fiction, shtuss from real halacha. There's a yiddish saying that I imagine lots of us have heard. "Ahz muh freigt a kasha, siz treif." If you have to ask a question about something, that something is treif. I'd imagine that if they had a question around Pesach time they would opt for the more stringent answer just to keep from doing something that might be wrong.

Adena said...

When we all go for Seder to my mom's she tries to accomodate all of the minhagim that our husbands have brought into the mix. There is hand shmura and machine shmura and regular matza. There are 5 choices for Karpas and three for moror. One bil falls in the no garlic category so she cooks his chicken separately without it. Makes a lot of extra work for her. She doesn't complain about the work but I don't think I would be so willing, especially when I can't think of any reason, never mind a good reason, for why some of these minhagim are still being held, especially out of the house in someone else's house.

check out New Square! said...

See discussion about New Square Pesach customs at

Sounds like a place Prof. K. would love. ;-)

David Staum said...

She uses no herbs or greens on Pesach, because they cannot be peeled.

I can't even imagine not having frsh greens for my salad on Pesach. It's one of the few healthy things an Ashkenazi Jew is allowed to eat on Pesach! Matza & Kugel = constipation, weight gain, and health problems. Not to mention lack of taste.

Something Different said...

CONS- my all time favorite new square minhag is: on erev rosh hashana, the men walk on the lady's side and the ladies walk on the mend side- tzi farmisht de suten!


Avi said...

Good points about how we don't know why and how a minhag came to be but follow it anyway. But isn't one of the problems with minhagim that people don't just quietly follow their own minhagim in their house? People start comparing their minhag to somebody elses minhag and then you get into some pretty heated discussions about which minhag is better, which is more kosher.

Lion of Zion said...


"Jews weren't educated, could barely read Hebrew"

it was an isolated mimetic tradition