The role of customs and traditions in Judaism

By Israel Drazin

 

Rabbis who offer legal decisions frequently say that customs that have been practiced
for some time have the same power as laws, but actually some do and some don’t.
Traditions are a twin sister to customs. Generally customs refer to behaviors
and traditions to ideas, but people use the terms interchangeably.

 

For example, lighting candle on Friday night, which began about 2200 years ago, is a custom
that has been accepted by virtually all Jews. On the other hand, Jewish males
wearing head coverings was a custom practiced only by very pious people around
500 CE, while many, but not all Orthodox Jews consider it a law today. In
contrast, the practice of women covering their heads is only observed by some
Orthodox Jews.

 

Most people who observe customs don’t know that they are practices that have not existed
very long, and don’t know why the customs started. A striking example is the
chanting of the poem lekha dodi as part of the Friday evening service.
This poem was composed by a mystic, Solomon Alkabetz, around 1550. People think
that it is a welcoming of the Sabbath and they chant it with beautiful tunes.
Actually, it is a carefully crafted poem that speaks in symbols about the
sephirot
, the mystical notion that God was broken up into ten pieces during
the creation period, and humans need to help put God back together again. I
give more examples in my book Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.

 

Traditions have the same problem. Most were not started by intellectuals or rabbis, but by
common people. The notion that people will be resurrected, both body and soul,
is an example. This tradition was opposed by Moses Maimonides. Another example
is the tradition that only men can issue divorces, but if a husband refuses to
grant his wife a divorce, she is chained to the man until he decides to be
reasonable. As a result hundreds of Jewish women were abused by husbands during
their marriage and were unable to marry another after they left him because the
rabbis have been ignoring the human aspects of the cases and said, longstanding
traditions have the force of law. Maimonides wrote concerning traditions:

 

[I]f a man declares to you that he has found facts that he has
observed and confirmed with his own experience – even if you consider this man
to be most trustworthy and highly authoritative – be cautious in accepting what
he says to you… investigate and weigh this opinion or that hypothesis according
to the requirements of pure logic, without paying attention to this contention
that he affirms empirically. This is so irrespective of whether this assertion
is advanced by a single person or by many who adhere to that particular
viewpoint (Translation by Fred Rosner in Maimonides’ Commentary on the
Aphorisms of Hippocrates
, 4).

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