Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Irrelevant customs

In the previous post, I mentioned irrelevant customs followed widely in chareidi and Chasidic world. Usually, these are defended as having “spiritual” relevance. I cannot speak to that, but many are just customs that made sense at one time, but do not make sense today. There is a deep aversion in the Jewish world to say that anything is outdated, because then critics will expand the charge to all of Judaism. However, those charges are generally expanded on speculation. For instance, critics claim that pork was forbidden because of the danger of trichinosis. There is no evidence and perhaps counter evidence that this was behind the prohibition. After all, other animals are forbidden in the same verses and very general rules are given to identify kosher animals, none of which has consistent connection to trichinosis or any other disease.

However, there were later customs that had clear reasons associated and those reasons no longer apply. Are they the only reasons for these customs? I do not know. They are the only stated reasons, and they were not forbidden in the Torah before the rabbis forbid them, so I have no information to say otherwise. I like to go by transparent sources, meaning those which were available to every community, rather than some source from a particular rabbi in some corner of the world. There was a school that began kabalah in Tzfat, which was responsible for the spiritualization of some very practical measures as well as plain old syncratism. Many of these customs irk me, and modern rabbis, “poskim” and even “gedolim” are too weak and pusillanimous to examine them, by their own admission.

1) Kaparos using live animals – All evidence shows that this primitive custom began in the Ashkenazic world as a non-Jewish practice of magic. It was forcefully rejected as such in the rational Sephardic world of rishonim in strong terms, and revived without transparent source by endorsement of the kabbalist Sephardic group in the Middle Ages, so it has spiritual street cred, even though most lay scholars are familiar with its sordid history. The strictest practitioners today use a separate chicken for each family member, hens for girls and roosters for boys. In the ultimate fence around the magic, pregnant woman use a hen plus another of each sex, for the baby, even if the baby’s sex is known by modern means. Sympathetic magic meets rabbinic OCD, anyone?
2) Avoiding Kiddush between 6 and 7 – This is not even internally consistent, nor consistent with the sources, as I discussed before. Its ultimate source is non-Jewish astrological religious superstition, and even quoted as such. It is so nonsensical, in fact, that there are no rational explanations for the custom or even how it is supposed to be practiced. In Chabad today, the custom is practiced prolifically, based on each individuals understanding of the strange internal inconsistencies, even though it has no clear basis in Chabad custom. It is only mentioned in the SA-SZL as a custom that some people had.
3) Chalav Yisroel – In more agricultural times, it was profitable to mix unsalable milk from a non-kosher animals with milk from kosher animals to increase the volume without increasing expense. These products had to be made quickly into cheese or butter, as there was no preservative methods that would maintain liquid milk to market. According to the sages, the non-kosher milk would not congeal and easily separated from the cheese at that point. Therefore, they forbid Jews to drink any milk they might be able to obtain, unless a trusted Jew had supervised the process to make sure it wasn’t bulked with non-kosher milk. Non-Jewish cheese or butter was OK, because any rennet used was nullified in amount and taste, and non-kosher milk would not congeal. In the time that this custom was invented, there was no great inconvenience, because people did not buy and sell milk at market, and only traded it in small private transactions, if at all. Milk became a staple in the US with prevailing methods to make milk safe and preservable. Thus, in the last 100 years or so, it became an issue. One of the primary rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinshtein, allowed people to use milk for their children as it became a widespread complaint, based on the fact that it is no longer profitable to bulk milk with non-kosher milk, given other better methods of bulking and the fact that such practice was regulated by the government and a violator would risk fines, making it further unprofitable for a commercial dairy to do.

Today, people keep chalav yisroel out of adherence to these old taboos of a yesteryear economy, even cheese and butter, which the sages permitted. (The Sifsei Kohen also brings an objection that milk from treif cows might be mixed in and that might forbid all cheese and butter as well. However, AFAIK, mashgichim are not examining each cow today.) In communities outside of big cities, milk products are difficult to obtain and far more expensive than their counterparts. There are many more products that use dairy today, and thus it is far more inconvenient than the rabbis ever dreamed of when they instituted this rule. Today, all candy and baked goods, all products with cheese or cheese flavoring, and many other products that people would use daily are disqualified. Worse yet, kashrus issues stemming from exposure to non-chalav yisroel, like using dairy equipment, even if the food itself is not dairy, is also disqualified. Defenses for the custom range from defenses that it is still applicable somehow, and that RMF only allowed it narrowly etc. to full spiritualization. It needs to be revised for the modern world, if not dropped altogether, especially in the US.

4) Pas yisroel and bishul yisroel – The laws that bread must be baked by a Jew or that staple foods must be cooked by a Jew were instituted to prevent fraternization with local non-Jews, and possible intermarriage. People made baked goods from their homes, as they did not preserve well to market, and the law was aimed at sharing with the neighbor. By the times and places where there were commercial bakeries in city centers, places that had them allowed people to patronize them, with stipulations, since a professional baker was selling a product, rather than fraternizing. IOW, they recognized the increased inconvenience of the custom and the fact that its reasoning did not apply to them and they allowed it. (This would counter the spiritualization and “other reasons” claims.) Bread is always considered a staple. Cooked items, though, can be differentiated based on their importance. Obviously, if the goal was preventing intermarriage, the foods affected would be those that were impressive to a guest.

Today, almost all baked goods trade is done from commercial bakeries. However, all manner of products are available for sale, as well. What was viewed as a mechanism to keep separation in a shtetl now forbids people from using any local bakery or buying staple products off the shelf. Pas Yisroel, when available, is far higher cost for the same products. Many processed goods are cooked and marketed now, something that did not happen with great regularity on the old days. In response, in the Ashkenazic world many centuries ago, some modifications were made, such that even a small addition, the lighting of the fire by a Jew or the stirring of the pot, was enough to permit the food, since it thwarted the reason for the prohibition (an unsupervised kitchen), with minimal inconvenience for commercial enterprises. In the realm of cooked foods, there are those who forbid potato chips and Cheerios without the bishul hechsher. These are clearly out of the original intention of the law, as it uses the term “presented on the table of the king”, to describe how important it needs to be to fall under restriction.

5) Drawing water for Mayim Shlanu at shkiah – The water that is used for shmurah matzah must be as cold as possible to allow the greatest protection from becoming chametz. According to the Gemorrah and later halacha sources, this time is sunset. The reason is that all day the sun is above us and warming the earth and then at night it goes under the earth and warms the water from beneath the earth. The proof for this is that one can see steam rising from the water in the morning, showing that the sun made the water very hot all night from beneath. Therefore, the best time to draw water when it is perfectly cold is sunset. Nuf said.

6) Black hats and coats – Chabadniks and others today require a black fedora and a suit jacket with a special ceremonial belt to pray. This is because one should dress for prayer as if you were going before the king. This is, in fact, formal dress … if you are a European living in 1930 or one of the Blues Brothers.

7) Rabainu Tam tefilin - Rashi, Rabainu Tam, Ra'avad and other rishonim had different ideas about the arrangement of the parhios in the hand and head tefilin. The SA specifies the way of rashi, but there were various spiritualist rabanim in later times who wore several pairs, some at the same time. In Chabad, this has evolved into everyone wearing Rashi with a blessing and Rabainu Tam without.

Pesach requires its own post.


  • I liked your post. It was thought- provoking. Keep posting!!

    This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News

    By Blogger Ibrahimblogs, at 2:49 AM  

  • This reminds me of a story I once heard.

    Every Thanksgiving the mother of this family would cut of large pieces from the sides of the turkey before putting in the oven and then would throw away the extra cut off pieces. Year after year she did this until her husband finally asked her why she does this; it seems like such a waste. She thought about it and then said "You know, I don't really know why I do this, my Mother always prepared the turkey this way every thanksgiving but I never asked why." So they asked her mother and she gave the same response. So they finally asked her grandmother to which she replied that she never had a big enough oven for the turkey so she always cut the sides off.

    This story seems quite relevant to the point you are trying to make. If we now have bigger ovens, why in the world are we still cutting the sides off the turkey? It is not only inefficient but it is also inconvenient. To which my response is not that "No we still need to because the turkeys are bigger or that the ovens still aren't large enough." I would say that I will still do this because it is the tradition of my family. It was something that made the event special to me. It was something that all my family members did and we can relate to.

    I feel the same way about all of these, seemingly outdated, customs and rules. Why I don't throw them out is out of my wanting to keep this connection with my ancestors and the Jewish people. Yes they may sound silly or outdated or irrelevant or inconvenient, but their purpose is connection. When I see the Jewish people keeping these traditions today, I don't see a bunch of backward minded people living in the past or fools hopelessly holding on to useless customs, I see a mosaic of Jewish history kept alive today. Not a static state of one event thousands of years ago, but thousands of years of history rolled into one generation.

    Also it seems that going down this route you end up having to pick a set date for when things are allowed to change due to circumstances and stick vs. when things that change due to circumstances that shouldn’t stick. For example we picked up Babylonian names for months, at least one of which is the name of a Babylonian g-d (Tammuz), but don't you think it is still appropriate to keep this change in effect and not try to go back to original Hebrew/Count conventions of the months? Some things have come upon us and then left for whatever reason. When some customs happen to stick around I believe that it indicates that there is something special about it. Definitely something spiritual, otherwise it would have disintegrated from Jewish life like many other customs of the past that are no longer followed.

    So it was something picked up due to circumstances of the times. Does that make it valueless? Does it make it any less part of our history and culture?

    I believe that it is part of the Jewish identity and is thus something special. A Jewish custom is special by the virtue that it is practiced by Jews. It is special because it is a part of our history. It is a part of our people.

    Just my two cents.

    By Anonymous Daniel, at 12:23 PM  

  • It seems to me that today's fear of Halav Akoom and Pat Akoom doesn't steam only for past fear. I mean: it's true that today one can drink Halav akoom and for sure there will be no She-ass milk blend inside, but who knows the day of tomorrow? What sure proof do we have that our environment will continue being the same, as it changed from Bavel to Paras, to Russia, etc. In this case, even though it would be permissible, we should prepare future generations for any possibility, such as keeping an eye open....

    Thank you.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 9:28 AM  

  • They decided based on their times. We should decide based on ours. If in the future that changes, then they can reinstitute it. There is no reason to make us suffer the inconvenience of outdated laws because of "connection" (there are better ways to connect) or some hypothetical future need.

    By Anonymous rebeljew, at 3:39 PM  

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