CUSTOM (Hebrew, "Minhag"):

An old and general usage, or a religious practise, not based on any particular Biblical passage, and which has, through the force of long observance, become as sacred and binding as laws instituted by the proper authorities.

"Custom always precedes law" (Soferim xiv. 18). This is true not only of the Talmudic laws prescribed by the Rabbis, but also of many Biblical institutions. Many statutes and commandments, civil, moral, and ecclesiastical, found on the pages of Scripture undoubtedly had their origin in the customs of the people, which, however, became modified and fixed by being inscribed on the sacred books. Some of the customs, as, for instance, circumcision, or the prohibition of eating blood or of eating the "sinew which shrank," may date back to patriarchal days; others, again, may have a later or perhaps a foreign origin. Moreover, even after the laws had been written down, the manner and form of practise could not always be detailed; and although the Talmud (Zeb. 115b; Sifra to Lev. xxv. 1; see Maimonides' Introduction to the Mishnah) relates that all the details of the Law were delivered by Moses to Israel, there were still many tribal and family customs which must have remained unmentioned. For example, the acquisition of property by the exchange of a garment of some kind ("ḳinyan sudar") is mentioned (Ruth iv. 7) as an old custom.

Authority of Custom.

Customs which grew up among the people in various places and in different forms, the Rabbis consider of binding importance. "When thou comest to a town follow its customs, for when Moses went up to heaven he refrained from food for forty days and forty nights; and when the angels came down to visit Abraham they partook of his meal, each one submitting to the custom of the place" (Gen. R. xlviii. 16; B. M. 86b). Even God Himself complied with the prevailing custom when He buried Moses (Sanh. 46b). If a judge be in doubt concerning a certain law, he is advised to follow the common usage of the people (Yer. Peah vii. 5; Ber. 45a). Should a custom conflict with some established institution ("halakah"), the custom frequently takes precedence (Soferim xiv. 18; Yer. Yeb. xii. 1). The court was equally empowered to inflict punishment upon the transgressor of a custom as upon the transgressor of a written law (Yer. Pes. iv. 3; compare Bek. 2a; Tos. s.v. "Ḳonsin"). To the question, Why men of the present time, who areacquainted with the calendar, must observe the second day of the holidays, the reply is "Be careful with the customs of your fathers" (Beẓah 4b; Maimonides, "Yad," Ḳiddush ha-Ḥodesh, v. 5). The later rabbis emphasized still more the importance of custom and precedent, making them of almost equal weight with Biblical injunctions (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 376, 4, Isserles' gloss). "Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set" (Prov. xxii. 28), was interpreted to refer to the ancient customs of the Jewish people (Yalḳ. ad loc.).

Legal Applications.

In civil cases the customary law was very frequently consulted. "Everything depends on the custom of the land," was a general principle of the Rabbis. Partners who agreed to divide a piece of land among themselves were obliged to contribute equally to the building of the fence. The material of which the fence should be made and the thickness of the fence were decided by the custom of the land (B. B. 2a; "Yad," Shekenim, ii. 15; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 157, 4). The length of a day's labor and the kind of food to be given to the laborer are also regulated by custom (B. M. 83a; "Yad," Sekirut, ix. 1; Ḥoshen Misbpaṭ, 331, 1, and Isserles' gloss). Whether a domestic servant is obliged to pay for breaking house utensils during service also depends on custom ("Pitḥe Teshubah" ad loc.). The charge of unchastity ("ṭa'anat betulim") could not be advanced against a woman in a place where bride and groom were permitted to remain by themselves before the marriage (Ket. 12a; "Yad," Ishut, xi. 8; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 68, 1).

The Talmud recognizes different kinds of customs: (1) of the land; (2) of the locality; (3) of the men of Jerusalem; (4) of certain families; (5) of the pious; (6) of scholars; (7) of chaste women; (8) of the Patriarchs; (9) of the Prophets; (10) of the non-Jews; and (11) of the common people.

Differences of Custom.

The provinces of Judea and of Galilee had peculiar customs, which differed greatly from one another. The Galileans and the inhabitants of Jerusalem used to include in the marriage contract ("ketubah") the condition that, if the husband died first, the widow should be permitted to live in his house all the days of her widowhood, while the Judeans added to it, "or until the heirs agree to pay her the money due to her by the contract" (Ket. 52b). The Galileans abstained from work the whole day preceding Passover; in Judea work was permitted until noon (Pes. 55a; compare Frankel's "Darke ha-Mishnah," pp. 66-68).

Whether one may work on the day before Passover, or on the Fast of Ab, depends entirely on the local custom (Pes. 50a, 54b). In some places the sale of small cattle to non-Jews was forbidden; in other places this was not the case (Pes. 53a). The right to eat roasted meat on the eve of Passover also depends on local custom. Todos of Rome established among the Roman Jews the custom of eating roasted kids on Passover nights(ib.). In some places lights were not permitted in the houses on the eve of the Day of Atonement (Pes. 53b). These customs were permitted to remain; and the people were obliged to observe the usages of their respective localities.

Customs of Jerusalem.

The men of Jerusalem also had their peculiar customs, which were often commended by the Rabbis. It was the practise among them, when a caterer was engaged to prepare a meal to which strangers were invited, and he spoiled it, to collect from him a fine for the disgrace caused both to the host and to the guests. In order to indicate the time when meals were ready and guests might enter, it was customary to hang up a screen in front of the door. So long as the screen was there, guests were welcome; when the screen was removed, guests might not enter (B. B. 93b). They were very careful in their transactions, and in their bills they noted even the hour of the day when the transaction took place (Ket. 93b). So zealous were they in the observance of religious ceremonies that they carried their "lulab" with them the whole day during the Sukkot festival (Suk. 41b). The "pure of mind" of Jerusalem would not sit down to a meal, nor sit in a court of justice, nor sign their names as witnesses, unless they were acquainted with their colleagues and assured of their fitness (Sanh. 23a). It was the custom in the courts of Jerusalem to dismiss both the principals and the witnesses before the discussion of the case by the judges commenced (ib. 30a).

Of the pious men—the earlier Ḥasidim—it is said that they used to spend a whole hour in preparing themselves for prayer. R. Akiba was accustomed to shorten his prayers when he prayed with the congregation, so as not to keep the people waiting for him (Ber. 30b). They are also reported to have been careful to hide sherds and broken glass three fists deep in the ground, so as not to obstruct the plowshare or to cause injury to passers-by (B. Ḳ. 30a).

R. Gamaliel II. set the example to all his contemporaries by a request he made before his death, to be buried in a plain cotton shroud—a custom which was followed by all Israel. This proved a great relief to the poor, who were unable to follow the luxurious customs formerly prevailing (M. Ḳ. 27b; Ket. 8b). It was the custom of R. Judah b. 'Illai to bathe his face, hands, and feet in warm water before Sabbath began (Sab. 25b). This also was adopted by the Jewish community (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 260, 1). The same rabbi was accustomed, before the eve of the Fast of Ab, to eat a crust of dry bread with salt and water while sitting near the stove, the most despised part of the house. This, with some modifications, was also incorporated among Jewish customs (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 552, 6). Women were accustomed not to work on Saturday night until the "Habdalah" had been recited; or on new moons, or on Ḥanukkah while the candles were burning (Yer. Pes. iv. 1; Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 299, 10; Isserles' gloss, 417, 1, 470, 1).

While custom was thus regarded as very sacred and binding, the Rabbis were nevertheless careful to distinguish between custom and law (Yeb. 13b; Niddah 66a; Ta'an. 26b). New customs, although tolerated, were not regarded favorably; for the Rabbis aimed chiefly at unanimity and uniformity. It was a principle with them—fancifully derived from the expression "Lo titgodadu" (Deut. xiv. 1)—thatthere should be no division in custom and observance, although violations of this were unavoidable and frequent. They considered an erroneous custom to be one that had no basis in the Torah, and such they were ready to discard ("Ḳiẓẓur kelale ha-Talmud"; compare Yer. Pes. iv. 1).

Development of Custom.

As the Jews after the completion of the Talmud, wandered farther away from the centers of Jewish learning in Babylon, their customs became more and more divergent. Local usages grew up in every community, which were held in veneration by the people. Even the Geonim, who had a strong influence over the Jews of the Diaspora between the seventh and eleventh centuries, did not wish to tamper with the local "minhagim." They even frequently advocated the retention of a custom of which they themselves disapproved. In the course of time the customs increased in number; and the differences between them became very marked and portended danger of schism. Superstitions prevalent among the people of the dark ages frequently crept in among Jewish usages; and the Rabbis then became alarmed, and began to raise their voices against the multiplicity of customs. Maimonides vigorously decried this "minhag sickness," as Güdemann calls it, and Rabbenu Jacob Tam (1100-1171) said, in his epigrammatic style, that "minhag," when inverted, spells "gehinnam"; and that if fools are accustomed to do certain things, it does not follow that the wise should do likewise. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries many scholars endeavored to trace the origin of and the reason for the different customs; and a critical spirit prevailed even in the responsa of that period. This effort, the personal example of famous rabbis, and the synods that assembled at different places during that period, greatly helped toward introducing some uniformity in Jewish customs. The most important figure in this age is MhRIL, or Rabbi Jacob Levi Molin, who was born in the middle of the fourteenth century in Mayence and died in Worms in 1427. His book on minhagim, which was published after his death, became the standard for many generations for synagogal and communal customs (see Güdemann, "Gesch. des Erziehungswesens," iii.).

Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

Of far greater consequence than all these local differences of custom is the division between the Sephardim (Jews adhering to the Spanish and Portuguese ritual) and the Ashkenazim (those adhering to the German and Polish rituals). These differ not only in minor customs and observances, but also in the pronunciation of Hebrew and in their liturgies. The Sephardim have retained the pronunciation of Judea, while the Ashkenazim are considered to have brought with them the language of Galilee. They also differ in the manner of intoning their prayers; the Sephardim still maintaining the old Oriental chants, while the Ashkenazim have permitted a strong European element to enter into their synagogal music. The important portions of the service are alike in both, with some possible variations of words and phrases; but in the prayers of later origin the divergence is very great. The Ashkenazim are supposed to have brought their prayer-book from Tiberias, Galilee, the earliest authority for which is the Maḥzor Vitry (1208), while the Sephardim are supposed to have brought theirs from the Babylonian schools of the ninth century (R. Amram, "Siddur"; see Amram ben Sheshna). R. Joseph Caro, the compiler of the Shulḥan 'Aruk, himself of Spanish origin, in his code followed the Sephardic customs to a very large extent. This fact induced R. Moses Isserles of Cracow to add his annotations, remarking especially the more rigorous customs prevailing in the Ashkenazic Jewish communities. The Shulḥan 'Aruk, which first appeared in 1565, became, therefore, the standard in law and custom for all Jewry (see Caro, Joseph).

The Cabala, which flourished among the medieval Jews, left an indelible impress upon the customs of the people. Besides the many new customs that were introduced in its wake, many of the old ones changed their form and meaning by receiving cabalistic interpretations (compare Ḥul. 105b). Even the learned and the scholarly were influenced by its mysterious teachings, and in preparing their codes of laws and in writing their responsa on religious questions, evil spirits, magic, combinations of letters and words to produce certain effects were taken into account. This spirit crept even into the prayer-book, provided amulets for infants, regulated the manner of putting on the garments in the morning, washing the hands, and so forth (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 3, 3, 11; 4, 2, 12, 19). The customs adopted by some of the great cabalists were collected and published to serve as a guide to their followers ("Minhag ha-ARI" =The Customs of R. Isaac Luria).

The Cabala is still of great value and of much influence in the lives of the Ḥasidim, a sect numbering hundreds of thousands of Russian, Galician, and Rumanian Jews. Founded by Israel Ba'al Shem in the beginning of the eighteenth century, this sect has since grown to very large proportions, in spite of the "mitnaggedim"—the rabbis and communities that opposed them. Although they do not discard the laws and customs of the Shulḥan 'Aruk, they still attach more importance to worship than to religious observance. In their service they follow to a large extent the Sephardic ritual, although they have retained the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew (see Ḥasidim; Ba'al Shem-Ṭob).

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a movement was set on foot among German Jews to introduce reforms in the Jewish service. Originating as it did with the rejection of a portion of the beliefs upon which the old service was founded, the movement also extended to other aspects of Judaism, and resulted in a change not only in the form of synagogal worship, but also in the practise and observance of the religious laws of the Jews. New customs were instituted, such as confirmation at the Feast of Shabu'ot, instrumental music on Sabbaths and on holidays, and so forth. Since the beliefs varied in different communities, the practise also varied; and although the Reform movement counts to-day many votaries in Europe and in America, there is not yet any uniformity in custom. Old Jewish usages, however, still survive in the majority of communities, frequently modified to suit modernrequirements. See Reform; Ritual; Conferences, Rabbinical.

  • Besides the sources referred to in the text, Hamburger, R. B. T. Supplement, ii.;
  • Mischelsohn, Minhagim, Berlin, 1852;
  • Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home, Index, Philadelphia, 1898;
  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, passim, ib. 1896;
  • Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥhaḳ, s.v. Minhag.
E. C. J. H. G.