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Ore and let davven.™

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Minnek II (personal)

Minhag, minhag, minhag

In my neighbourhood, most of the Jews are of German (and bordering) extraction. Apart from the occasional Maghrebinian, Yemenite or Sephardi, the others are mostly Eastern European whose ancestors came over a hundred or so years ago, and they're more or less assimilated - in any case, everybody is everybody else's cousin or in-law. There are two main shuls,1 and they're proud of being stubbornly Yekkish ever since the synagogues opened. You'd expect them to follow nusech Ashkenez, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

First of all, 250 years of polonisation left their marks on German Jews even before the war, and it still continues outside of Germany.2 But apart from that, one of the communities has developed into a strongly nationalist community, which also led to it that membership is receding - many simply emigrate to Israel. The other community is more and more chareidist. So you don't see any normal hats anymore: one shul is 80% srugies, the rest baseball caps, normal caps and only the occasional grey or black hat, in summer a selected few straw hats. The other shul is 98% black-hat by now, apart from this baal tshuve with his shtraimel. Mostly uniform oversize fedoras, only one gentleman with a homburg sometimes, or with a more stingy brimmed hat. Still black as black can. In one shul, there's a choir sometimes that turns the shul into a concert hall, in the other, some people shake their fists against the sky when davvening. In one shul's schools, Yiddish more and more replaces the childrens' vernacular; in the other one's, Ivrit is the subject in half of the lessons. In one shul, the current rabbi will be replaced by a young, ambitious uber-Zionist Amiel missionary, in the other shul, mostly those over the age of 45 work, the younger not.

Both engage in very strange and wild hakofes in autumn (I think around Shmini atzeres), they say the Sabbatean (?) Ledovid h' ouri veyish-i, in one they even say Hallel on the night of Pesech, and in both, they took up all the modern Poilishe narishkaaten. Hardly any of the particular customs are continued, except for the choice of piyyutim (not all are said, though).

I was at a wedding some time ago - the singing of Shir hamma-alôs ashrei kol yerei was impatiently tolerated, and the rest was oyoyoy and ayayay. (The people are mixed in simches, but if the couple would have been from the Zionist shul, they'd have sung 50% oyoyoy and 50% amis rael CHAI.)

So, after this wedding where you really couldn't see the couple because of the sea of black hats, I was a bit sad.

Then, a week or two afterwards, my in-laws told me about a bar-mitzve party they went to. The community is officially Orthodox. First a smaller-scale reception on Friday evening. The (Orthodox) rabbi wasn't invited. People who coyly went outside for a smoke were told by friendly other guests they don't have to go out, it wasn't that strict. The actual party with 180 guests was the next day, starting some hours before Shabbes ended. The rabbi was invited, and a table in the corner had paper cups and plates for that purpose. I'm not sure for what food, because that was treife - maybe they had some fruits somewhere. Or they thought kashres was about the plates. They did some stuff with 13 candles dedicated to 13 people (the rabbi wasn't among them). Then a group of women performed a kind of show - they came in different costumes in honour of the places the boy's relatives were coming from. So, there were people from Brazil, and they did a sexy dance in bikinis and feather boas, or from Texas, and the did a sexy dance with cowboy hats, and embarrassed guests by sitting on their laps here and there to the amusement of other guests. I think it was during this Texas part that the "girls" poured Tequila more or less succesfully in the guests' mouths - you know these bottles that have a thin spout? And in the boy's mouth. I'm not making this up.

When I heard that, I asked myself what on earth I'd got het up over. The form of hats, and that people said "hizraell" or "isrool" instead of Yisroel? In both of my shuls, people take the Tôre seriously, in both, they're warm and open towards people that are different, in the schools there's still Tôre being taught. And if you look close, we're still more Yekkish than in many other places. Even in the nusech-Sfard shtibl3, people will push their chairs under the table when they stand up for shumenesre. And in the course of the 15 years that the chasidist chazzen has been here, he learned some of the old piyyutim tunes.

I don't want to hide that deep inside, there's a small nagging voice asking if the kind of change that shuls like my two undergo has anything to do with the state of things in the second type of community, but still I got a tad more relaxed about israelisation and chareidisation.

1. There's also a Lubavitcher missionary around, a nisech Sfard minyen, a mainstream Artscroll/Israeli-style minyen in an old-age home, some Liberal second-Sunday-in-month-or-whatnot minyen, and the extremist Reform guys where even the Liberals won't go. (back to text)

2. In Germany today, the vast majority of the Jews are neither traditional nor of pre-war German extraction, so the question of a Yekkishe minnek in most places doesn't really come up. (back to text)

3. I filed an application for asylum there at least for those Shabbosem on which the choir performs. It was complied with, and behold, I'm not the only hardcore Yekke there. (back to text)


Minnek I (technical)

Minhag, minhag, minhag
Different things are called minnek1, usually translated as 'custom'. It can denote one out of several concrete ways of doing something, in particular something that is seen from outside as ritual. An example: Litvakes, Polakes, German Jews and Alsatian Jews all say sliches in the days around Rosheshone, but they don't have (necessarily) the same sliches for a given day - in fact, this often used to be different from village to village.

It can also mean doing something in addition. Example: Chasidists have the minnek of "opsheiren", cutting a boy's hair for the first time on his third birthday. My Gateshead cousin once mixed these meanings when he remarked "Yekkes have a lot of minhogim, just like the Chasidim." What he probably meant was Yekkes wash before kiddesh, and most others make kiddesh first. (But all wash, make kiddesh over wine, and eat bread - it's just about the concrete execution.) Chasidists however feature all kinds of funny novelties at a third kiddesh in the afternoon.

In addition, minnek in Chôshen mishpet has a different aspect and meaning. And, for the sake of completeness, minnek can also mean the whole set of menogem, similar to nusech.

Anyway, what I really want to suggest is a classification of legitimacy. Please feel free to discuss this, it's more a draft, and the numbers and letters are just for reference, not to imply an exhaustive analysis:

1. On equal foot

There are two or more menogem, none of which can be shown to have more legitimacy in terms of din, history or other. You follow your tradition.

Example: Choice of sliches.

2. Different reasoning, and only one makes sense

The reasons for the conflicting menogem concerning a mitzve are known. This is much more difficult, because a situation might arise where you come to the conclusion that only minnek A makes sense, but your tradition is to follow minnek B. In fact, if this is so clear, and no proponent of (your own) minnek B can convince you that it makes at least equal sense, you should abandon your minnek.

Example: Calculating the times of the day according to a day that lasts from dusk till dawn ("shittes Mogen Avrohm"), or from sunrise till sunset ("shittes haggônem", a. k. a. "shittes haGro").

3. Different reasoning, but they all make sense

This is easier, because that makes them actually equivalent, and you follow your tradition. Of course, in real life, this and #2 aren't so clearcut, and you might have a case where both rationales do make sense, but one is stronger.

Example: Washing before or after kiddesh.

4. Other conflicts

There is a saying that claims minnek invalidates the (Jewish) law. That is not so, except for certain cases in financial law, where minnek is a different concept, as I mentioned above. So, where there's a conflict between a law and a minnek, for example one of the chumre type, the custom has to cede.

Example: Say, in a community it's common to consume milk only when it's been supervised by an Orthodox Jew right from the milking on. The rabbi's stance is that FDA supervised milk is actually kosher, but that it's the minnek to have the other one. If somebody is offered an "FDA milk" dish by somebody kosher and declines it, he might violate the law that forbids to abash people.

5. Making use of a difference

If you can't do something because it's the minnek not do, even if the strict letter of the law allows it, a situation might occur where somebody who has a diferent minnek can do it (even specifically for you), and you benefit from that. That might seem like a foul trick, but it makes sense if you keep in mind that the law does allow this in the first place. It just starts to cross the line if it is done with differences in minnek that are based on differences in the interpretation of the law, because that would actually imply you think it's forbidden, but you don't mind if another one breaks the law for your benefit.

Examples: "Sfardiya shel shabat", who handles certain food for an Ashkenazzi on a shabbes blech in a way that is understood to be forbidden by Ashkenazic authorities.

Now for types:

A. Traceable menogem

Earlier, there was a uniform minnek, but at a certain point, a minnek was changed or introduced. Here it depends heavily on the circumstances, as the next categories will show, but certain menogem were introduced as takkones and so are in fact binding for the community in question, though not necessarily for others. It is a question if this is still binding if you change the community, if the community is discontinued, and if the cause for the change is no more extant. In general, historic cases show that the minneg lives on, but this might not be true for this category. (Several years after the Jews of Worms were dispelled, others went there, and they strictly adhered to the minnek of Worms.)

Example: During WWI, the Würzburger rav ruled to say "shômer yisroel" in Tachnun every workday in Würzburg, instead of only on fast days, as per the Ashkenazic minnek including the older Polish minneg.

B. Chumres

Chumres can be personal, but there are also menogem that are basically chumres. Though the scope for a rabbi to disregard this kind of rules under given circumstances is obviously wider than with actual mitzves, the principle is that they're binding for the pertinent group.

Example: waiting three (Germany), four (Iran?), more than five (Eastern Europe) or six (Morocco) hours before eating dairy food after having eaten meat, while the law demands only one hour.

(Note: I don't touch on similar notions like gezeires here, because their implications are different.)

C. Nonsensical menogem

If they are otherwise harmless and it's your tradition, go ahead. But they usually aren't, for instance because of illegal imitations of non-Jewish practice or maybe also because those who introduced them weren't entitled to at the time.

Example: Kappores hinkel, in the eyes of the Sefardic Shulchen Orech a minnek shtus.

D. Erroneous menogem

Similar reserves like concerning nonsensical menogem. Many of these are rather recent and came about as changes to what thousands of years of chachomem didn't find problematical, or they were taken over from other contexts where they might have made sense.

Example: Putting off tefillin on roshchôdesh and chollemôed before mussef. The origin (keser vs. keser) might be regarded a nonsensical minneg anyway, but in addition, this is erroneous (minneg toes) in nusech Ashkenez, because there, you don't even have a kedushes keser at all, and so, no "conflict" of keser vs. keser.

E. Menogem of dubious or illegitimate origin

Well, mainly Shabse-Tzvi related, but depending on your cognition and to a certain degree outlook, this might include chasidist and Liberal innovations or the earlier novelties of the seifer hazzôer. Those menogem should probably be abolished even if they're harmless "as such", because their continuation gives legitimacy to their sources. An aspect that shouldn't be overlooked, though, is that whoever is the first to be associated with a minneg in a surviving source might well have adopted it from a contemporary community or the like.

Example: Saying Ledovid h' ouri veyish-i in Ellel might well be an example.

F. Obsolete menogem

Those might be a subdivision of erroneous or nonsensical menogem. On the one hand, menogem are worth to be kept, on the other the question often is if the case is one of minnek at all. If not, then there's at least no duty to continue a habit.

Example: Eastern European winter clothing at 40°C (104°F) and high humidity.

1. Ashkenazzi pronunciation ['mınək], plural [mə'no:gəm] or [mın'ho:gəm], Christian pronunciation with Ukrainer accent [mi'na(·)g], sometimes [min'a(·)g] or [min'ha(·)g], plural [mina'gi(·)m]. I'm writing the singular with a -k because in English, a -g would actually be pronounced as a voiced sound. (In case you see a box instead of a schwa sign, you might consider changing your browser.) (back to text)


Friday, October 06, 2006

Jews in rural Germany again

In the English Yated - and here online - is a piece by the editor, R' Mordecai Plaut yetz"u, touching a topic I wrote about last Ador here.

Only a few additions to this interesting article:

The melammed described was very typical: He taught the yelodem, was the regular baaltefille, baalkrie, baaltekeye, shechted tarnegôlem, sometimes even beheimes, and malled the boys. Often he was the de-facto raaf and paskened more common shaales, even without a formal mereine brif. Only if it got more koshe, he'd pass on the shaale to a raaf in the next godeler mokem of the medine. Such a klikôdesh was called a shatzmAtz, a double acronym of shliech-tzibber and môre-tzedek. (Confused by words you don't understand? This might help.)

The author writes "the salary cannot have been overly generous, because the Lehrer also had a textile store." Though this might very well have been the case, it might also be a feature of pre-chareidi Judaism.

The community is described as religious. I would rather express this as shômer mitzves or even simply traditional. This might look like nitpicking, but to me, religious davke doesn't fit to this kind of society in that period. Doesn't change the facts, though.

The name of the city of Witzenhausen does not mean "place of wit", but is connected to an Old High German name Wizo. The other explanation doesn't match documented older linguistic forms. Nevertheless, it was indeed a centre of Jewish learning, and the place of the rabbinate for quite a large region. (Aggev orche: ancestors of mine lived in Abterode for some time, and used to visit and learn with the Witzenhausen rabbi some 300 or 350 years ago.)

Hebrew in grammar schools wasn't and isn't taught "for those who were studying for a religious (Christian) career", or at least not any more so than Latin and Greek. The study of all three languages in European schools originally had Christian motives, but already long ago this was shifted to a more general "humanistic" field. (Still it's an issue if one is allowed to attend such classes, and it might depend on details of the concrete class.)

Concerning the annihilation and survival of German Jews, the rule of thumb I heard was: a third escaped, a third survived in hiding, a third was murdered. I must confess I have difficulties to believe a third was hidden and not denounced or found. I gather this includes "half-Jews", who were treated differently in the beginning and might have had more opportunities of disguise.