Monday, August 16, 2010

"Conversion" of a different kind

"Minhag Yisrael halachah hi, the custom of Israel (meaning the Jewish People, not the State of Israel) is the law." I don't know from which text I'm quoting, and I hope my grammar is correct (hu, hi?), but my shul's former rabbi was very into this notion that a custom/minhag, once established for a number of years, becomes as inviolable as a law/halachah.

I certainly saw this approach in connection with the recent discussions on various blogs (including my own) concerning a woman leading the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of the Shabbat (Sabbath) Evening Service.

Personally, I'm not sure how comfortable I am with this approach. It reminds me of the verse from the Rabbi Yishmael quote (recited very early in Shacharit/Morning Service) stating, roughly, that, depending on circumstances, similar laws might be interpreted in a stricter or more lenient manner. To be honest, I'm usually more comfortable with a law being interpreted in a more lenient manner than in a stricter one. :)

To be even more honest, I'm even less comfortable with the feeling I get that, in recent years, customs regarding women's dress and/or behavior have been interpreted by some in a stricter manner than might be necessary within halachah/Jewish religious law.

Take, for example, the question of whether a woman is permitted to lead P'sukei D'Zimrah.

Here's a direct quote from the Koren Sacks Siddur (prayer book), Nusach Ashkenaz (an Orthodox siddur), the "Daily Prayer, Services, Laws of Birkot HaShahar and Pesukei DeZimra," page 1215:

344 If one comes late to synagogue, one may skip all, or portions, of Pesukei DeZimra, as follows:

a If there is sufficient time, say Barukh SheAmar, Psalms 145-150, and Yishtabah.

b If there is less time, say Barukh SheAmar, Psalms 145, 148, 150, and Yishtabah.

c If there is less time, say Barukh SheAmar, Psalm 145, and Yishtabah.

d If there is less time, omit Pesukei DeZimra altogether. Complete the rest of the service with the congregation, then say Pesukei DeZimra privately, omitting Barukh SheAmar and Yishtabah. [The reference is a Hebrew abbreviation or acronym that I'm unable to copy, since I don't know how to type in Hebrew: resh mem''alef, vav shin vav''ayin, alef resh''chet. nun bet.]

Contrast this passage to "Laws of Havinenu," page 1217:

362 When circumstances require, one is permitted to substitute a special paragraph (Havinenu, page 1005) for the thirteen middle blessings of the Amida. This is only permitted in exceptional cases, such as when one is incapable of concentrating during a full-length Amida or expects interruptions. One says this abbreviated form of the Amida while standing, and one does not need to repeat the full-length Amida afterward [shin vav''ayin, alef vav''chet, kuf yod: alef]

To my admittedly-undereducated eyes, it appears that skipping parts of P'sukei D'Zimrah is not uncommon, whereas using the abbreviated Amidah is a major big deal--Rabbi Sacks himself says it's done in "exceptional cases" only.

Yet some of the reading I've done on women's participation in leading public worship seems to indicate that for a woman to lead P'sukei D'Zimrah would be as much of a breach of the rules as a woman leading the Matbeiah Shel Tefillah, the core obligatory prayers, some of which one is not permitted to say without a minyan. To me, this makes no sense. My understanding is that the P'sukei D'Zimrah originated as a substitute for a minhag/custom of the very pious to recite the entire Sefer Tehillim/Book of Psalms every morning before Shacharit, a luxury not available to us "working stiffs," who certainly don't have enough time. When did this minhag become as much a required part of the service as the Amidah, that a woman shouldn't be permitted to lead it?

The same is true of Kabbalat Shabbat, a relatively new part of the Shabbat Evening Service that dates back only about 500 years and includes absolutely nothing that can't be recited without a minyan. It makes no sense to me that the prohibition against a woman leading Maariv/Evening Service should be extended to include the "new" introduction to the Maariv of Shabbat.

Protests against women leading P'sukei D'Zimrah and/or Kabbalat Shabbat because they're now (allegedly) required parts of the service remind me of what's happened over the past century or so regarding married women's head-coverings.

According to interpretations of halachah/Jewish religious law accepted as binding by many Orthodox Jews, a married woman must cover at least part of her hair in public. My understanding is that, until about 100 years or so ago, the traditional head-covering for a married women was a hat, scarf, snood, or some other head-covering made of cloth (and/or possibly fur), and that it was only roughly 100 years or so ago that some rabbis approved a kula (leniency), for the benefit of married women who would otherwise refuse to cover their hair, permitting the use of a wig (sheitel) instead. Now, here we are, merely about 100 years later, and, in some Ashkenazi right-wing Orthodox communities, anything other than a sheitel is considered an insufficient head-covering! In less than roughly a century and a half, what started out as a kula (leniency) has become a chumrah (stringency)!

Shouldn't there be some reasonably-clear distinction between a minhag/custom and a halachah/law? Shouldn't there be some reasonably-clear distinction between "the mesorah" (tradition) and what's absolutely required?


Blogger rivkayael said...

Absolutely. That's why literacy in the Rambam and shulchan aruch (or your local flavour of the month) is very important so that one can check things themselves and ignore what the neighbours say.

Tue Aug 17, 08:55:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

RivkaYael, thanks for the confirmation.

I wish I had the patience to be a scholar.

Tue Aug 17, 10:59:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Susan B said...

Well said. Thank you.

Sun Aug 22, 01:53:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous David Tzohar said...

I am not sure why Iam commenting on a blog written by a woman admittedly on
the fringe, but don't worry LWMO led by Famous-Revolutionary-Rabbi Avi Weiss might soon put you in the middle of the consensus. Please excuse the cynicism but I just cant take seriously someone who quotes the Koren Siddur as a halachic source. But maybe it is for Conservative "halacha"

Sun Aug 22, 02:57:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for your kind words, Susan B.

Sun Aug 22, 08:56:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"I just cant take seriously someone who quotes the Koren Siddur as a halachic source. But maybe it is for Conservative "halacha"

Conservative halachah has nothing to do with this--I'm quoting the Koren Siddur as a halachic source because, unlike you, I'm not a Talmud scholar, and I simply don't know where else to look for a specifically *Orthodox* halachic source that I would be capable of reading and understanding. I presume that you are able to identify the Talmudic sources that Sacks is quoting.

I never had the privilege of attending a Jewish day school. My parents, bless them, worked hard to ensure that all their kids would know how to read Hebrew, and we observed all of the holidays, not just the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays (though not in the strict halachic sense of "observed.") But roughly 75% of what little I know, I learned as an adult. I was in my late twenties when I taught myself to pray the weekday Amidah prayer by picking up a siddur (prayer book) every weekday and cracking my teeth on the Hebrew until I'd learned the whole thing. It took me several months. Were *you* there to help me? Before you look down your nose at an Am Haaretz (Jewishly-illiterate person) who's spend the last 35 years or so trying to educate herself, consider how fortunate you are to have received a good Jewish education.

Sun Aug 22, 08:58:00 PM 2010  
Blogger rivkayael said...

David Tzohar: Siddurim were designed to be user friendly. That's why the Koren (Hebrew only) siddur has several pages of dinim to explain what to do if you forgot stuff in the middle of davening (yaaleh veyavo comes to mind) without me having to look up an orach chayyim every time. I assume that the English Koren (which I haven't read) also had the same intention.

I'm also not sure what about the English Koren siddur classifies it as "conservative" in your mind.

Mon Aug 23, 11:51:00 AM 2010  
Blogger rivkayael said...

Also: the text for the abriged amidah is derived from a text in B. Berachot. So I don't know what you deem to be so repungent about Shira's post.

Mon Aug 23, 11:54:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

RivkaYael, thank you for pointing out that even all-Hebrew siddurim are designed to be user-friendly and quote the laws of prayer so that you don't have to look them up in a separate book.

I, too, am puzzled about the reason for David Tzohar considering the Koren Siddur, which is an Orthodox prayer book, a source for Conservative halachah.

Mon Aug 23, 01:44:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...


Why do you assume David Tzohar is a Talmud Scholar?

Sounds like an ignorant prick to me. I'd guess a BT in his holier than thou face with less knowledge than you. Probably non-observant, but goes to Chabad and feels super-Frum.

Mon Sep 13, 07:02:00 PM 2010  

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