Saturday, January 26, 2008

Steam Pipe Judaism

There's an old joke that goes like this:

One Shabbos morning, a fellow walks into a shul that he's never been in before. He finds that he likes the davening... the people don't talk too much, they're friendly, they sing all the tunes he's familiar with, and so on. The service goes on pretty much as he was familiar with... with one exception. Whenever anyone went up to the aron (Ark) to take out or put away the Torah, he would bow to the right. He was curious about this custom, but didn't say anything about this strange and heretofore-unheard-of custom for fear of making waves.

And so, a few weeks go by. He eventually gets p'shicha (the honor of taking out and putting back the Torah) and, not wanting to upset the people in his new shul, also bows to the right when taking out the Torah and putting it back after the reading. Finally, he can contain his curiosity no longer. After davening, he goes over to the gabbai of the shul and asks him about this curious custom of bowing to the right. "That's just the minhag (custom) here," the gabbai told him. "I don't know the origin of the custom." So, he asks a few other shul officials, including the rabbi. None of them can answer the question... all they know is that it's always been done that way. Finally, someone tells him to ask Shmuel. Shmuel is ninety years old, the oldest person in the shul. He's been with the congregation longer than anyone else who is currently alive. Certainly, he's told, if anyone knows the origin for this minhag, it would be Shmuel.

So with some trepidation, the man approaches Shmuel and asks him the question. Shmuel thinks long and hard, searching the dim recesses of his memory for that long-lost moment when they started this bowing to the right. Finally, after a few minutes, he says he's got it. "Fifty years ago, before we remodeled," he said, "there was a steam pipe coming out of the wall there. If you didn't bow to the right when you approached the aron, you got conked on the head."

I often wonder how much of what we do today, as Orthodox Jews, falls into the category of "Steam Pipe Judaism." By this I mean practices that began for ahalachic external reasons that are no longer applicable, although the custom remains with us. I would not be surprised to find that a fair amount of what we do has no actual halachic basis if you search back far enough.

Now, I know that the first example many of you are going to bring is that of Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galus (the second day of the holidays observed in the Diaspora). However, that doesn't fit the bill... there was a legitimate halachic reason to institute that. True, the reason for it no longer applies, as we now have a set calendar, but nonetheless, we chose to continue to observe the extra days.

What I'm looking for are things that had no halachic basis when they started, such as the bowing to the right in the joke. I don't know of any off the top of my head, but, as I said above, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that at least some of our practices fit this category. Anyone have any ideas?

15 comments:

Miriam said...

What a concept. the other day I was talking to my husband about dvar Torah that I wondered if it came from "steam pipe Judaism" event.

You write eloquently!

SuperRaizy said...

I've heard that the shtreimels that Hasidic men wear today were the fashion among Polish noblemen in the 16th century. No Halachic basis there.

Kendra said...

actually, moreover, what the Rabbis I talked to said was that the whole custom of Jews wearing head covering for religious reasons only goes back about 400 years. In fact, one of them said he was pretty sure we got it as a bleedthrough from the Muslims. I can see that. The late 1500's were stressful time, I can see suddenly wondering if we were doing something wrong and grasping for ways to create more awe and fear (in the creative sense). The whole point is to strengthen the "presence of the king" metaphor that gets used a lot in Jewish liturgy.

I don't think its a bad metaphor. But I think given we are in such an egalitarian age, that is the wrong avenue to take to create awe and fear. The metaphor is too archaic and clashes too much with much of our daily experience. Since the metaphor is just a means to an end, I wonder what might be better.

Or perhaps we need a reinvention of the metaphor, something tapping into the very earliest ideas about leadership and tribes. (Namely, the leader as first among equals; the duty of respect between leader and followers; the sense that the leader by their virtue wins over aid from the universe...basically, shove the metaphor back a few millenia and then drag it forward again..)

Kendra said...

(the last idea I mentioned may seem anti-Jewish, since it implies a higher power than Hashem. But what I mean is emphasize that it is Hashem's altruism to share the gift of existence with us that should be emphasized in the Kingship role, the _gift_ of law as a bulwark against strife, etc.)

Rafi G said...

I have heard many such stories over the years.... a shul that they bowed their heads as they walked in. Later after some research it turned out the doorway of the old shul was very low and people had to bow their heads to get in... and more like that

MO man said...

My rav, said he has not been able to find a source for the "custom" of people pointing their pinkies at the Sefer Torah during Hagbah.

mo man said...

According to RHS the source of the Gartel is based on the halacha to dress like you're "standing before a king" when you daven. In ancient Persian culture it was customary to wear a sash around one's waist when dressing formally. The Gartel is what remains of the sash. (Any "halachic" issue regarding separation of the lower and upper parts of the body is taken care of by the modern belt and/or underwear elastic band.)

RHS tells a story of a midday office mincha minyan. A Hassid comes in to daven dressed properly in a suit and tie. (The tie, according to RHS being the modern day version of the sash.) The Hassid forgot his Gartel so he takes off his tie and puts around his waste. A complete perversion of halacha vs "minhag"!

zach said...

I'm not sure what you are asking. Many, many of our minhagim have no original halachic basis. But then minhag becomes normative and is as strong as any halacha moshe mi sinai!

As an example, Gebrokts has absolutely no halachic basis and has been decried as a minhag shtus. But it has been universally adopted by chassidim. For them it is now normative halacha.

Here's one that I see universally but have never heard of a good explanation for: why do people rise slightly for "elokainu" in bentching when 10 or more are present?

How about the universal minhag to rise for a chosson & kallah when they walk towards the chupah? Yes, I know that folks will say that they are like a king and a queen that one rises for, but I believe that this is a fairly recent custom. How did it arise?

Anonymous said...

Some Chossons wear an overcoat during their wedding as 'minhag.' My rabbi said it was because in their ancestral villages, all weddings were outdoors and it was cold. Strange reason to mandate a 'mi sinai' appelation to a practice.

Rael Levinsohn said...

Re: pointing to the torah with a pinky, see here for a source

http://emet.blog-city.com/a_documented_source_for_pointing_to_the_torah_with_the_pinky.htm

mosheklass said...

Similar to wolf's steam pipe story, I heard one a long time ago where everyone in a specific Shul would turn around at a certain point. Supposedly the basis was that there was a large sign on the back wall of a Tefilla (perhaps L'Dovid, as people may have closed their Sidurrim?). Urban Legend probably.

Anonymous said...

Perversion of Halacha....

Tie v. Gartel.

If the Chosid's minhag is to wear a gartel and he doesnt have one, why can't he use his tie?

You have a problem with it because you don't have the minhag of gartel.

He does.

He doesn't have the minhag to wear a tie. You may.

You can borrow his extra gartel for a tie if you forgot yours.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Cholov Yisroel comes immediately to mind.

mlevin said...

My husband works with a Bobov Chassid. His minchag is that garlic on pesach is chometz, because in the old days they used to keep garlic in the chometz (grains) so it would keep through the winter.

Anonymous said...

"How about the universal minhag to rise for a chosson & kallah when they walk towards the chupah? Yes, I know that folks will say that they are like a king and a queen that one rises for, but I believe that this is a fairly recent custom. How did it arise?"

It's not universal.

The reason you give is off the mark as well, since they are transformed into chosson and kallah as newlyweds, not before the marriage takes place.