Dealing With Different Prayer Formats

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which nusachI. In What Cases Is One Permitted to Change His Nusach?

As I discussed elsewhere, one must maintain his family’s minhag. The Chachamim based this statement on the verse, “Al titosh torat imecha,” meaning, “Do not abandon your mother’s teachings” (Proverbs 1:8). However, this custom is no more important than other laws, and therefore it is often superseded. For example, when a person knows for certain that he will have less kavanah praying in a synagogue that conducts services in his family’s nusach than in a synagogue in which the services are conducted in a different nusach, he should choose the one in which he can concentrate better, for kavanah is the essence of prayer.1 However, in a case of uncertainty, it is preferable to pray in his family’s nusach, because in the long term, chances are that he will have more kavanah praying as his family does. Sometimes, when a person is young, he does not properly value his connection to his family’s nusach, though as time passes, he discovers a deep attachment to it.

An Ashkenazi who wants to pray according to the Ari’s writings, and for that purpose wishes to switch to Nusach Sephard-Chassidi, is permitted to do so. There were some prominent individuals from Ashkenaz who did this, among them the Chatam Sofer’s rabbis, Rabbi Natan Adler, and Rabbi Pinchas, the author of the Hafla’ah. Nevertheless, their families and students continued to pray in Nusach Ashkenaz, for they understood that only a specific individual who wants to pray according to the kavanot Ha’Ari is permitted to change his nusach, but it is not proper for someone who does not pray with those kavanot to do so. However, the leaders of the Chassidic movement encouraged all their followers to switch from Nusach Ashkenaz to Nusach Sephard-Chassidi, despite the fact that most of them were not familiar with the Ari’s kavanot. Indeed, prominent rabbis have vehemently disagreed with them, wondering how they could have changed their minhag, but the eminent leaders of the Chassidic movement, who were also illustrious world figures, decided to change their custom and surely had honorable reasons. Nowadays, no one objects to their practice (see She’arim Metzuyanim BaHalachah 18:4; Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 24).

When an entire community migrates to another place, it does not need to conform to the customs of the people there

If a person has a choice of two synagogues, one where the prayer service is conducted in his family’s nusach but where no Torah classes are organized, and another, which provides Torah study but where the people pray in a different nusach, he must consider his options. If he reasons that praying in the synagogue with more Torah will help him learn more, it is better that he pray there even though the service is not conducted in his family’s tradition. Likewise, in choosing a yeshiva, one should not choose a place of learning according to the nusach of the prayers. Instead, he should choose the yeshiva in which he can become more elevated in Torah and mitzvoth.

Similarly, if a person must choose between two synagogues: one, where the congregation prays in his family’s nusach, but he is concerned that he will not be able to connect with the people because they are either too old, too young, or too few in number and another, where they do not pray in his family’s nusach, but there is a unified congregation with which he can better identify. If he feels that by joining the prayers of the latter synagogue, his connection to the Jewish religious community will intensify, thereby enhancing or at least sustaining his spiritual level, it is preferable that he pray there, even though the prayers are not his family’s nusach.

II. Immigrants and Communities that Migrated

In the past, when the distance between communities was great, Ashkenazim lived in Ashkenaz, Sephardim in Spain, and Yemenites in Yemen. Any person who moved to another place would adopt the minhag of his new place and practice the customs of the local Jews regarding halachah and prayer. For example, people with the family name “Ashkenazi” follow the Sephardic customs yet are called “Ashkenazi” because they migrated from Ashkenaz to Spain. Likewise, families that migrated from Spain to Ashkenaz accepted upon themselves the Ashkenazic customs. Even if, over the course of time, many people migrate to a community and become the majority there, as long as they arrive as individuals, they are outweighed by the community in which they settle, and must practice according to the custom of the new place (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 214:2; Orach Chaim 468:4; Mishnah Berurah 14).2

The law is similar regarding a woman who married a man from a different ethnic group. She is considered someone who migrated from her community to his. She must abide by his practices, whether they are more strict or lenient, and she need not perform a hatarat nedarim (an annulment of vows) (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 1, 158).

The obligatory minhag is that of the ethnic group and not one’s father’s individual minhag

When an entire community migrates to another place, since it is its own entity, it does not need to conform to the customs of the people there (Bei’ur Halachah 468:4). Even if the original people are the majority, as long as the new ones are united as an independent community, they should continue their initial minhagim. Similarly, that is the law in Israel today. By Hashem’s grace we merited a great ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora (kibbutz galuyot). Myriads of differing ethnic groups arrived, including talmidei chachamim, and each and every ethnic group founded its own synagogue. Therefore, no ethnic group is invalidated in regard to another and each must preserve its own minhagim.

III. Those Accustomed to a Different Nusach

Sometimes the question arises regarding how a person should practice when his father, who is a member of one ethnic group, becomes accustomed to praying in a nusach of a different ethnic group. Should he pray in the nusach in which his father currently prays or in the nusach of his father’s ethnic group? As a general rule, the obligatory minhag is that of the ethnic group and not one’s father’s individual minhag. However, when the son prefers to continue in his father’s adopted nusach, or because he finds it difficult to change, or for any other reason, he is permitted to continue praying in his father’s nusach. Since this question poses implications on other issues, it is best that one consult with his rabbi on this matter.

A similar dilemma arose among members of Chassidic families, who learned in Lithuanian yeshivot and became accustomed to praying in Nusach Ashkenaz. When they left the yeshiva, they deliberated whether to continue praying in Nusach Ashkenaz as they were taught in yeshiva, or return to praying in Nusach Sephard-Chassidi, the minhag of their parents.

The rabbis of the Ashkenazic minhag taught that, in principle, they must continue praying in Nusach Ashkenaz, for in the past, all Ashkenazic Jews prayed in Nusach Ashkenaz, and only 200 years ago did the Chassidim change their nusach. Even though now, after such a long time, all Chassidim will not be instructed to return to pray in Nusach Ashkenaz, still, it is best that those Chassidim who already became accustomed to praying in Nusach Ashkenaz continue to pray that way, because it is their ancestors’ original nusach. However, the Chassidic rabbis insisted that they must continue in the Chassidic nusach, reasoning that since prominent Chassidic authorities have instructed those who prayed in Nusach Ashkenaz to switch to the Nusach Sephard-Chassidi, in congruence with the writings of the Ari, all the more so, anyone born into a Chassidic family must continue praying in the Chassidic nusach.

In practice, since there are differing opinions, the person posing the question may choose how to practice. Still, it is best to consult with one’s rabbi on this matter.3

Excerpted with permission from Peninei Halachah: The Laws of Prayer, chapter 6 pars. 3, 4 & 7. The chapter contains discussion of other related issues.

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  1. See Shut Maharam Shik, Choshen Mishpat 24, which states that even though the Magen Avraham writes that one should not stray from his family’s nusach, one is permitted to switch from Nusach Ashkenaz to Sephard-Chassidi if he so desires. He cites Chovot HaLevavot saying that one’s deep passion for a certain mitzvah indicates his deep connection to that mitzvah. All the more so, he is permitted to switch nusachim for the purpose of having more kavanah. The matter of the community’s significance, of which I will write later on, is of obvious importance. See Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim, part 4, 33.
  2. However, if her husband does not mind, she may continue to pray according to her previous nusach (Halichot Shlomo 1, note 7). Nevertheless, it is proper for her to switch to her husband’s nusach before her children reach the age of understanding, so they will not be confused why their parents are praying in different nusachim (Tefillah Kehilchatah 4, note 4).
  3. The position of the rabbis who pray in Nusach Ashkenaz is brought in Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 24, as well as in Tefillah Kehilchatah, in the name of Rav Elyashiv. Their opinion is that Nusach Ashkenaz is the nusach in which it is proper for all Ashkenazim to pray. However, Rav Elyashiv adds in the next paragraph that one who has regularly prayed in a different nusach since he was born, and it is difficult for him to change, may continue praying in the nusach to which he has become accustomed, for that is what the Chazon Ish and Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky have taught. The opinion of the Chassidic rabbis is widely known.

About Eliezer Melamed

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His works include the Peninei Halacha series on Jewish law and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. Some of Rabbi Melamed's books are currently being translated into English. These articles are excerpts from the authorized translations, with occasional brief introductions by the editor.

8 comments

  1. This essay opens with the following unsourced statement:

    As I discussed elsewhere, one must maintain his family’s minhag. The Chachamim based this statement on the verse, “Al titosh torat imecha,” meaning, “Do not abandon your mother’s teachings” (Proverbs 1:8).

    The essay later notes that

    In the past, when the distance between communities was great, Ashkenazim lived in Ashkenaz, Sephardim in Spain, and Yemenites in Yemen. Any person who moved to another place would adopt the minhag of his new place and practice the customs of the local Jews regarding halachah and prayer.

    These two statements are clearly contradictory and the historical reality described in the second attests to that fact that the Chachamim did not tell anyone that they had to keep to their family nusach. This fact is further clear from the following points:
    1) There is no concept of family minhag anywhere is chazal; a minhag is something that belongs to a town or area.
    2) Chazal never say (or imply) that you are obligated to use a particular form of words when you pray, as long as you follow the format they set. Indeed, there are numerous sources that are incomprehensible under such an assumption, as the Rashba demonstrates.

    I understand that the halachic agenda forwarded in this essay is congenial to the mission statement of this website (“intellectually open minded and halachically conservative”, if memory serves). If I were to agree with this agenda, I would have thought that it was not best served by publishing essays that are not internally inconsistent. Nor it this the best way to maintain the cavod of Rabbi Melamed.

    The following statement is also important

    However, the leaders of the Chassidic movement encouraged all their followers to switch from Nusach Ashkenaz to Nusach Sephard-Chassidi … the eminent leaders of the Chassidic movement, who were also illustrious world figures, decided to change their custom and surely had honorable reasons. Nowadays, no one objects to their practice

    Once you’ve said that, then it’s really case closed. If they can do it, then so can anyone else and, cant aside, there’s nothing more to be said.

    • Gabriel: I believe that you are correct about the contradiction but not that it reflects a flaw in the essay. R. Melamed explains how to resolve this, as well as historical reality:
      However, this custom is no more important than other laws, and therefore it is often superseded.
      To your specific points:
      1) Chazal told people of a town that they must follow their established practice, quoting the verse of Toras Imecha. This can be reasonably read as referring to a family minhag or to a town minhag. You assume the second reading but bring no source or commentary to defend it. It does not seem to me to be the only or even the best reading.
      2) First, Chazal say that you may not change the text of a blessing. That is an explicit statement against changing the words of blessings in prayers. Setting that aside, you are arguing that minhag has limitations and does not encompass the words of prayers. Then what does it encompass and how do you know that?
      Regarding this website’s agenda, are you aware of any poskim who disagree with R. Melamed? Can you cite responsa that agree with your position that you may change your prayer format at any time? I have seen poskim who say that it doesn’t matter (I believe the Aruch HaShulchan says this in his introduction to Choshen Mishpat) but that is not as far as saying that you may switch at will. Personally, I thought R. Melamed was a little too liberal but, despite that, published this essay.

      • Rabbi Student, the simple fact that the whole of Jewish history, as admitted in this essay, before the Orthodox counter-Reformation contradicts this theory of family nuschaot, cannot be resolved by stating: “However, this custom is no more important than other laws, and therefore it is often superseded.” Unless one demonstrates that a) such a principle actually exists and b) that through the centuries when this principle was routinely ignored people were conscious in some way of “superseding” it. In the absence of such evidence, it is more reasonable to conclude that there is no such principle.

        In answer to your further points:
        1) It can not reasonably be read as referring to a family minhag, given that Chazal explicitly instruct someone who is resident in another town to follow the minhag of that town unless a) his behaviour is such that it will not be recognised and b) the practice in his old town was more strict. This goes a fortiori for someone who permanently resettles.

        2) Chazal say you may not change the chatima of certain blessings and, further, that you may not omit a chatimah where one is mandated and vice versa and that you may not depart from the “matbeah” of a blessing. A matbeah is not a text, but a format. There are, again, numerous sources that demonstrate beyond doubt that you are allowed to change the text of the shemoneh esrei. Otherwise, for example, why on earth would we need instructions on what do if a Shliach Tzibur introduces theologically dubious ideas into his tefilah?

        Regarding your last question, I certainly am. Rav Ovadyah Yosef (zal) advised all Israeli Sephardim to adopt a common nusach that is not identical to any historical one; all Lubavitch figures advise everyone to adopt nusach Ari; Rabbi Bar Hayyim advises people to adopt a nusach based on the hilchot Yerushalmi; the Rambam wrote an entirely ne nusach and told the whole world to follow it. If memory serves, the Avudraham says so. The Gra wrote his own nusach.

        The current approach to nusach is a result of the following factors
        1) Ultra-conservative reaction to the Haskalah, reform Judaism, secular Zionism etc.
        2) An unprecedented era of mass migration.
        3) The fact that when many Jews arrived in the US and elsewhere; adopting the local minhag was not a viable option, since the local minhag was chillul Shabbat.

        It may well be the case that the appropriate response to all this was to say “Just do whatever your father did, unless your father wasn’t Chassidish or a Litvak, then do whatever your Rosh Yeshiva does”, which is, roughly speaking, the position of this teshuva. Nevertheless, it is clear that this represents a departure from historical Judaism and prior halacha.

        Anyway, I have lived and worked with Chassidim for a number of years and am aware of their plus and minuses. The idea that because their leaders are such “illustrious world figures” they can ignore rules which are incumbent on me strikes me as faintly laughable. By all means acquiesce to the realities of political power within the orthodox Jewish world today, but let’s be open about it.

  2. Gabriel,
    Interesting, when I first read the essay my initial thought was to note the same seeming inconsistency. Upon further contemplation, I assumed that R’ Melamed was simply trying to articulate a general theory and then account as best he could (i.e say they are exceptions) for the data points that are inconsistent with the theory. The next step would be to articulate a theory for the exceptions (e.g. eminent leaders who are also illustrious world figures have the authority to change their custom and surely had honorable (and acceptable halachic) reasons. Then we would have to determine where this authority came from)

  3. In the Yerushalmi version of Makom sheNahagu (Pesachim 4:1, vilna daf 26a), a group of people leave Teveriah to the Mediterranean coast. The minhag in Teveriah was not to fish on chol hamo’ed. (Even though the fish would add to the holiday.) They asked Rebbe what they should do with respect to fishing in the Mediterranean, and Rebbe said to keep minhag avos (ancestral customs).

    Today we are in a transition period where it is very rare for a community to have a communal minhag. It would seem therefore that for most of us, this rule would apply — we would continue keeping the minhagim of the communities our ancestors came from, last time they lived in a community which had one.

    Which is, after all, the normal practice of our communities. <grin>

    • First of all, a case of permitting something that was formerly held forbidden is not comparable to an arbitrary choice like nusach.

      Secondly, this Yerushalmi is extremely obscure. It records that Tiberian hunters, Tziporean bean cutters and Akkoan wheat grinders did not work on Hol Hamoed. After asking about whether such stringencies are actually allowed, it further asks what these people should do if they move. It responds with a case of the B’nei Menashye who accepted on themselves not to cross the Mediterranean and were told (in a subsequent generation) by Rabi not to change their practice. It’s not clear how this is even a similar case, both because there seems, on the face of it, to be no moving of place involved and because the case of B’nei Menashye appears to be some sort of gezeirah to prevent chillul Shabbat. However, in any case, the Yerushalmi questions this whole concept of ancestral minhagim and gives a different one, namely that Rabi told them they couldn’t change, because he held it was assur – nothing to do with minhag.

      Finally, I should add that there are two separate questions;
      1) Whether, in a case like this, one is permitted to keep one’s ancestral custom rather than conforming to the community.
      2) Whether one is obligated, in the absence of superseding considerations, to do so.

      History and politics has obviously answered (1), though it’s not clear how this is valid halachically. As far as I can tell there’s no case for (2), it’s just an assumption rooted in orthodox thinking that has no real grounding at all.

  4. Rabbi Melamed. Very interesting article. I have always wondered whether baale tshuva whose parents are non-observant are supposed to evaluate their obligations here. May they select freely from the various traditions or must they look at the lineage of their family to determine which nusach they should observe. As a secondary matter, I wonder what is to be made of efforts like those of Rabbi Bar Hayyim who is in essence coming up with a new Nusach Eretz Yisroel (he would likely say that he is restoring an old one). Is his effort appropriate?

  5. We see from the following responsum of the Maharshdam that nusah hatefila has nothing to do with minhag in the sense of a minhag being binding like a quasi-neder. There is nothing more “mutar” or “assur” in davening nusah Temani as opposed to Ashkenaz,just a difference in wording.

    In fact, in Berachoth 34a we find that a talmid of R’ Eliezer davened (as shaliah sibur) a very long shemonah esreh, and on another occasion another talmid davened a very short one. Clearly they both adhered to the matbeah she’tav’u hachamim, but one chose to be wordy and one chose to be terse.

    This is also connected to the idea of a shaliah sibur davening silently along with the sibur, to prepare his tefilla.

    שו”ת מהרשד”ם חלק אורח חיים סימן לה

    תשובה נראה דאע”ג שיש ענינים שהדבר הגון ונראה טוב לאחוז האדם במנהג אבותיו וקרוב הוא שנכנס זה באזהרת ובל תטוש תורת אמך מ”מ בכי האי גוונא בענין זה טוב ויפה להניח המנהג ההוא לאחוז בסדר מנהג ספרד והטעם שאני אומר כן כי לע”ד לא מצאנו ולא ראינו שאין לשנות מנהג אבותינו כי אם בדבר שיש בו נדנוד איסור כמו כל אותם ששנינו בפ’ מקום שנהגו יע”ש דבכלהו אית בהו משום הרחקת איסור וכהא דאמרינן בגמ’ בני בישן נהוג דלא הוו אזלי מצור לצידון במעלי שבתא אתו בנייהו קמיה דר”י אמרו ליה אבהתין אפשר להו אנן לא אפשר לן אמר להו כבר קבלו אבותיכ’ עליהם שנאמר שמע בני והתם פרש”י והם מחמירים על עצמם שלא להבטל מצרכי שבת אבל בכי האי גוונא דליכא צד איסור כלל ועיקר ולא הרחקת עבירה בהא פשיטא דלא שייך ביה משום אל תטוש תורת אמך וכן יש לדקדק מלשון הר”ן ז”ל שכתב בפ’ מקום שנהגו על ההלכות וז”ל ונמצינו למדין בתורת המנהגו’ שכל מנהג איסור שהוא מעיר אחת כל שאינו מנהג בטעות אלא שהם החמירו על עצמם לעשות סייג לתורה או לדבר שהוא מחלוקת בין חכמי ישראל ונהגו כדברי האוסר כל בני העיר חייבין בו מן הדין שנא’ ואל תטוש וכל היוצא מתוכה ודעתו לחזור חייב ג”כ בו ואפי’ בצינעא עד שיעקור דירתו משם ויקבענה בעיר אחר’ דבכי האי גוונא פקעי מיניה חומרי מקום שיצא משם ע”כ ומדקאמר שכל מנהג איסור וכו’ ולא קאמר שכל מנהג סתם משמע דלא אמרינן הכי אלא בדבר איסור שנהגו במקומו הוא דאין לשנות הא במידי דליכא צד איסור כלל פשיטא שאין …קפידא כלל

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