by R. Eliezer Melamed
“Rabbi, the issue of minhagei avot (custom of one’s fathers) really bothers me, and I don’t know what to do.
My family emanated from Germany. The customs in our house followed the traditions of our ancestors – for example, to wash our hands before Kiddush on Shabbat, and keep three hours between meat and milk. As you know, Rabbi, these are sacred customs which the communities in Germany fought not to budge from. The same applies to prayers: we put on tefillin after reciting korbanot, the blessings over the Torah are said before korbanot, “Ain Kelokainu” is not said on weekdays, and numerous other accuracies in the prayer format.
But in many matters I’m afraid to act according to the custom of my fathers, since in Israel, the accepted minhag goes according to the renewed custom of the Prushim, disciples of the Gaon of Vilna (Gra). They challenge me by claiming that the minhag ha’makom is obligatory, and thus supersedes the various nusachim (versions). However, no other community follows these customs except the Ashkenazi-German community. No one objects to the Moroccans or Algerians for keeping their nusachim, as well as all the Hassidim who retain their unique customs.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the minhag of Ashkenaz is very old and clearly pre-dates the minhag of the Prushim, which, as is well-known, is not even the accurate minhag of the Gra, and it saddens me that our minhag is gradually being forgotten. Rabbi, should I move to a place where there is a minyan that follows my ancestor’s customs accurately?”
Compliments for your deep commitment to minhag avot, in particular for the ancient and accurate minhag of the sacred Jews who sacrificed their lives for the sake of God in Ashkenaz! Thus, it is commendable of you to continue keeping the customs of the meals, Kiddush, and the like.
Incidentally, my mother’s family also kept Ashkenazi customs. From my great-great grandfather’s side of the family, who immigrated from the Ukraine, we are accustomed to wash our hands after Kiddush. However, I was once a guest at a family whose minhag is to wash their hands before Kiddush, and they asked me if I wanted them to alter their minhag in my honor. I answered them: “Quite the opposite! This is an opportunity for me to fulfill the minhag of my ancestors from my mother’s side of the family.”
Concerning the nusach of prayers the rule is that everything said privately, you should say according to the exact Ashkenaz custom. Only when you recite prayers out loud – do not isolate yourself from the tzibur (congregation), but recite the prayers as they do; and when you are the chazan (cantor), if it is a synagogue that allows every chazan to pray according to his own minhag, than do so. However, when there are major differences between customs, you should recite the prayers as does the majority of the congregation.
This is a balanced approach which maintains the community’s cohesion on the one hand, and the ancestral traditions on the other. Indeed, after the Sanhedrin is established speedily in our days, its members will be able to determine a standard minhag, but in the meantime, it is worthy to continue the diverse customs, for each one has special value. And the most important point is the importance of continuing the traditions of our ancestors, as this is the chain that connects us to all the earlier generations, going back to the fathers of the Jewish Nation and the Giving of the Torah.
What are the Obligatory Minhagei Avot
Nonetheless, it should be stressed that minhag avot applies only to known customs that one saw in his house, and does not apply to minhagim that one saw written in a book, which indeed possess the asset of safeguarding the variations, but lacks the main virtue of maintaining Jewish heritage. It should be added that devotion to nusach avot should be done pleasantly and in moderation, without burdening children or family members with rebukes over fine technicalities which will only distance them from minhag avot.
In regards to disputed minhagim that several Gedolei Yisrael were opposed to, if they are minhagei avot that are only written in a book and you do not recall them from your father’s house – you should not practice them, since they do not have the validity of minhag avot.
If you remember them from your father’s house, then, if the leading rabbis of the Ashkenazi community have responses to the claims, you should continue the minhag avot. This is the custom of all Ashkenazi Jews concerning the reciting of piyutim (poems) in the first three blessings of the High Holy Days.
If for some reason you need to move, indeed it would be good to move to a place where there is a synagogue with your minhag. This is on the condition, however, that the community acts with a Torah attitude towards derech eretz, namely, they have a positive attitude towards parnasa (earning a living) and secular studies, or at the very least, do not object to it, as some Haredim mistakenly do. This is because the right attitude towards parnasa and secular studies is far more important and fundamental than the nusach of prayer.
Are Parents Required to Give Ten Percent of their Assets for their Children’s Weddings?
Indeed, it is a mitzvah for parents to give 10% of their assets to marry-off each of their children, as explained in the Gemara (Ketubot 52b): “And to what extent [are parents required to give for their daughter’s wedding]? Both Abaye and Raba ruled: Up to a tenth of his wealth.”
Therefore, if a father dies without expressing his opinion on how much he wished to give for his daughter’s wedding, a tenth of his assets are given (Ketubot 68a; S.A. 113:1), however, beit din (religious court) does not coerce the fulfillment of this mitzvah (Rema 70:1).
The same is true for the wedding of one’s son. Maharam Mintz wrote that it is forbidden for a father to give his daughter more than a tenth of his assets, so as not to discriminate against his sons (see, Responsa Maharam Mintz 1:31; Tosefot in the name of Rabbi Hananel, Ketubot 50b).
However, the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) wrote that often this was not the custom, because at times the economic reality was so hard that if parents did not give a fifth of their assets or even more, they wouldn’t be able to find a husband for their daughter, and she would have remained lonely all her life (Rema 113:1; Taz 1).
The Mitzvah of Giving Ten Percent of One’s Assets towards the Wedding Nowadays
Indeed, it is difficult to adapt the instruction of our Sages to our times. Our life expectancy has increased to an average of more than eighty years, of which the average person has to live on pension funds for 15 years. If one does not manage to save substantial sums to add to his pension plan, he will suffer from distress in his old age. In contrast, in the past the average life expectancy of an adult was about fifty or sixty years, and therefore the amount of time when one could not work was much shorter.
Another significant difference: In the past, one-tenth of a person’s assets were intended to build a house (one room), to provide the means to support the couple (such as a plot of land), and for the wedding feast. In contrast, the cost today of vocational training has increased and is far more expensive, but after a person has a profession, he can earn more than he needs, and live a life of comfort that previous generations could not have dreamed of.
In the past, a young man would start working with his father or with another craftsman, and while on the job would learn the profession and sustain himself, with no other cost to his parents. Today however, according to the law parents must support their children until the age of eighteen, and generally tend to support them for several additional years, in order for them to be educated, mature, and acquire a profession, and be able to stand on their own two feet, establish a family, and make a decent living.
What Size Family were Our Sages referring to?
Furthermore, it is essential to say that our Sages spoke about families who merited marrying-off at the most six or seven children. Even a person who did not suffer from infertility or other ailments did not merit marrying-off more children, because the majority of the children died in infancy and childhood. In practice, in most families no more than four children reached the wedding canopy. Thus, even after giving each child a tenth of their assets, most of the assets were left for the parents so they could continue living off them in dignity.
We must thank God for the blessing we have been allotted in recent times, because thanks to economic and medical advances, the average Torani or Haredi family has about eight children, while quite a few families have even more. In any event, it is clear that our Sages intention was not that parents who merited having ten children would divide up all their possessions in life, and remain impoverished for thirty years until they passed away.
Let’s return to the halakha: Since our living conditions have changed quite a bit, and it’s difficult to calculate all of one’s assets (with funds, compensation, etc.), the goal of the mitzvah must first be clarified, which is to help children get married and have a family.
Therefore, the mitzvah incumbent upon parents is to help their children pay for their wedding and purchase the initial furniture according to their financial situation, and also help them acquire a profession that suits their skills with which they will be able to provide for their families in dignity and buy a house. And if they are capable – it would be commendable to help them in the purchase of a house.
Typically, the total investment in their children’s education and expenses while they learn a trade and the wedding costs can amount to one-tenth of the assets accumulated up to that point. But there is no need to calculate this in detail.
All that I have written about the mitzvah of parents helping their children in their wedding refers to children who get married by the age of 24, the appropriate age according to our Sages, for at this age, parent’s assistance is very important and helpful for the wedding. But the older children get, they should save their own money, and the parent’s obligation to help them decreases.
To Educate about the Importance of Marriage
And before all else, it is a mitzvah from the Torah for parents to educate their children towards Torah and mitzvot, as it is written: “Teach your children to speak of them” (Deuteronomy 11:19), and the intention is to teach them Torah, so they will keep the mitzvot. And one of the most major and important issues in the Torah is the importance of establishing a family, which embodies all of the values, such as: love your neighbor as yourself, fidelity, revealing unity, having children, mental and spiritual health, bringing the redemption closer, etc. And it is a mitzvah for parents to speak at length about the different values brought to light through marriage.
Occasionally parents lament their terrible grief and pain over their children not getting married. The problem is that when children are older, it is difficult to educate them. Parents should take preventative measures by educating their children in these matters when they are young. And before they reach the age of marriage, tell their children that they will stand beside them, and help them as best they can.
It should be added that the media’s heightened coverage of women who were refused a get (a religious divorce) and battered women is not helpful, to put it mildly, in encouraging marriage. When children and teenagers hear about all the problems, while in contrast, no one talks about the merits, value, and mitzvah of marriage, it’s no wonder they find it difficult to marry. Unfortunately, there are also religious institutions that throughout all the students’ high school years, often give lectures about women refused a get and battered women, and forget to devote ten times as much time discussing the importance of marriage.
True, it is our duty to fight these injustices and correct them as best we can, but we must not allow dealing with these issues to undermine all the good in life.