Minhag and Derech Eretz

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Minhag and Derech Eretz, the Last Two Categories of Religious Obligation for Peri Megadim

Prescribed Customs

The seventh level of obligation consists of minhag, for example waving aravot on Sukkot (what we today call hoshanot, where we walk around the bima as representative of the mizbe’ah, the altar, in the Temple, and on then on the seventh day of Sukkot, we walk around seven times and then bang them on the ground). Sukkah 44a records a dispute between R. Yohanan and R. Yehoshu’a b. Levi as to whether this was a yesod of the prophets, a practice they established, or a minhag, a custom they put in place.

Rashi says the distinction matters for berachah, we would recite a blessing before fulfilling a yesod, an ordinance, but not a minhag. (An important source for Peri Megadim who, as we saw last time, assumes we only recite blessings before rabbinic practices subsumed under the prohibition of lo tasur. Rashi seems to agree.)

Hallel on Rosh Hodesh is a similarly top-down custom. Rambam, Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah 3;7 tells us it is a custom rather than a commanded activity, and Tur and Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 422;2) agree. The blessing is more complicated there; Rambam held we do not make a berachah, because it is a minhag, as we have said up until now (and, as we saw above, Rashi seems to be on his side). Tur already pointed out two other views: Ittur say only a community recites a blessing (because a communal custom is of sufficient significance to merit one, despite there being no lo tasur issue). Rabbenu Tam and Rosh thought individuals would also recite a blessing, severing it from lo tasur more fully.


(Allow me to digress a moment, once the idea of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh has arisen. We call it a “half” Hallel, where the Gemara referred to it as being said be-dilug, skipping. It was noting the custom on Rosh Hodesh and the last six days of Pesah to twice omit the beginning of a chapter and pick up in the middle. Because of how our siddurim are printed, I am not sure we notice that: we skip the beginning of Psalm 115 (what we call Lo lanu), go to 115;12, Hashem zecharanu yevarech, and then again do not say the beginning of Psalm 116 (Ahavti) and pick it up at 116;12 (Mah ashiv).

It took me years to pay attention to it, to realize it should mean that on days we say a “full” Hallel, we should leave out those breaks, to make clear it is all one Psalm. I suspect many observant Jews assume Hashem zecharanu yevarech is its own chapter of Tehillim, because it is set off as a separate paragraph and we sing it with its own song. Ditto for Mah ashiv.)

The Second Day of Holiday

There are problematic cases on either side of the custom and blessing question. Tosafot need to explain why hoshanot have no berachah, where they thought customs could need blessings. They say it is different because it is only tiltul, a carrying, not enough of an action to merit a berachah.

Rambam (and Rashi’s) view of custom as not producing a blessing faces the challenge of yom tov sheni shel galuyot, the practice to observe a second day of holidays outside of Israel. Beitzah 4b discussed why diaspora Jews continue to observe a second day afte the calendar had been fixed,  and answered “hizaharu be-minhag avoteichem bi-yedeichem, be careful of your forefathers’ customs, lest persecutions return, and you will not know when to establish the holiday.” If it is a custom, why a berachah?

[That the Talmud already asked and answered this question is the best response to people who today raise the issue as if they had just discovered it, who are sure we need not keep a second day anymore. Numerous times, people have approached me on the issue, triumphantly pointing out we today know when the holiday is. The answer starts “so did the Gemara, and nevertheless…]

Peri Hadash pointed out Shabbat 23a asked about the berachah on second days of holidays for another reason, that we usually do not make a blessing when acting a certain way only to assuage a doubt, to be sure we have fulfilled an obligation. The Gemara said it was to prevent people from treating the second day casually (if we did not recite a blessing, people would be more sure than they are now that it does not count as a “real” holiday).

Peri Megadim adds that most of the blessings we recite on the second day of a holiday are in kiddush or prayers, times when the blessings are more praise than in advance of fulfillment of a mitzvah. Ran had noted two problematic ones, blowing shofar the second day of Rosh Hashenah and eating matzah at the second Seder.

Rosh HaShanah’s exceptional status eases our way to an answer about its second-day shofar blowing. The problems in knowing which day of two candidates was Rosh HaShanah were not restricted to the diaspora, because the court had to wait until witnesses came to declare the day (in the times before a fixed calendar). Sometimes they came late in the day, creating confusion, to avoid which the rabbis established it as always being a two-day holiday. It is not a custom in commemoration of olden times, it was Hazal’s way of avoiding problems.

For matzah the second night, Peri Megadim suggests the seven-day prohibition of hametz makes this matzah a mitzvah, worthy of a berachah. [R. Eisenberger notes R. Akiva Eiger’s objection, we also make a berachah on maror on the second night.  R. Eiger suggested a berachah of al—not l-, as in lishmo’a kol shofar, to hear the blowing of the shofar, or to put on tefillin—was easier to say, because it sounds more like a blessing on the fact of there being a mitzvah, not necessarily this performance being mitzvah-obligatory.

I think Peri Megadim’s reasoning could have implied we should make a berachah any time we eat matzah during Pesah; perhaps the answer is we make the berachah because of the combination of there being a prohibition of hametz plus a rabbinically instituted custom to observe a second day. Note we are specifically not saying the rabbinic decision to continue two days of Yom Tov even in the era of the fixed calendar turns the day into a takkanah, an ordinance. It remains a custom.]

Blessing and Commandment

None of the answers so far explain the blessing on Rosh Chodesh Hallel, where we say ve-tzivanu, and commanded us, a word Peri Megadim is firmly convinced we reserve for commandments. The idea means it is also not clear why we recite a blessing when reading the Torah in public, also possibly a matter of minhag rather than a rabbinic ordinance.

Ritva suggested some customs were ordained, sometimes Hazal established something firmly enough to qualify for lo tasur and a berachah despite their putting it in the category of minhagPeri Megadim also notes the Ashkenazic practice for women to recite blessings before they perform mitzvot from which they are exempt, although they theoretically cannot say ve-tzivanu, Who has commanded us. He suggests the existence of an obligation for men brings the blessing into possibility, and women can then say it if they choose to observe the practice.

[We should pay attention to his perspective of minhag, a word often used to describe any practice that has arisen among Jews, either the whole nation or some subset of them. For Peri Megadimminhag is codified, the only question being its level of codification. He seems to me to indicate other customs are not obligatory at these levels at all; they may be incumbent for other reasons—Pesahim 50b has a story of people asking R. Yohanan about relinquishing such a practice, and he treated it as a kabbalah, an acceptance, not to be dismissed casually.

For Peri Megadim, it seems to be a subset of vows/oaths, practices we take upon ourselves that then become obligatory. As far as I can tell, he only brings up these Benei Bayshan when Shulhan Aruch discusses work on Fridays, the area where their forefathers adopted this extra stringency.]

A question Peri Megadim does not resolve has to do with lashes, whether courts enforce the observance of such customs by lashing refusers (either until death if the practice is ongoing, or just one set, with already-neglected customs).

Worthy Life Practices

Hazal also recommend certain ways of living, as a matter of politeness or proper discipline. A prominent example is obeying whatever one’s host commands, perhaps at risk of lashes. Derech Eretz, a small tractate of baraitot, tells a story where some guests refused the host’s telling them to eat, and he punished them. Taz, Orah Hayyim 170;3, assumed the story ratifies the possibility of lashes, where Peri Megadim thought it could not be because of the idea of obeying a host, as that is derech eretz, a practice of politeness.

Where there are no lashes, we have assumed there was no berachah as well, yet smelling spices and seeing a lit fire at the end of Shabbat are also such derech eretz practices, not firm rules. For the spices, the berachah can be a matter of enjoying their smell, so it is no different than smelling them on a random Wednesday. For borei me’orei ha-esh, the blessing on the candle, Peri Megadim suggests only the lack of ve-tzivanu smooths our way to a blessing.

These last two categories have highlighted his struggle to understand when and where we are obligated by the system and the ramifications of those obligations, particularly for being part of a Biblical prohibition (including lo tasur), have a blessing, and/or being susceptible to lashes.

Here he ends the first part of the five-part petihah, although his first part took up just under thirty percent of it (making it half again as large as we would have expected). Next time, I hope to step back and review what seemed to me the highlights of this first part of the Petihah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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