Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Minhag and Halachah

Tonight (Thursday night) is the fourth of December, a significant date on the Jewish calendar. Wait – the Jewish calendar doesn't have a "December"! Well, yes and no. And thereby hangs a tale.

For a little less than half the year, we ask for rain in the “Blessing of the Year”, recited in the midst of each weekday Amidah. The timing mostly coincides with the rainy season in Israel. When the rainy season stops (at about Pesach), we stop asking for rain – we don't want to make a vain prayer. When the rainy season begins (around Sukkot)...well, it depends.

In the Land of Israel, you really could start asking for rain during Sukkot. But who wants a wet sukkah? And who wants to ask ha-Shem for something that you don't really want? So we wait until everyone is done with Sukkot – measured as the time it takes for pilgrams to walk (or ride camels) from Jerusalem to the other side of the Euphrates river, also known as the 7th day of Cheshvan (this year, that was the 5th of November). Notice: that's a date in Cheshvan, in the Jewish calendar, because it's measured relative to the end of Sukkot.

But the authors of the Talmud lived in Babylonia (ok, the authors of the Babylonian Talmud, but that's the one we all follow). The rainy season there starts later. And the time of year when it starts is measured by a solar calendar – relative to the fall equinox or winter solstice. In fact, the Talmud decrees that the rainy season (and the request for rain in the Amidah) for Babylonia begins 60 days after the fall equinox. That's not a fixed day in the Jewish lunar calendar. Hence we're marking the change in the Amidah as a date in December, not Cheshvan or Kislev.

Now, hold on a second. We're in Washington DC, not Babylonia or the Land of Israel. When does our rainy season start? The halachic decision (after the Talmud) was to begin asking for rain at the beginning of the local rainy season (that's the quintessentially logical position of the ever-logical Rambam); or, especially in places that don't really have a rainy season, then to follow the default custom of the date used in Israel, the 7th of Cheshvan (for example, the Meiri and the Rosh).

Oops. We don't seem to follow either of those two options. Instead, we pretend we're living in Babylonia? Does that make sense? Or to quote the Rambam on this issue, “Is this not falsehood and foolishness?” (Commentary on the Mishnah, Taanit ch. 1).

The Rosh got pretty worked up about this issue (Klal 4, Sec 10 of his teshuvot, collected by his son, and cited by Zevin in ha-Moadim b'Halachah):

My heart told me that now the time had come to correct what I had desired to correct these many years....But their hearts were swayed aside and they turned their minds backwards....They had swayed the hearts of the community so as not to accept from me the words of the living God.”

Zevin concurs, writing that our current practice “is an astonishing tradition, difficult to comprehend.” But he cites the Jerusalem Talmud's general principal (Yevamot ch.12): “Minhag can override Halachah.”

So, as a practical matter, we start asking for rain on Thursday night, marking off the date in December. Even though it's an “astonishing tradition, difficult to comprehend.” But that only begs the question – for where does minhag (custom) come from? How does it get established? True, once established, it's hard to dislodge, and often not proper to dislodge. But if, by whatever mechanism, it does get dislodged, and a new minhag is established in it's place – does that new minhag also override halacha? Or perhaps the equivalent, does halachah morph to accommodate the newly established minhag? In a Kaplan-esque mode, can one engage in that process consciously, or can it only be determined to have happened in retrospect, usually after the passage of multiple generations?

No answers here, sorry. But there are plenty of new minhagim being established at the Zoo. May those that are right and just be firmly planted.

[Note: the astute reader may have noticed that the 4th of December is not 60 days after the autumnal equinox. A special Mi-sheBerach at the next Zoo for anyone who can explain why.]

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