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Origin of word
The Hebrew root N-H-G (Hebrew: נ-ה-ג) means primarily "to drive" or, by extension, "to conduct (oneself)".
The actual word minhag appears twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the same verse and rendered in this translation as "the driving":
The watchman reported, saying, "He has reached them, but has not returned. The driving is like the driving of Jehu [grand]son of Nimshi, for he is driving [his chariot] recklessly." (II Kings 9:20, Tanach: The Stone Edition)
Homiletically, one could argue that the use of the word minhag in Jewish law reflects its Biblical Hebrew origins as "the (manner of) driving (a chariot)". Whereas Halakha (law), from the word for walking-path, means the path or road set for the journey, minhag (custom), from the word for driving, means the manner people have developed themselves to travel down that path more quickly.
The present use of minhag for custom may have been influenced by the Arabic minhaj, though in current Islamic usage this term is used for the intellectual methodology of a scholar or school of thought (cf. Hebrew derech) rather than for the customs of a local or ethnic community.
Minhag and Jewish law
Orthodox Jews consider Halakha, Jewish law as derived from the Talmud, binding upon all Jews. However, in addition to these halakhot, there have always been local customs and prohibitions. Some customs were eventually adopted universally (e.g. wearing a head covering) or almost universally (e.g. monogamy). Others are observed by some major segments of Jewry but not by others (e.g., not eating rice on Passover). These Minhagim exist in various forms:
- Ancient minhagim go back to the time of the Talmud and earlier. Today they are generally regarded as universally binding. The oldest recorded minhag is that of 'beating the Aravot' (Willow Branches) on Hoshanah Rabbah, and dates back to the era of the Prophets.
- Later minhagim are followed by specific groups.
- Jews whose ancestors continued to live in the Middle East and Africa until the establishment of the State of Israel, regardless of where they live now, tend to follow a variety of customs, such as Mizrahi-Sephardi or Temani. Jews whose ancestors lived in Central Europe in the Middle Ages (regardless of where they live now) tend to follow Ashkenazic customs, while those whose families originated in the Iberian peninsula generally follow Sephardic customs. (The Talmud gives detailed rules for people who visit or move to a locale where the custom differs from their own.) Hasidim tend to follow their own Minhagim.
- Within these broad categories there are also sub-groups by origin (e.g. Lithuanian or Polish or German customs), by location (e.g. "minhag Yerushalayim") or by branch (e.g. Skverrer Hasidim follow different customs than Chabad Hasidim).
- Families and even individuals may adhere to specific minhagim not followed by others.
Discussion in Rabbinic literature
Various sources in Rabbinic literature stress the importance of a long-held tradition, culminating in the statement "the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah" (e.g. Tosafot to Menahot 20b s.v. nifsal). Custom can thus determine halachic practice in cases of disagreement among rabbinic authorities. In numerous instances, Rabbi Moses Isserles warns that one should not abolish long-held customs. (Isserles' gloss on the Shulchan Aruch was, in fact, written so as to delineate Ashkenazi Minhagim alongside Sephardi practices in the same code of law.)
Despite the above, a minhag does not override clear biblical or talmudic enactments, and one may not transgress the latter for the sake of the former. In fact, any minhag that intrinsically involves an element of halakha violation is considered null and void (see Or Zarua 1:7).
The Talmud (Pesachim 50) rules that a valid minhag accepted by previous generations of a family or community is binding upon all later generations. The Rosh (Makom Shenahagu, 3) states that the Talmud's ruling fundamentally applies to practices undertaken by learned individuals; innovations by the unlearned need only be followed publicly. Other halakhic authorities hold that the Talmud's ruling applies to all valid practices initiated by either learned or unlearned individuals (for discussion of this point see Bach and Beit Yosef to Yoreh Deah 214; Shach, ibid., 214:7).
In most cases, personal acceptance of a new minhag is tantamount to vowing performance of that minhag. Consequently, abandonment of such a minhag typically requires hatarat nedarim or sh'eilat chakham, halakhic procedures for absolving oneself from oaths. This was often necessary when, for example, an Ashkenazi Jew moved to the Ottoman Empire and wished to join the local Sephardi community.
Jewish law provides for a number of mechanisms to change or remove a custom when it is held to be mistaken or illogical. (See Tosafot on Talmud Pesachim 51a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah; Be'er Heitev, Orach Chaim 182 in Hilchot Birkat Ha'mazon, Orach Chaim 653 in Hilchot Lulav, Orach Chaim 551:4 in Hilchot Tisha B'av.) Orthodox rabbi and historian of Jewish law Menachem Elon writes:
- Custom, because of its spontaneous and undirected nature, sometimes calls for a measure of supervision and control. At times a custom may be founded on error, or develop unreasonably or illogically in a certain direction, or may even be in conflict with substantive and fundamental principles of Jewish law in a manner leaving no room for its integration into the system. From time to time the halakhic scholars exercised such control in order to contain or discredit entirely a particular custom.
- (The Principles of Jewish Law, single volume English edition)
The acute displacement brought about by World War II and the Holocaust, and the large-scale immigration to the United States, various European countries, and especially the State of Israel, have led to a "liberal mixing" of various minhagim, and arguably the falling into disuse of certain customs. In addition, the baal teshuva movement has created a large group who have no clear tradition from their parents. In response to these phenomena, certain scholars have focused on the minhagim, and attempts have been made to revive minhagim that have fallen into disuse.
Nusach (properly nósach) primarily means "text" or "version", in other words the correct wording of a religious text. Thus the nusach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or as used by a particular community. In common use nusach has come to signify the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition. It is narrower than minhag, which can refer to custom in any field, not necessarily that of communal prayer.
Both nusach and minhag can thus be used for liturgic rite or liturgic tradition, though sometimes a nusach appears to be a subdivision of a minhag or vice versa; see different Jewish rites and popular siddurim under Siddur. In general one must pray according to one's "nusach of origin", unless one has formally joined a different community and accepted its minhag. (Perisha rules that if one abandons a nusach that has been accepted universally by the wider Jewish community, his prayer is disqualified and must be repeated using the accepted nusach: Arba'ah Turim, Orach Chayim, 120 ad loc).
The main segments of traditional Judaism, as differentiated by nusach (broadly and narrowly), are:
- Nusach Ashkenaz: the general Ashkenazi rite of non-Chasidim. Can be subdivided into:
- Minhag Ashkenaz (German rite)
- Minhag Polin/Lita (Polish/Lithuanian/Prague rite)
- Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari (Ashkenazi Chasidic rite, heavily influenced by the teachings of Sephardi Kabbalists)
- Minhag Sefaradi: in general refers to the various Sephardi liturgies, but also to obligation/permissibility of Kabbalistic elements within the rite. Versions of this are:
- The Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Rite
- Nusach Morocco (Moroccan rite: there are differences between the Spanish-Moroccan and the Arab-Moroccan customs)
- Nusach HaChida (The Chida's rite, named after Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai: often used by North African Jews)
- Nusach Livorno (Sephardic rite from nineteenth-century editions printed in Italy, often used by North African Jews)
- Minhag Edot hamizrach: often used to mean the Baghdadi rite, is more or less influenced by the Sephardi minhag.
- Nusach Teiman (see Yemenite Jews): can be subdivided into:
- Palestinian minhag
- Custom, jewishencyclopedia.com
- The Rules of Halacha, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
- Minhag: A Custom with the Status of Law, jewfaq.org
- Customs (Minhagim), nishmat.net
- Rabbinic literature
- Sages of Ashkenaz Database - Online collection of minhag seforim
- Minhagei Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (Maharil), 1556.
- "Sefer HaMinhagim" (Hebrew Fulltext, PDF) Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau, 1566.
- "Ta'amei HaMinhagim", Rabbi A. I. Sperling, 1896; translation: "Reasons for Jewish customs and traditions". Bloch Pub. Co 1968. ISBN 0-8197-0184-X
- "Likutei Maharich". Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Freedman of Rachov.
- "Sefer HaMinhagim", Rabbis M. Greenglass and Y. Groner, 1966; translation: “The Book of Chabad-Lubavitch Customs”. Sichos In English Pub. 1998. ISBN 0-8266-0555-9 
- "Otzar Ta'amei ha-Minhagim", Rabbi Shmuel Gelbard, 1995; translation: "Rite and Reason" Feldheim Pub. 1997 ISBN 0-87306-889-0
- "The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies", Rabbi Abraham Bloch. Ktav 1980. ISBN 0-87068-658-5
- "The Minhagim: The Customs and Ceremonies of Judaism, Their Origins and Rationale", Rabbi Abraham Chill. Sepher Hermon 1978. ISBN 0-87203-077-6
- "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life", Rabbi Hayim Donin. Basic Books 1991. ISBN 0-465-08632-2
- "Jewish Book of Why", Rabbi Alfred Kolatch. Jonathan David 1995. ISBN 0-8246-0314-1
- "Minhagei Yisrael: Origins and History", Rabbi Daniel Sperber. Mossad Harav Kook, 1998.
- "The Complete Book of Jewish Observance", Rabbi Leo Trepp. Behrman House Publishing 1980. ISBN 0-671-41797-5
- "Jewish Spiritual Practices", Yitzhak Buxbaum. Jason Aronson Inc. 1994. ISBN 0-87668-832-6 (hardcover) ISBN 1-56821-206-2 (paperback)