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  • Torah and Jewish Thought
  • Principles of Mitzva Observance

The value of Minhagim and Torah law


Rabbi Yoel Lieberman

Iyyar 25, 5770
My question is regarding how some restrictions which have built up on certain Mitzvot have overtaken the Mitzvah themselves. I’ll give two examples. The way the Issur of eating Kitniot on Pesach for Ashkenazim has been blown way out of proportion, so that it seems that eating Kitniyot might be even worse than eating Chametz, whereas Issur Chametz is from the Torah, Issur Kitniyot is not even from the Talmud -Mederabanan. Similarly Sfirat HaOmer. It seems to me that the mourning aspects have overtaken the actual Mitzvah of Sfirat Haomer, so that people will be so meticulous not to shave, or listen to music or whatever, but apart from a quick Bracha at Ma’ariv, Sfira is not given it’s right priority. I personally shave during Sfira. I am only 51, but have white hair, and don’t feel that I can go around in public or at work with a beard that will make me look 70, however I don’t cut my hair until lag BaOmer, and try to think of the significance of Sfira when I count, and am interested in knowing more about it, and the various prayers associated with it. I’d be interested in any comments from the Rabbonim.
Minhagim carry great weight even if they are not mentioned in the torah. The Chatam Sofer (Orach Chaim 1: 122) quotes Tosafot in Gittin 36b which says that in order to abolish a minhag which has been accepted by Am yisrael we need the Bet Din Gadol. He furthermore quotes the Rambam (Mamrim2:3) who says that anything which was decreed as a safeguard can not be annulled even by a bet Din which is greater than the Bet din which decreed it originally. Also, once even a personal minhag has been accepted, not to follow it comes under the category of not adhering to a neder= vow, which then makes the minhag a Torah enforced mitzvah.(See Rosh Pesachim 4:3, Nedarim 2:4, Shulchan Aruch 214:1, ChayyaAdam 127:7). Rav Kook zt"l in his book Eder Hayakar (pg. 39, 48) speaks about the basis of the acceptance of all the Rabbinic decrees which stem from the acceptance of Am Yisrael and only later the Rabbis of the generations gave guidelines for these undertakings. He brings as an example the cherem=excommunication-edict of Rabenu Gershom who was not a Tanna or an Amora. Yet his prohibition of bigamy was accepted by Am Yisrael as torah law. Therefore, Rav Kook said, people who don't accept the minhagim are basically disassociating themselves from Am yisrael. This idea has direct relevance to the laws of mourning during the Sefira. Unknown to many, the mourning for the falling of Rabbi Akiva's students received additional enforcement after the massacres of the Jews in different communities in Germany during the First Crusade( know as גזרות תתנ"ו). The dates of some of these atrocities were on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, 8th of Iyyar and the 23rd of Iyyar. This is part of the reason for the severity of these laws. The more we learn, the more we learn to appreciate the value and importance of each minhag. Having said that, that doesn't make any additional "chumra" = stringency to the existing minhagim as something which is accepted by all of Israel. Therefore, a Rabbi should be consulted regarding your personal practice. There are also some opinions in Halacha to be considered when a need for shaving arises to shaving on certain days during Sefira, and a Rabbi should be consulted. There is also what to be said about the counting in our time if it is Torah or Derabanan enforced. In either case it should be said with the proper concentration and meaning.
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