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Minhag HaMakom

There is a tradition, called "Minhag haMakom" of keeping the local customs. "Minhag" means custom, and "haMakom" means "the Place." Examples include... at B'nai Zion, during Friday evening service, our custom is to stand, bless the candles, and immediately do the Kiddush. Many communities do not even light candles or do Kiddush during services. More communities do the blessings, but the Kiddush will be done later in the service. 

If you travel, it will sometimes surprise you that things are not the way you do them. Sometimes you may disagree with the way they do things. Sometimes you may bring new ideas to try back home. 

I should also explain that Minhag - Custom is not the same as Hok - law. Laws are meant to be consistent, but customs may often vary. 

Another thing I should explain is that when a man and woman marry, the woman is supposed to take the man's customs, in order to preserve "Shalom Bayit" (peace in th home - which may be something I write about another time).  The fact that there is Minhag haMakom as a guiding principle even for congregations or communities is always supposed to be a way of ensuring Shalom - peace.  It isn't always easy to get used to new customs. We tend to like what we know.

Sometimes, new customs arise out of situations that make it obvious to everyone that a new custom was necessary. For example, B'nai Zion included a blessing for our military. It started many years ago (not long after I became Rabbi) when a family at Barksdale Air Force Base came to me to discuss the fact that the father was about to be deployed for many months. They wanted a ritual to do with their three year old so that they could do it while dad was still with them at home, and then continue the ritual while dad was away. I created a bed time ritual for them to do at home (which I have posted on my website).  Since they were also coming to services regularly, I added a prayer for the military, so that she knew we were also always praying for her dad. Over the years the prayer has changed. I added to the prayer because I knew others who were deployed, and so I added words that were more specifically for their situation. After some of the shootings of synagogues, and the necessity for more security, I realized how important our police were, and added words for them. Then there were widespread fires in the US, Israel, and elsewhere. I added the Fire Fighters. Recently a congregant approached me to suggest that doctors AND nurses should be included too - because they are often putting their lives in danger to protect us too. All of this has taken on new meaning since the pandemic began.

I struggle a lot about Minhag haMakom when it comes to Passover. When I was growing up my whole family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) would change dishes for Passover. We also did a VERY thorough cleaning of the house, including everything from washing all the blankets and curtains, to emptying and cleaning and re-lining all drawers and cabinets. No trace of chametz was supposed to be left in our house. Nothing that touched chametz was allowed to touch the Passover things. The only food that was allowed in the house had to say "Kosher for Passover" on it. That meant EVERYTHING: including milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, soda - everything. Living in New York, that was no difficult to do. 

We did all of that even after my parents stopped keeping a kosher home. We may have had food in the house during the year that was not kosher food, but during Passover it was strictly kosher and strictly kosher for Passover. 

When I got married I was pleasantly surprised that his family had a similar minhag. They did not keep kosher during the rest of the year, but they changed dishes and kept strictly kosher and kosher for Passover. 

There was one problem: my family came from Russia/Poland and kept the Minhag of not eating rice or legumes. He said that he couldn't imagine Passover without rice - it was their staple dish during the week-long festival. Our staple was potatoes. He didn't remember ever eating potatoes during Passover. I had inherited my great-grandmother's (may her memory be a blessing) kosher for Passover dishes. I felt like I would be poisining the dishes if I put rice on them. I asked my mom what I was supposed to do. She asked her mom, who asked the Rabbi. Rabbi Listoken had been the family Rabbi for generations of our family. Mom called and said that the Rabbi said, "When she takes his name (in other words, when I marry the guy), she takes his customs." I told mom that was fine. I guess I would name my first child for my grandmother - which I obviously would NEVER do. Our minhag was that you name your children for deceased relatives. Naming a child for a living relative - in our custom - was wishing that the living relative would die. Obviously I had NO intention of doing that. I was trying to show how difficult it was to cope with conflicting traditions. 

I ate rice on my great-grandmother's dishes. I couldn't invite most people I knew to my house during Passover, even though my home was strictly Kosher for Passover. For almost all of my friends and family, rice was considered chametz, so my house wasn't considered Kosher for Passover to them. When I was cleaning out my closets, almost everything got to stay. Canned peas or corn, rice, etc. used to be forbidden to me during Passover, but now got to stay in the closet - and even potentially get eaten during Passover. It was not so easy for me. I still keep those traditions (which is also a discussion for another time). It is still weird for me.

I moved to Shreveport, and we still kept our traditions: deep cleaning, switching all food things (dishes, utensils, pots, pans, containers - everything). It was significantly more difficult to buy only things that said "Kosher for Passover," but that was less of an issue, since in Italy the Jews did not need anything to say it, they knew what was or wasn't, and made their own choices. That was helpful when I came to Shreveport, because so much of the things I had relied on to be marked that they were ok for Passover, were not marked. Even the dairy products - that were all marked in NY, were rarely marked here. Or when they were, they were  five times more expensive, which, according to the minhag of my husband, was truly not necessary. 

Until this year, every year that I have been Rabbi we have had a congregational Seder. Typically between 130 - 180 people attend. Every year my family sits at a different table - which may not be so weird. Families do get to sit together at the Seder. What is different is that my family does not eat on the dishes that are used every day at B'nai Zion. My family won't eat any of the things - even the non-meat things - that are served during the Seder meal, because they were prepared using chametz utensils. Every year I feel weird about that. 

In Shreveport I have found that there is Minhag haMakom for many people of doing exactly what it commands in the Torah: no bread or wheat products for a week and only matzah for a week. I found that many people will eat out in restaurants during Passover - but skip anything that isn't Kosher for Passover. There are some people in our congregation who think that Passover is only the Seder (not a whole week long commandments) - and they make sure to eat matzah and not bread or wheat products during the Seder meal. They do it because that is their Minhag about KEEPING Passover. 

Every year I struggle with whether I should eat on the same plates as everyone else at our Seder. It is Minhag haMakom. 

There is a story from Jewish tradition that tells of a king whose advisors come and tell him that there is a problem with the wheat crop this year. Everyone who eats it goes crazy. They also try to reassure him that they have saved enough of the "good" wheat for him and his family to continue to eat and not go crazy. The king tells the advisors that he will eat the wheat that the people are eating. He needs to be their king. He needs to eat their wheat. 

I think of that story every year that I choose to continue to keep my Minhag, and not Minhag haMakom. 

There was a year that I almost didn't swap my dishes. The year that my father died. I got the call Friday morning. My house was cleaned already for Passover. The every-day / chametz dishes were put away. All I had to do was get the Passover dishes out and put them on the newly-lined shelves. Then I got the call. I went to the Rabbi, tore my shirt, came home, and sat down at the kitchen table. I kept remembering that I had to change the dishes. I would stand up, get to the cabinets, and forget why I was there. So I would sit down at the table again. Then I would remember again, get up, and forget again. I then remembered that between the time when someone dies and when they are buried, I was not obligated to fulfill those Mitzvot (commandments). So I went to Sam's Club, bought a bunch of disposable stuff (wasn't proud about that, but it seemed like the best option that year), and that was what we used. My sons thought that was a great way to have Passover, because it felt like we were "camping out" like we did when we left Egypt. We didn't continue to do it every year like that - although we did sometimes. It is still their favorite Passover Minhag, even when we change dishes, they sometimes wish we were doing the "camping out" method. 

Minhag is just a custom. It sometimes feels like the absolute way it should be done. It is, however, just a custom. Customs can be changed, or swapped. 

This year, given the fact that we were all confined to our homes, Minhag took a back seat. We had a Zoom Seder. The cool thing about that was that my mom (who is by herself in her house) had a Seder with her four children and four out of seven of her grandchildren. That has never happened before - not just the fact that it was on Zoom, but that we were all "together." If you put all five of the households together we barely had one complete Seder plate. I loved that. This year was precious to me. We were scared of what was going on outside. We were hiding from a plague (very much like we did before we escaped Egypt). We had no idea about what the future would hold. I was sorry not to be with my congregation, but this was possibly the most meaningful of all Passover Seders I have ever had in my 60 years. 

In the middle of all of this, I tried to use our minhagim (customs) to create new ones, as I created services that could be viewed online. I need to end this long post, because it is time to make a new service, as we create new minhagim and keep old ones.  

Mon, November 30 2020 14 Kislev 5781