06 – Preserving Minhagim versus Strengthening the Community

https://ph.yhb.org.il/en/02-06-06/

The preservation of minhagim, in addition to maintaining the nusach of the prayer, entails upholding the pronunciation of the prayers. Each community – the Yemenites, the Sephardim, and the Ashkenazim – pronounces the prayers according to its own particular dialect. In addition, l’chatchilah, it is proper that each ethnic group continue to pray in its own traditional tunes (see Rama, Orach Chaim 619:1). Clearly, it is permissible to introduce new melodies. However, in the main part of the prayer, the traditional tune that was sanctified throughout the generations should be preserved. For that reason, a person must initially pray in a synagogue which conducts the service in his family’s nusach.[5]

Judaism is comprised of numerous different minhagim. The nusach of the Sephardim is divided into many customs. Concerning matters of halachah, the key distinctions are evident between those who practice according to the Shulchan Aruch and those who follow the Ben Ish Chai. Furthermore, there is a specific nusach for Jews from North Africa. While the differences in nusach and halachic matters among those from North Africa and Iraq and Syria are relatively minor, their melodies contrast more strikingly. Even among the immigrants from North Africa there are such distinct disparities in melody, so that Algerians sound dissonant to Moroccans; and to Jews from Libya, both Algerians and Moroccans sound off-key. To perfectly preserve the numerous minhagim, there would have to be individual synagogues for immigrants from Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, as well as differing synagogues for immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Persia, and Turkey.

Among Ashkenazic immigrants there are different minhagim as well, the primary distinction being between the Chassidim and all remaining Ashkenazim. Still, there are other significant differences in types of diction and melody. The tunes of those who pray in the Nusach Ashkenaz from Western Europe are completely different from the tunes in the Nusach Ashkenaz from Lithuania. Furthermore, regarding diction, there are at least four variations of pronunciation – those of immigrants from Lithuania, Poland, Galitzia, and Hungary. Different sects of Chassidim also have varying minhagim and distinct melodies. Additionally, among the Yemenites there are two main nusachimBaladi and Shami.

However, if strictly safeguarding the minhagim will bring about the dismantling of the community, it is preferable to forgo the preservation of the customs. In general, when a community is unified, and it arranges Torah study for men, women, and children, and people perform acts of kindness for one another, it succeeds in keeping its members committed to Torah and mitzvot. On the other hand, when a community lacks unity and a communal dedication to Torah, its members become are weak and above all, its children are adversely affected.

Although l’chatchilah every person should pray according to his family’s minhag, if this necessitates the establishment of dozens of small synagogues, making it difficult to assemble a minyan and organize regular Torah classes, it is preferable that ethnic groups with similar minhagim merge to form a stronger community. For example, all Jews from North Africa should pray together and if that is not sufficient, then all people who pray in the Sephardic nusach should pray together.[6]

Therefore, in each and every place, it is necessary to weigh the pros and cons, i.e., the importance of preserving the minhagim against the significance of establishing a strong, solid community. When there are enough families from the same ethnic group living in one place, enabling them to establish a large synagogue while preserving the traditions of their minhagim, all the better. But when the number of families is insufficient, it is best that they join a group with customs similar to their own, provided that they form a strong congregation. If the consolidation of similar ethnic groups will not be adequate to ensure a strong community, it is better that all the members of the differing groups – Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Yemenites – merge to become one community. This issue requires serious consideration, and for that reason, it is up to the mara d’atra, the primary rabbi of the place, to resolve such matters.


[5]. In the opinion of the Rashdam 35, the warning, “Do not abandon your mother’s teachings,” does not apply to minhagim, rather only to laws. Therefore there is no concern in changing one’s nusach of prayer. However, the Hagahot Maymoniyot, based on the Yerushalmi, writes that we are not to switch our family’s nusach, and the Magen Avraham 68:1 cites his opinion as the halachah. That is the opinion of the majority of poskim as well. In practice, concerning an issue of law, it is more important to preserve the minhag. However, regarding non-law-related matters, such as liturgy, and even more so melodies, it is possible to be more lenient in changing them.
[6]. In addition to this, even though it would be proper that every group preserved all its own minhagim and melodies, there is also a positive aspect to the merging of the Diaspora communities in Israel. Since a person does not necessarily choose a place to live based on his ethnicity, a situation is already created in which the similar nusachim can consolidate. Today most Ashkenazim practice that way; people with different traditions pray together.
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