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Peninei Halakha > Women's Prayer > Chapter 24: Prayer Rites (Nusaĥ) and Customs of Different Communities

Chapter 24: Prayer Rites (Nusaĥ) and Customs of Different Communities

01. Differences in Nusaĥ

Following their exile and dispersion, Jews of different communities developed varying prayer rites. The fundamentals of prayer – the elements instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly – such as Birkhot Keri’at Shema and the Amida, the differences are very slight. Even the primary elements of Korbanot and Pesukei De-zimra, which were established during the time of the Talmud and the Ge’onim, have only minor variations. The modifications are more noticeable, however, in the additions that accreted during the period of the Rishonim, such as in the full routine of Korbanot and in the concluding sections of the prayer service, differ greatly from one community to the next. What was added to the Sephardic liturgy was not necessarily accepted in Ashkenaz, and vice versa. This is especially apparent with regard to the liturgical poems composed during the time of the Ge’onim and Rishonim and which were incorporated into the prayer service of the Days of Awe and festivals. Hence, we find major differences between the different prayer rites when it comes to the liturgical poems recited on the Days of Awe.

There are also differences between various ethnic communities when it comes to pronunciation of both Hebrew consonants like tzadi and kuf and vowels like kamatz and ĥolam. It is best that every Jew continue in her family’s custom, for every extant Jewish tradition for pronunciation is valid for prayer (Igrot Moshe OĤ 3:5; additionally, even the formula of the ĥalitza ceremony, in which, according to all opinions, every letter must be enunciated, any community’s pronunciation scheme is valid).

Arizal explains the different prayer rites with a tradition that the heavens have twelve portals, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. The prayers of each tribe ascended through its unique portal. This is the esoteric meaning of the twelve gates mentioned at the end of the book of Yeĥezkel (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot p. 50, 4). This is the practical halakha as well: every Jew must follow the custom of her forebears (MA 68:1; MB 68:4; below we will learn of the cases in which one may change one’s nusaĥ).

02. No Nusaĥ should be Considered Better than Another

Ĥida writes in the name of Arizal that prayer recited the Sephardic nusaĥ ascends through any of the twelve gates. Therefore, in his opinion, Ashkenazim may switch to the Sephardic nusaĥ (see Yabi’a Omer 6:10; Yeĥaveh Da’at 3:6). In contrast, Ĥasidim claim that their nusaĥ (called “Nusaĥ Sepharad” even though it was developed as the liturgy of Eastern European Ĥasidic communities and was not practiced in Sephardic communities) is superior. They maintain that the greatest Ĥasidim investigated and examined numerous versions of the liturgy based on kabbalistic meanings and halakhic considerations and and selected the best among them. The Yemenites, too, claim that their nusaĥ is most precise, for the Jews of Yemen, in all their years of exile, did not wander. Rather, in response to Arab persecution of Yemenite Jews, these communities intensified their dogged and meticulous preservation of their customs. Indeed, Yemenite Torah have been found to be closest in their precision to the Aleppo Codex, the standard of precision for the Torah text. Of course, those who pray in the Ashkenazic nusaĥ also assert that their custom is the most meticulous, transmitted from person to person as far back as Shimon Ha-Pekuli. Furthermore, the basis for Sephardic custom lies with the Amora’im and Ge’onim of Babylonia, whereas Ashkenazic custom originates with the Amora’im and Ge’onim of Eretz Yisrael, who were more proficient in aggada, esoteric wisdom, and liturgy. Incidentally, the reason for certain similarities between the Ashkenazic and the original Yemenite nusaĥ (Baladi), is that both were influenced by the Ge’onim of Eretz Yisrael.

In general, every rite has advantages, and it is not in our power to determine which one is superior. As states in Responsa Ĥatam Sofer (1:15), every nusaĥ is equal, and the fact that Arizal offered mystical interpretations of Nusaĥ Sephard is because he was accustomed to praying in that nusaĥ. Had he been accustomed to praying in the Ashkenazic Nusaĥ, he would have composed mystical kavanot for that rite.

Even if we were to know that a particular custom is more precise, it would still be proper for everyone to continue practicing their received customs, for continuing ancestral traditions is a strong basis for faith. Moreover, even less accurate rites certainly have specific points in their favor that we must be careful to preserve. Only after the Sanhedrin is established will we be able to institute a uniform nusaĥ, which will incorporate the benefits of each nusaĥ. Yet even then, there will be room for different emphases in supplementary prayers and distinct melodies, corresponding to the twelve gates; each community according to its ways.

03. Immigrants and Communities That Migrated

In the past, when the distance between communities was great, Ashkenazim lived in Ashkenaz (Germany), Sephardim in Sepharad (Iberia), and Yemenites in Yemen. Anyone who moved elsewhere would adopt the halakhic and liturgical customs of the new locale, since it is important that every individual community have a uniform custom and avoid the sort of factionalism that constitutes the prohibition of “lo titgodedu” (Devarim 14:1; the verse literally prohibits cutting oneself in mourning for the dead, but the Sages [Yevamot 13b] interpreted the prohibition to include becoming fragmented into different factions [“agudot agudot”]). As the Sages teach, this prohibition mandates that a single rabbinical court may not have some judges who follow the rulings of Beit Shammai and others who follow the rulings of Beit Hillel, so that the Torah is not made into two Torahs (ibid. 14a, according to Rif and Rosh).

Thus, immigrants would adopt fixed local customs. This is why we find people with the name “Ashkenazi” – denoting German origins – following Sephardic custom and families with the name “Frank” – indicating Sephardic origins – following Ashkenazic practice.

Even if, over time, immigrants become the majority of a given community, as long as they arrived as individuals, they assimilate into the existing community and must practice according to its customs (SA YD 214:2; OĤ 468:4; MB 14). In fact, it is possible that most Ashkenazim descend from Sephardic immigrants.

When an entire community migrates, it remains an independent community and does not become subsumed into the local community. Its members need not change their customs (BHL 468:4). Even if the pre-existing community constitutes the majority, as long as the newcomers associate as an independent community, they should continue practicing their initial customs. This applies to Eretz Yisrael, where, by the grace of God, the Ingatherer of scattered Jews, entire communities, led by Torah scholars, have migrated in recent centuries. Because they arrived as full-fledged communities, they were not assimilated into pre-existing communities, so they established synagogues to preserve their customs.

One who must pray regularly in a minyan conducted in a different nusaĥ – for example, one who moves to a place where the only minyan prays in a different nusaĥ – may decide how to act. One option is that she prays in the nusaĥ of that minyan whenever she prays with it. The second option is that she adheres to her ancestral nusaĥ while reciting those parts of the service that are said aloud in the custom of that congregation.

When one who habitually prays in one nusaĥ attends a minyan that prays in another nusaĥ on an occasional basis, the accepted ruling is that all passages recited aloud are prayed in the local nusaĥ, and all silent passages are recited in one’s ancestral nusaĥ (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 6:5).

04. The Status of a Woman who Married a Man from a Different Community

The status of a woman who married a man from a different ethnic community is similar to that of one who migrates to a place where local custom differs from what he is accustomed to: if he intends to live there forever, he must cease practicing his earlier customs and accept the local custom (based on SA YD 214:2; OĤ 468:4; MB 14). Likewise, a woman who marries a member of a different ethnic community is considered to be moving into his home permanently, and she must adopt his customs. For instance, if the custom of her husband’s community is to eat kitniyot on Pesaĥ, she eats them too, and if it is not to eat them, she may not. If they wait six hours between meat and milk, she waits six, and if they wait an hour, she waits an hour. As R. Shimon b. Tzemaĥ Duran (Tashbetz 3:179) writes, it is inconceivable that they regularly eat at the same table, and what is permitted to one is forbidden to the other. Therefore, a woman must follow her husband’s customs, for one’s wife is like himself.

A widow who had a child from her husband continues to follow her late husband’s customs. However, if they did not have children, she returns to her ancestral customs. 1

Similarly, a woman must recite prayers and berakhot according to her husband’s nusaĥ, so that there will not be two different sets of customs in the same household. However, if it does not upset her husband, and it is difficult for her to change her nusaĥ, she may continue praying silently in her own nusaĥ, but she may not pray or recite a berakha aloud in a nusaĥ other than that of her husband. When her children reach the age of education, she must teach them to pray in her husband’s nusaĥ. Therefore, even if her husband agrees that she may praying and recite berakhot in the nusaĥ to which she is accustomed, when her children reach the age of education she should preferably switch to her husband’s nusaĥ so that it is easier for her to teach her children how to recite prayers and berakhot. 2

  1. We see a similar principle in the Torah: if a woman who is not from a family of Kohanim marries a Kohen, she may eat teruma like a Kohen. If her husband dies and she has a child from him, she continues eating teruma. If she subsequently marries a non-Kohen, she may no longer eat teruma. Igrot Moshe OĤ 1:158 further demonstrates that this principle derives from the Torah, as the Torah exempts a married woman from the mitzva of honoring her parents since this mitzva entails going to dress them and feed them if necessary. Since a woman’s obligation to the household she and her husband are establishing takes precedence, the Torah exempts her from this obligation (SA YD 240:17). Thus, the Torah views a woman’s place as her husband’s house. (When there is no clash, a married woman has a mitzva honor her parents.)

    Igrot Moshe further states that a married woman does need not perform hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows) in order to take on her husband’s customs. This is implicit in MB 468:14 as well, which states that since halakha mandates that one who moves from one location to another must adopt the practices of the new community, he does not require hatarat nedarim. So states Kaf Ha-ĥayim 468:43. Though some say that she requires hatarat nedarim (see Peninei Halakha: Pesaĥ, chapter 9 n. 1), in practice, we do not require it, because when she first started practicing her parents’ customs, it was clear that if she marries someone from a different ethnic community she would adopt his customs. Hence, it was clear that she did not intend to follow her parents’ customs all her life, as brought by Halikhot Shlomo: Prayer, ch. 1 n. 8.

  2. As we learned, the prohibition on multiple prayers rites being used in one place is intended to avoid disputes. Since the custom of the home is determined by the husband, this issue depends on him, and he may agree that his wife may continue praying according to her ancestral custom. Halikhot Shlomo: Prayer 1:7 states that a husband may allow his wife to follow her ancestral customs and that it is accepted in many households that the husband agrees that his wife continues praying according to her ancestral rite. It further states that if a wife follows her ancestral custom at the beginning of her marriage and later wishes to switch to her husband’s custom, she must perform hatarat nedarim. Nevertheless, in matters of kashrut it seems that there are no grounds to tolerate divergent customs within a single household, as the divergence would be obvious and constitutes a violation of “lo titgodedu.” Moreover, such practices can disturb domestic harmony. I therefore wrote that a woman must not pray or recite berakhot aloud in a nusaĥ that differs from her husband’s. See Tefila Ke-hilkhata, 4 n. 4, which states in the name of R. Elyashiv that technically she must switch to her husband’s nusaĥ, but she cannot be obligated to do so immediately, since she is already accustomed to her own nusaĥ. Nevertheless, she must try to switch to her husband’s nusaĥ before the children reach the age where they begin learning to pray.

    A ba’al teshuva who marries a religious woman who comes from a religious family may adopt her customs over his ancestral customs, since from the standpoint of religious practice he is joining her family. It is best to ask a rabbi about this matter.

05. In What Cases may one Change her Nusaĥ?

As we have learned, one must maintain her ancestral custom. The Sages based this statement on the verse, “Al titosh torat imekha” (“Do not abandon your mother’s teachings”; Mishlei 1:8). However, custom is not more important than other laws, and therefore it is occasionally superseded. For example, if one knows for certain that she will have less kavana praying in a synagogue that conducts services in her ancestral nusaĥ than in a synagogue where services are conducted in a different nusaĥ, she should choose the place more conducive to kavana, for this is the essence of prayer (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 6 n. 2). However, in a case of uncertainty, she should preferably pray in her ancestral nusaĥ, because in the long term it seems that she will have more kavana praying in this way. Sometimes young people do not properly value their connections to ancestral nusaĥ but discover deep attachment to it over time and regret having changed it.

If one has a choice of two synagogues, one where prayer is conducted in her ancestral nusaĥ but where there are no Torah classes, and another that provides Torah study but conducts prayers in a different nusaĥ, she should evaluate the situation as follows: If she estimates that praying in the synagogue with more Torah classes will lead her to greater Torah study, it is better that she pray there even though the service is not conducted in her ancestral nusaĥ; despite the importance of preserving customs, Torah study is of paramount importance. Likewise, when choosing a yeshiva or other learning environment, one should not base the decision on the nusaĥ of the prayers there. Rather, she should choose the institution that will best teach her Torah, character, and mitzvot.

If one has a choice between two synagogues, one where the congregation prays in her ancestral nusaĥ but where she is concerned that she will not be able to connect with its congregants, whether because they are too old, too young, too few in number, or any other reason, and another where they do not pray in her family’s nusaĥ but there is a stronger community where she can better connect to the congregants, she must make a judgment. If she feels that praying in the latter synagogue will strengthen her connection to the Jewish religious community and raise or at least sustain her spiritual level, she should pray there, even though they do not pray in her ancestral nusaĥ. 1

  1. Although these laws primarily pertain to men, who are commanded to pray in a synagogue, it is still important for women to know them too because often women help their husbands make these decisions. These laws also pertain to single women, divorcees, and widows who pray in the synagogue.

    Peninei Halakha: Prayer 6:3 explains that the reason that Ĥasidim switched from the Ashkenazic nusaĥ to the Ĥasidic nusaĥ known as Nusaĥ Sepharad was in order to use Arizal’s special intentions (kavanot) in their prayers. It also presents the view of those who opposed this change. Sections 6 and 7 of that chapter discuss one whose parents pray in Nusaĥ Sepharad but who has grown accustomed to the Ashkenazic nusaĥ. Must they pray in Nusaĥ Sepharad like their parents, or may they pray in the familiar Ashkenazic nusaĥ, which was indeed the ancestral nusaĥ until 200 years ago? In practice, one who is uncertain regarding this matter should ask his rabbi. Ibid. 8 also explains that Ashkenazim who have grown accustomed to praying with the Sephardic pronunciation need not return to the Ashkenazic pronunciation according to the accepted ruling.

06. Preserving Customs vs. Strengthening the Community

In addition to maintaining the nusaĥ of prayer, preservation of customs entails upholding traditional pronunciation schemes. Each community – Yemenites, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim – pronounces the prayers according to its own particular scheme. Indeed, each ethnic community should ideally continue to pray with its traditional chants (see Rema 619:1). Of course, it is allowed to introduce new melodies, but the upshot of this ruling is that the main part of the prayer should preserve the traditional tune that was sanctified over the course of generations. For that reason, one must ideally pray in a synagogue that uses his ancestral nusaĥ (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 6 n. 5).

Judaism contains a great variety of different customs. The Sephardic nusaĥ itself breaks down into numerous different sets of customs. Concerning matters of halakha, the key differences are between those who follow Shulĥan Arukh and those who follow Ben Ish Ĥai. Moreover, North Africans have their own distinct nusaĥ that is quite similar to the Syrian and Iraqi rites in terms of halakha and liturgical text but differs greatly in terms of the traditional chants and tunes. Even among North Africans there are differences in melody. To Moroccans, Algerians sound dissonant, and vice versa. To Libyans, both Algerians and Moroccans sound off. To perfectly preserve customs, there would need to be special synagogues for Libyans, Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans in addition to those for Iraqi, Syrian, Farsi, Turkish, and Caucasian Jews.

Ashkenazim also have a variety of customs. The main difference is between Ĥasidim and other Ashkenazim, but there are other significant differences in pronunciation and melody between Western Europeans and Lithuanians. Regarding pronunciation, there are at least four variants from Eastern Europe: those of Greater Hungary, Greater Lithuania, Galicia, and Poland. Ĥasidic sects each has distinct customs and melodies. Among Yemenites, there are two main liturgical rites: Baladi and Shami.

If meticulous preservation of customs will lead to the breakup of the community, it is preferable to forgo the preservation of customs. In general, when a community is unified, coordinates Torah study for men, women, and children, and engages in communal acts of kindness and care, it connects all its members to Torah and mitzvot. In contrast, when a community is weak, its members lose heart, and this adversely affects the children.

Therefore, even though ideally it is best for everyone to follow ancestral custom, if doing so requires the establishment of dozens of small synagogues that can barely gather a minyan and cannot sustain Torah classes, then it is preferable for members of communities with similar customs unite to form a stronger community. For example, all people from North Africa should pray together, and if that is not sufficient, then all who pray in the Sephardic nusaĥ should pray together. 1

It is therefore necessary that each locale weigh all the values of preserving customs against the value of a strong, solid community. When enough families from one ethnic community live in one place and can establish a large synagogue while preserving their traditions, all the better. But when the numbers are insufficient, it is best that they join similar ethnic community to form a strong congregation. If the consolidation of similar ethnic communities will not suffice to form a strong community, it is best that the members of all communities – Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Yemenites – form a single congregation. Sometimes it is necessary to instruct the ĥazan and lead the prayers according to his ancestral nusaĥ so that each ethnic community is given space. This must be considered with appropriate gravitas, and to the local rabbi must render such decisions together with the congregation’s leaders (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 6:9).


  1. Additionally, even though ideally everyone should preserve her customs and melodies, there is, be-di’avad a positive element in the merging of the Diaspora communities. Since one does not choose a place to live based on ethnic community, similar liturgical rites tend to consolidate. Today most Ashkenazim practice that way; people with different traditions pray together.

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