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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Simchat Torah – Different Customs

On Sunday, the first Chol Homo’ed day during which tefillin could be relevant, an out of town acquaintance got in touch, seeking some guidance regarding our local custom. He wanted to know whether it was our custom to don tefillin during the interim days of Sukkot or not.

For as long as I have been in Wellington this question has been raised twice each year – during Sukkot and during Pesach. The question goes back much further, and it is discussed by the halachic authorities over the centuries. The Shulhan Arukh rules that one should not lay tefillin during the interim days of the festival. On Shabbat and Yom Tov we do not lay tefillin due to the covenantal nature of the day, which obviates the need for us to engage in the covenantal practice of tefillin. Most authorities rule that the interim days are also of this covenantal nature and thus one should not lay tefillin. In fact the Beit Yosef cites the Zohar, a primary text of Kabbalah, which speaks strongly against the practice of laying tefillin during the interim days of the festival. The Rem”a, the halachic authority of European communities, nevertheless writes that some hold that tefillin should be used, “and that is the common custom.”

From the sources it emerges that the primary divide between using tefillin or not during these days is the Shulhan Arukh and Rem”a – or the Sefardic tradition as opposed to the mainstream Ashkenazik tradition. In practice, however, almost nobody lays tefillin in the land of Israel, as the Gr”a ruled against using tefillin at this time, and the Gr”a’s students constituted large groups of religious immigrants during the 19th century. Since the Middle Eastern Jews didn’t use tefillin at this time as well, it became the accepted practice in the land of Israel not to use tefillin during the interim days of the festivals. Almost all Jews of European background adopted the local custom upon immigrating to Israel. In the Diaspora, however, many Ashkenazi communities lay tefillin during the interim days of the festival.

So what does the Wellington community do? The first time the question came up I replied with a question – I asked what they had done the year before. The established custom should dictate how the local practice would continue. What the practice was previously, however, was not clear. Like many similar practices which were based on local custom, the community followed whatever the rabbi instructed at the time. Wellington has been blessed with many, many rabbis. Every couple of years there is rabbinic turnover. A couple of Israeli rabbis have served the community in its recent history, and no doubt their practice was not to use tefillin at this time. By the time we arrived it had been at least half a decade since the Wellington minyan had used tefillin (and the custom now is to ask each year – do we use tefillin during Chol Hamo’ed).

So what guidance could I give our friend who was looking for information regarding our custom? The best I could do was explain that we don’t really have a custom. A few individuals lay tefillin on Chol Hamo’ed, but the majority of the minyan does not, and have not for the last decade. Together we concluded that since the prevailing Ashkenazi custom in the Diaspora is to lay tefillin, and he is not praying together with our minyan and its very localized practices, it would be appropriate to lay tefillin, albeit without a blessing.

The issue of customs is a very important issue in Jewish tradition. Ideally everyone in the community would be following the same practice. In fact, the halacha dictates that someone who relocates to a different community must adopt all the local practices of the community even when they differ from his/her traditions. This applies both for stringencies and leniencies – in Rome one must do what the Romans do. If one has always waited six hours between meat and dairy, and now one has relocated to a community where everyone waits three hours, or even one hour, one should adopt the lenient practice in accordance with local custom. The reverse is also true. One must modify one’s practices to act more strictly than one’s ancestral traditions if one is in a community where more strict practices are observed. Of course the customs relating to tefillin on Chol Hamo’ed would also normally be dictated by local custom.

These rules, however, apply only when a community has a particular unified practice. Where there is no established local practice the fallback is for people to follow their ancestral customs. In Israel many groups and communities have migrated as a bloc, along with their particular practices and customs. As a result there is no single tradition in Israel, and every community continues their established ancestral customs. (Use of tefillin during Chol Hamo’ed seems to be an exception – virtually no one in Israel lays tefillin during this time.) In some Diaspora communities there is similarly no established local custom and we resort to our individual traditions.

Nevertheless, the concept of communal custom is important. There is even a Torah prohibition of acting differently from local tradition, as it provokes argumentation. The twelve tribes of Israel were all different from each other, and their descendants also had different strengths and talents, and they developed different practices as well. The different communities of Israel have varying customs and we need to accept and respect that the different traditions are legitimate (within the bounds of halacha). We need to appreciate that our nation functions as an orchestra, with different instruments represented by various communities with their distinct tones and qualities. The conductor is the broader halachic guidelines which keeps the rhythm and ensures that the band plays as a symphony.

In late 1945 the Feldafing DP camp in Europe gathered in their synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah. The survivors who were placed in the camp hailed from all over. They had been beaten and starved, deprived and humiliated, but they had not been broken. The flame of tradition still burned brightly within their hearts. There was tension in the air as the time for the Simchat Torah celebration arrived. Their communities of origin had different ways of observing the hakafot, different mannerisms in the circuits. A discussion about how to go about celebrating the completion of the Torah soon broke out into a heated argument with numerous groups insisting that the proceedings should follow their particular home customs. This dampened the atmosphere of the day and it threatened to derail the celebration of the Torah entirely. In a dark corner of the room sat a man whose name was Shmuel. He never spoke a word – no one ever heard him speak. He would always sit silently in the corner, unnoticed. It was speculated that he had been shocked into silence when he witnessed his family being slaughtered, but no one was sure. On this occasion, however, Shmuel rose from his seat and began to walk toward the center of the room. As he walked through the crowd the arguing died down, replaced with surprise of his unprecedented initiative of advancing past the back of the shul. By the time he reached the front of the room the entire crowd had fallen silent. He faced the crowd and he spoke clearly just four words. “Sisu v’simchu b’simchat Torah,” be glad and rejoice in the joy of the Torah. Shmuel then returned to his seat and fell again silent. No one recalls him ever speaking again since that time. Shmuel’s words cut through the hostilities that had dominated their attention until that moment. Shmuel had reminded them why they were here – to celebrate the Torah. It mattered not how exactly the circuits were done, according to which specific practice. They had lost so much and had precious little in which to rejoice. They hadn’t lost the Torah, however, and they proceeded to celebrate together, as one people, now able to recognize that while they had suffered unimaginable losses they remained in possession of the most precious thing of all, the Torah.

We have more that connects us than sets us apart from one another. The Torah is the universal binder of all Jews, no matter our accent, background or level of observance. Each difference in practice has particular origins and reasons – some have more substantial grounds and others may have developed in error. But these differences should never be the cause of tensions or derision. Whenever Jews come together, whether it is for the purpose of celebrating the Torah reading cycle or any other reason, the connection that bonds us together must always be stronger than the trivia that separates us.

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