Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rabbeinu Avraham on Customs - Minhaggim.

Rabbeinu Avraham in his sefer Hamaspik is very concerned with the decorum in Shul during prayer; to stand or to sit; in what direction one should sit; people should sit in rows; etc…. In a discussion where he argues that people should always be facing towards the Aron Hakodesh, including when sitting, he quotes a Tosefta which describes seating arrangements during prayer. One of the details in that Tosefta is that the elders sit with their back to the Aron Hakodesh facing the people (see Hilchot Tefillah 11:4). Here is an interesting snippet about the elders.

“It is incorrect to sit other than facing the Holy (Aron Hakodesh) except for the elders who sit at the front of the Beit Knesset. These elders are sages, based on the rabbi’s explanation of the verse “And you shall defer to an elder” (Vaykra 19:32) they comment “An elder is one who acquired knowledge” (TB Kiddushin 32b). The reason why elders are permitted to sit in such a way is so that “the people should fear (respect) them”. In my mind, that [their sitting this way] is not to be seen as obligatory, but rather as a concession. Or possibly, the elders the Tanaim of that generation were referring to, were those that seeing their faces elicited a greater concentration on the part of the public, thus bringing them great benefit. In our generation such people or any coming close to their status are non-existent and no benefit will accrue from contemporary elders sitting that way, “with their back to the holy”, other than their striving for power. Learning from them, emulating them, causes people to sin rather than fulfill the purpose of their sitting thus as described in the Tosefta.  As we can see their sitting [facing the people] they are perceived as a group that is schmoozing amongst themselves rather than talking to God”.

 How little things have changed!

One of the things RABH is known for is his attempt to introduce into the ritual the requirement to prostate spread eagled on the ground during certain parts of the davening especially during the saying of the Kadish, Halel, after every Halleluiah in the Pessukei Dezimra part of the Morning Prayer, during the blessings for Kryat Shema etc…. He argues that one of the reasons it did not make it as a requirement in Talmudic Halacha is because of the difficulty people have doing this act so many times during prayer. As he goes along in the discussion he proposes several other reasons for the disappearance of this ritual. However, real authentic worship should include it according to him. He writes a lot about it in a very polemical fashion. It is clear that he encountered a lot of resistance to this idea. There are some very interesting points that he brings out in this heated discussion. He then lists several objections that people had and apparently voiced to him against his introducing this form of worship as a normal part of the ritual. One objection is that it is a form of worship that is customary with non-Jews. Interestingly, many scholars have argued that RABH was strongly influenced by Sufi theology. Apparently RABH himself already had to confront that accusation. His answer is lengthy arguing that just because other religions, religions that stem from Judaism adopt a Jewish ritual, that ritual does not become illegitimate.

Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is presumptuous for simple people to act in such manners of extreme devotion. He differentiates between different acts of devotion, those that are presumptuous and those that are acts of submission. RABH then quotes his grandfather’s explanation of the verse:

יח  פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר;    וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם.              
18 When He hath regarded the prayer of the destitute, and hath not despised their prayer.

The word עַרְעָר which JPS translates destitute and Alter translates desolate is a word found only twice in Tanach; here and in Yirmiyahu 17:6. Its meaning is obscure though in both places the context is negative. Aruch based on the Targum Yehonatan translates it as a thorny fruit or vegetable, others, including RABH quoting an explanation he rejects, think it refers to a type of insect similar to the locust. Others see it as referring to a childless barren person, one who cannot have children, from the word ערירי. The problem is that if the verse is taken literally none of these translations make sense contextually. A fruit or vegetable or an insect do not pray and a barren man who cannot conceive, no amount of prayer will help. This word עַרְעָר must therefore have an allegorical meaning.

“I copy from my grandfather Rabbeinu Maimon: the verse is referring to a person who is the opposite of a Tzaddik or a Chassid …. As if saying even one who is not worthy to pray, should he turn to Him and petition Him, He will not disappoint him depending on his concentration and genuineness. Not that it refers to the prayer of an insect, a tree insect or something similar as many mistakenly believe. This is the gist of his [grandfather] Pirush though not verbatim and it is one of those wondrous explanations to one who understands. It [not ignoring the prayer] is a generosity from Him; it is through the merit of the earlier generations during which the prophets taught this based on the spirit from the Holy [they had access to] that we dare in the later generations to praise and exalt even if we have not reached perfection. Thus the next verse:
  יט  תִּכָּתֶב זֹאת, לְדוֹר אַחֲרוֹן;    וְעַם נִבְרָא, יְהַלֶּל-יָהּ.  
19 This shall be written for the generation to come; and a people who shall be created shall praise the LORD. “

RABH does not dwell on the exact meaning of the word. He says that should one understand it to be an insect it cannot be taken literally. It is a metaphor for an unworthy human who is allowed to praise and exalt HKBH in spite of his low status. One can do so only if supported by revelation.   
Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is not customary for people to prostrate themselves during Davening. Here are excerpts from his response:

One may oppose what we have clarified and proven regarding prostration by resorting to the argument that these things are not according to custom and that it is difficult to go against a custom since the Mishnah obligates one to follow the custom…. Even more as the customs used to argue against our proposed custom [of prostration] are very old and were performed in front of respected sages, Torah scholars and promulgators of Halacha, and they did not see as wrong what we have shown to be wrong nor have they suggested what we suggest. This [my suggested custom] seems to be an innovation and an indictment of the earlier [generations]. You may say anything you want in this matter, it brings us back to what I said earlier that the widespread customs (minhagim) whether they are popular or unpopular, ancient or recent, done in front of respected [sages] or not, if we can prove them to be defective, we may not follow them. For it is not impossible for later [scholars] to clarify matters that earlier ones could not; it is quite common for the later ones to build on what the earlier ones have already clarified giving them the ability to progress further and arrive at conclusions that are different from the earlier ones…. This is not because the later ones are always and in all circumstances better than the earlier ones but because they have the ability to analyze the sayings of the earlier generations building on them and learning from them. Using deductive rules they [the later generations] can arrive at conclusions that obligate us to act accordingly as long as they make sense and are based on accepted logical rules…. There is therefore no reason for a fully rational person, one whose intellect is perfect, to oppose things that were clarified by a later [sage] who uses correct proofs, by arguing that earlier authorities have not said so. It is well known that many of the Geonim argued on earlier ones unearthing things the earlier ones did not discover. See the critical notes that Rabbeinu Yitzchak the author of the Halachot (RIF 1013-1103) made on the Pirush of Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) in spite of the latter’s great abilities and knowledge, so too [his critical notes] on Rabbeinu Nissim the author of “Megillat Setarim” (990-1062). See all the critical notes on these two and others in his Halachot. Rabbeinu Yosef Halevy (R. Yosef Migash (1077-1141) his [RIF] pupil disagreed with him on many issues. My father, although he considered himself their pupil and in his magnum opus refers to them as “my teachers”, because his father (Rabbeinu Maimon) who was his [Rambam’s] teacher was a pupil of Rabbeinu Yosef, disagrees with them wherever he found the truth to be against them. He even argues with his father and says “my father is amongst those who forbid it and I am amongst those who allow it” [MT Hilchot Shechita 11:10)[1]. There is nothing wrong with sages and men of religion doing that. It is only the ignorant masses and the like who must rely on their leaders but that does not obligate sages to follow in their path.”

This is an amazing piece. RABH is suggesting that no custom (minhag) is inviolate. If a scholar finds a minhag to be wrong and does so using the proper rules that the Halacha systems dictate, he may follow his conclusions and change that custom. A minhag is not necessarily an act but could also be a lack of an act. If a scholar feels something should be done when it is not, such as prostrating in the case of RABH, he must do his utmost to implement what he believes to be correct. There is however a very important proviso; one must be knowledgeable, well informed and use the tools Halacha provides. That condition satisfied, when it comes to the truth, precedent is not binding.     
So far I have pointed to interesting (at least to me) things that RABH dealt with from a practical perspective. What were his theology and his philosophy and how did that influence his Halachik and general thinking? I will hopefully address that in upcoming posts.

[1] יש מקומות שמנהגן אם מצאו סרכה מן האוזן לבשר ולעצם שבצלעות, והסרכה דבוקה בשתיהן--אוסרין אותה.  ואבא מרי זצ"ל, מן האוסרין; ואני, מן המתירין.


  1. I had no idea this material was available in print until I began reading your posts. Is it possible to get a print copy of this work or are you reading it online?

  2. RJM, i have a copy of the Bar Ilan edition edited by Nissim Dana printed in 1989. i think i purchased it used at a Jerusalem bookstore, Stein's, years ago.I would check with the bar Ilan website if it is still available. It is a very small part of a much greater book containing only Part teo volume two. originally there were i think 5 volumes. a friend of mine has another fragment which i have not yet seen otherwise i think the rest is lost.