Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Customs of Place

Jewish life is defined by halacha (Jewish law) and colored by minhag (Jewish custom). While Jewish prayer may have the same form and structure around the globe, the way in which it is recited varies from community to community. There are many ways in which minhag affects a community: foods served on Shabbat, traditional dress, songs...even the pronunciation of Hebrew.

In previous generations, before technology made travel and communication almost effortless, communities were often isolated and, therefore, homogeneous. A person followed the customs of his/her family, which were usually the customs of the town unless the family had accepted stringencies upon themselves. Then, as now, a woman assumed the customs of her husband and his family to ensure shalom bayit (domestic tranquillity).

As the world has grown smaller, so to speak, the question of community, identity and, thus, minhagim has become slightly more complicated. A neighborhood can include Jews from several different backgrounds who form independent communities within the larger community.

Sometimes, however, minhagim are rooted in location, and people who come to that location follow the guideline of observing the minhag hamakom, the distinct customs of that particular place. There are many examples of issues affected by minhag hamakom. For instance, in most communities, the time to light candles before Shabbat is 18 minutes prior to sunset, but in Jerusalem it is customary to light candles 40 minutes before sunset.

If one has a strong family or personal custom, it might seem odd to deviate from it because of a change in location. However, the dominant purpose of minhag hamakom is to ensure peace among people and a way to avoid disagreements.

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