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Jewish customs: Too many reasons, or none at all!

Jewish customs: Too many reasons, or none at all!

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Question:

Sometimes I am a guest at my friends' home for Shabbat. They have truly beautiful Shabbat meals and I love being there. There are so many traditions practiced throughout the meal, and I love asking questions, trying to understand all the reasons. At times my hosts know the reasons, and at times they do not. I find it interesting that when they do have an explanation for a particular custom, there's usually more than one reason. And when they don't have a reason, they nevertheless continue with the tradition. Do you have any insight into this? Looking forward to hearing back from you.

Answer:

The Shabbat meal is filled with traditions and customs from the beginning, when we welcome the angels before kiddush, till the end, when we recite the Grace after Meals. These rituals that direct every step of the meal are not the result of a particular person's idiosyncrasy. Rather, every one of them developed over generations of love for G‑d and His commandments, and many are rooted in the mystical teachings of the Torah. They each have their reason and often many layers of depth and meaning.

Every word of the Torah and each mitzvah is taken seriously, expounded upon and treated with love. The various rituals and customs that have developed are based upon many people's understanding of the ideal way to express the spirit of Shabbat — an understanding which is based on the legal, midrashic, and mystical teachings of the Torah.

That said, the Torah is the wisdom of an infinite G‑d, and each of its words harbors infinite meanings, messages, and implications. Since G‑d wants us to relate to the Torah personally, instead of revealing all of these meanings to us in an (infinite) manifesto, He commanded that we study the Torah and uncover its many facets ourselves, following the methodology which He transmitted to Moses.1

Our sages say that there are many "faces" to the Torah. After uncovering one layer, one will find another layer and another one. No matter how many layers one has uncovered, there are many more layers and depth which are waiting to be uncovered, understood, grasped and internalized. There is no end to Jewish study; that is why the Jews are called the "People of the Book."

With this understanding it makes sense that every custom will have many different explanations, reasons, and layers of meaning. In fact, if your host only gives you one explanation, it is your right (and responsibility) to probe and seek more explanations.

As for observing customs before understanding their meanings, your hosts have set a fine example — first do, knowing that this is the will of G‑d.

Our willingness to unconditionally comply with G‑d's commandments even before having the opportunity to comprehend their meanings gives G‑d great nachas. Before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai the Jews proclaimed, "All that the L-rd spoke we will do [first] and [then] we will hear."2 The Talmud3 tells us that when the Jews uttered this statement, G‑d exclaimed: "Who revealed to My children this secret which my ministering angels employ?!"

To paraphrase the Lubavitcher Rebbe, when one is instructed by a doctor to take a certain medicine, he does not attend medical school prior to taking the medication in order to understand why he must take this particular medication, and exactly how its ingredients will cure him. Rather, he takes the medication immediately. If after following the instructions he is still curious, he can then do his research into all the above.

While at the moment you may not know the reason for every tradition, you do know that you can always find out — there is a reason for it all.

On that note, I urge you to take the opportunity to check out our Shabbat Site for a wealth of insight on Shabbat and its many traditions.

Footnotes
1.

Including, for example, the "Thirteen Methods for Expounding the Torah" enumerated by Rabbi Ishmael (Sifra, Introduction; recited in the daily morning prayers).

3.

Shabbat 88a.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Barry Bartow , FL. November 7, 2011

question What does the arm wrap and the forehead box symbolize? Reply

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