Radical Goals

As referenced earlier, here are some examples of widely adopted modern innovations to Jewish practice. I’m certainly not suggesting that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with these practices. However, the way they’re formulated and packaged strongly suggests that they’re intended to produce the kinds of non-traditional results we’ve been discussing.

Radical Minhagim

Mishnah Berurah 21:15

ובכתבי האר”י ז”ל כתוב ע”פ הסוד שיש לשכב בלילה בטלית קטן

And in the Ari’s writings it is written based on a secret that one should sleep at night (wearing) a tallis koton.”

Mishnah Berurah 51:19

האר”י ז”ל כשאמר ואתה מושל בכל נתן צדקה מעומד

And the Ari, when saying ‘ואתה מושל בכל‘ would give charity while standing.”

Mishnah Berurah 660:8

וגם האר”י ז”ל הזהיר מאוד שלא לחבר הערבה עם הלולב

And also the Ari was very careful not to join the arava with the lulav (on Hoshanah Rabbah).”

Now why would the Mishnah Berurah – or the Ari himself, for that matter – want us to wear a tallis koton while sleeping? After all, do we not hold לילה לאו זמן ציצית? Similarly, what benefit could there possibly be for us (or for G-d) if we give tzedaka just at that moment during davening and specifically when we’re standing up? And how is our performance of a venerable מנהג נביאים enhanced by meticulously keeping the lulav separate from the arava?

I could probably come up with attractive and inspiring interpretations for those practices and I’m sure you could, too. But the point is that neither the Ari nor the Mishnah Berurah included any of their own. Which suggests that either they figured the explanations were obvious or that it wasn’t important for us to know them.

From the way these (and many other) customs were presented, it seems reasonable to conclude that there simply aren’t any obvious explanations that we were expected to grasp – particularly the tallis koton example which was explicitly associated with “סוד.” But in general, no matter how creative you or I might be, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll happen to stumble on the same rationale as the Ari for each of his many innovations.

So what can we say other than that the Mishnah Berurah expected us to perform such minhagim without any sense of their underlying context or rationale.

Why? What else can I conclude except that these practices are intended to arbitrarily control and manipulate “upper worlds” lying beyond our understanding? Just the kind of practice that Rabbi Hirsch found so alien.

Sound far fetched? Here’s an example of how Rabbi Chaim Vital – the Ari’s primary student – characterizes the study and, presumably, practice of kabbala:

ולכן בראות רשב”י ז”ל ברוח קדשו ענין זה צוה לר’ אבא לכתוב ספר הזוהר בדרך העלם להיותו מוצנא למשמרת עד דרא בתראה קריב ליומיה מלכא משיחא כדי שבזכות המתעסקים בו תצמח הגאולה בימינו בע”ה (מהקדמת רח”ו על שער ההקדמות)

Therefore when Rashbi with his holy spirit saw this matter, he commanded Rabbi Abba to write the Zohar in a hidden way, so it would be hidden in safekeeping until the final generation near the days of King Moshiach, so that in the merit of those involved in its (study), redemption should flower in our days…”

Or, in other words, the study and performance of kabbalah can be used to force G-d’s hand and invoke historical events.

Tangentially, with the benefit of 450 years of hindsight, we now know that the publication of such literature was based on a tragic miscalculation. After all, it was promoted many generations before its intended time.

Radical Prayer

Here’s one final example of a significant departure from traditional prayer that’s widely available in mainstream publications. Some editions of the Artscroll siddur – and many bentchers – follow the Friday night version of אתקינו סעודתא with a tefila that begins: ויהא רעוא מן קדם עתיקא קדישא (“Let it be the will of Atika Kadisha”). We seem to be asking מן קדם עתיקא קדישא that he (it?) should “redeem us from troubles -ויפרקיננא מכל עקתין בישין – and “give us food and good support” – ויתיהב לנא מזונא ופרנסתא טבתא etc. This is tefila.

But to what (or who) is this tefila directed? Assuming the author is, as widely claimed, the Ari, what did he mean by עתיקא קדישא? Here’s how R’ Chaim Vital describes the phrase in עץ חיים שער יג פרק ב:

אמנם כאשר הא”ס מתלבש במה שלמטה הימנו כנ”ל הנה הוא מתלבש בג’ רישין אלו הנזכר כאן באדרא ובהיותו מתלבש ומתעלם בתוכם אז נקרא הא”ס עתיקא דכל עתיקין וגם הג’ רישין עלאין עצמן נקרא עתיקא קדישא ג”כ בהיות א”ס מתלבש בתוכם

However, as the Ain Sof is enclothed within what’s below it…it is enclothed within these “three heads” that are mentioned here in Idra. And as it is enclothed and hidden within them, then it is called the Ain Sof, the ancient of all ancients. And these “three heads” are called Ancient Holy One (Atika Kadisha) also when Ain Sof is enclothed within them.

I’m given to understand that the ג’ רישין refer to רישא דלא אתידע רישא דעין ורישא דאריך (“the head that is not known, the head of the eye(?) and the long head”). That third one (רישא דאריך) is at least an aspect of one of the partzufim (אריך אנפין). Which means that the יה”ר tefila printed in bentchers and siddurim is addressed to a composite that includes one of the partzufim. I don’t believe that this represents the traditional, pre-Tzfas, understanding of a Jew’s relationship with G-d.

And it doesn’t sound very Hirsch-like, does it?

Even if you’re unlikely to find modern, mainstream kabbalists directing their prayers to partzufim, their larger goals are, from a traditional perspective, radical. Prayer and mitzva observance are no longer primarily means to draw us towards the Torah’s ideal human behavior (as Hirsch would have it), but tools for affecting mystical change and forcing Divine blessing.

A Partial List of Modern Innovations

Including these examples here shouldn’t be taken to imply that there’s anything wrong with the practices, but instead to emphasize just how much Orthodox Judaism has changed since the start of the modern era.

Kabbalas Shabbos

This one is so deeply entrenched in our weekly routines (and so beloved) that it can be hard to imagine that it’s only been around for a few centuries. I’m told that it was actually Rabbi Hirsch who’s responsible for those shuls where the שליח ציבור stands by the בימה rather than the עמוד. This was designed to underline the fact that קבלת שבת is not a תפילה stemming from חז”ל.

All-night learning on שבועות

The earliest reference I’ve found is the של”ה who notes (at great length) the activities of students of the Ari.

Hitting hoshanos against the ground

See משנה ברורה תרס:ח וגם תרס”ד:י”ט.

100 קולות של תקיעת שופר

We can completely fulfill the דאורייתא and דרבנן requirements of the מצוה with all חומרות by hearing 42 קולות (see ערוך השלחן תקצ”ב ב-ג). The idea of hearing 100 is based on the של”ה who quotes two students of the Ari (משנה ברורה תקצ”ב ד).

Reciting לדוד ה’ אורי during Elul/Tishrei

The origin of this custom has been associated with ספר חמדת הימים which is of a relatively recent – and clouded – source.

Reciting chapters of תהלים for the ill

I can’t find any authoritative source recommending this practice, but we do know that: “לא נתנה תורה לרפואת הגוף אלא לרפואת הנפש” See ט”ז ליורה דעה קעט ט.

Associating a mother’s name with prayers

Try to get someone to pray for you without having to first hand over your name and that of your mother. Considering the
Gemara (ברכות לד.): כל המבקש רחמים על חבירו אין צריך להזכיר שמו, that seems strange…and modern.

New celebrations

The Jewish calendar has undergone significant adjustments over the past while. Elaborate rituals and observances now accompany ט”ו בשבט, ל”ג בעומר, ופסח שני in ways that were unknown just a few centuries ago.

Naming children after deceased relatives

This seems to be quite modern (again, though: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it). The kabbalistic notion of thereby acquiring the “שורש הנשמה” of the deceased is also new.

Growing payos

By way of illustration, when the מקדש stood כהנים expecting to enter the מקדש would probably avoid any growth of hair longer than 30 days (כמה הוא גידול פרע שלשים יום כנזיר – רמב”ם ביאת מקדש א:יא). A כהן גדול faced even greater restrictions (ואינו מרבה פרע לעולם שנאמר את ראשו לא יפרע ואפילו בעת שלא יכנס למקדש אלא מספר מערב שבת לע”ש – כלי המקדש ה:ה-ו).

I can’t prove this, of course, but I’m doubtful that a style of hair growth that’s forbidden to כהנים would become fashionable among the general Torah-loyal Jewish population. At any rate, I’m aware of no pre-modern sources that promote long payos and beards.

Growing long beards

Many kashrus organizations reject shochtim who don’t dress according to chassidic fashion or who trim their beards. My understanding is that this practice began in the early years of the 20th Century in North America as an effective way to filter (mostly Lithuanian) shochtim of deeply objectionable beliefs and practices.

That particular risk is long past, but the policy – in direct conflict with שו”ע יו”ד סימן ב – is still enthusiastically embraced. The COR “Kosher Corner” publication from Passover 2020 (https://cor.ca/view/959/cor_passover_magazine_20205780.html) tells us:

Premier (a kosher poultry production facility) boasts a chassidishe shechita, which means that the shochtim use the mikvah regularly, do not trim their beards, and hold by various other halachic stringencies, both in their personal and professional lives.” (page 92)

Those fashion standards are said to contribute to the יראת שמים of the shochtim. Some sense of the real-world connection between such dress codes and יראת שמים can perhaps be seen by touring New York state penitentiaries and noting the number of untrimmed beards and longer peyos on view.

I’d say it’s also reasonable to conclude that thinking mikvah use improves יראת שמים (rather than being the result of morally free-willed choices) could also be considered a modern, Tzfas-inspired innovation.


While teaching Torah is all about accurately transmitting what we’ve received to our children, the ways we go about doing that are constantly changing. Most of the innovations have little or nothing to do with the Tzfas culture, but they do illustrate just how easily far-reaching change can be adopted. Was there, for instance, ever a cheder in the pre-war years anywhere in Eastern Europe where they:

  • Didn’t hit misbehaving children?
  • Examined student achievement through written tests?
  • Ran emunah programs?
  • Employed social workers?
  • Taught in Polish (or English)?
  • Used lesson plans?
  • Required teacher training?
  • Included למודי חול curricula?

I probably wouldn’t have sent my kids to a cheder that didn’t make use of those innovations. but we can’t deny that they were, indeed, innovations.

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