Tradition vs. Kabbala

Many years ago when I was in kollel I asked R’ Sholom Schwadron a question about the mechanics of Divine providence that was then bothering me. He replied by asking me how old I was. (I believe I was around 28 at the time.) He told me to wait until I was 40 before worrying about my problem.

Well 40 is now a distant, fading memory and I’ve been thinking about R’ Schwadron’s comment. I’m sure he could have quickly offered me one or two approaches from among the rishonim who discuss the problem. But instead he felt it was a topic I should simply avoid for the time being. For the record, I ignored his wise advice and continued to dig into relevant sources. And for that same record, those efforts didn’t get me anywhere particularly useful.

I now suspect that the reason R’ Schwadron didn’t give me a clear and satisfying answer to my problem was because there is no clear and satisfying answer. Some topics resist clarity by their very nature. What one particular rishon might describe as obvious will be forcefully rejected by a handful of others. Something most or even all rishonim agreed to might be strangely ignored in the writings of many mainstream acharonim. And there are nearly always significant outliers from every era who felt free to head off all by themselves in entirely new directions. The intellectual history of Torah scholarship is not a tidy place.

28-year-olds might be bothered by this ambiguity and become disoriented when they can’t find easy answers for all their questions. But that doesn’t mean the ambiguity isn’t there. Dealing intelligently with ambiguity requires, as the very least, information. And information is what I plan to provide here.

In these essays I’m going to explore a fairly well-defined set of minhagim and the beliefs that have driven them. These particular minhagim, by and large, originated between the 16th and 18th Centuries and have since spread to nearly all corners of the Orthodox world.

This brief quotation from the introduction to ספר שני לוחות הברית (written by the author’s son), is a powerful illustration:

ראה זה חדש הוא, שחידש כמה דינים משכלו, והם כמה וכמה מאות דינים מחודשים

See how new this is: that he (the book’s author, Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz) innovated many laws from his own logic, and there are many, many hundreds of such innovated laws.

Bear in mind that Rabbi Horowitz’ work is indeed the primary source of many recent innovations, including התרת נדרים before Rosh Hashana, listening to 100 Shofar קולות on Rosh Hashana, and all-night learning on Shavuos.

They may be widely adopted now but, at their birth, innovations often attracted significant rabbinic opposition. In many cases they represent violent changes to the way we look at our relationship to our Torah and its Giver.

I’m going to try to imagine a Judaism without some or all of those minhagim. But for many reasons it’s not my goal to suppress their practice. After all:

  • How can I be sure those minhagim are objectively wrong?
  • Who gave me the authority to advocate for changing accepted minhagim?
  • Considering how few people would listen to me, what would be the point?
  • Even if my analyses were correct and I did somehow influence others, how can I know that my efforts wouldn’t lead to dangerous unintended consequences?

Instead, I would like to map out the status of some contemporary Torah attitudes and practices so I can understand where individual minhagim came from and where there might be conflicts with my mesorah and approach. You certainly don’t have to share all of my assumptions, but following me as I work through the process might help you assess your own position.

The Importance of Minhagim

One thing I most certainly do not recommend is casually changing existing minhagim. R’ Moshe Feinstein (או”ח ח”ב סי’ כד) famously wondered how the early chassidim had the right to create Nusach Sfard. The precise halachic status of specific minhagim is, at the very least, unclear, and they shouldn’t be treated disrespectfully. Just as it’s normally forbidden to abandon a valid minhag, all things being equal, it should be equally problematic to create new ones.

There are exceptions of course. A minhag based on a judgment error can be ignored (פסחים נא. תוס’ דה”מ אי אתה רשאי), as can a new minhag that’s מוציא לעז on earlier generations (שו”ע יו”ד רי”ד פתחי תשובה ס”ק ד).

But I believe that there’s another compelling reason for being careful with minhagim. The way you’ll come to integrate G-d into your daily life and exercise your moral responsibilities will, to a large degree, depend on the minhagim you keep. Simply put, they’re going to play a significant rule in defining the way we learn Torah and perform mitzvos.

This is something you really want to get right. And “getting it right” will involve making sure that your minhagim are a good match with your Torah identity. Running around looking for red bendle-type segulos won’t work well if, like me, you’re a Hirschian. And I suppose avoiding most music because we’re mourning the destruction of the mikdash might not work well if you live in an active chassidic community.

What’s at Stake?

I wrote earlier about a “well-defined set of minhagim and the beliefs that have driven them.” Specifically, I’m referring to the explosion of innovation in Jewish practice that followed the introduction and popularization of the Tzfas school of kabbala. I might be wrong, but I can’t help thinking that a Jew from the year 1600, miraculously transported to a thriving Torah community in 2020, would wonder whether he was still among Jews. Everything would look, sound, and feel so different.

Let’s spend a few moments talking about how that happened and what it involves.

How it Began

The watershed event marking the beginning of the revolution was arguably the popularization of the Ari’s systematic reinterpretation of the Zohar. The Ari and his followers focused enormous energy on building a conceptual schematic design mapping the process of creation (in particular “tzimtzum”) and the ways heaven and earth come to influence each other. But the initial goal was to change the way we think about interacting with G-d, most specifically through the act of tefila.

As I describe later in “How Modern Kabbalists Would Have Us Pray,” the Tzfas ideology divides what we’ve traditionally described as “G-d” into multiple parts (“partzufim,” “sefiros,” etc) and claims, as the Ari himself wrote, that most of those parts – in particular “Ain Sof” – are indifferent to and unaware of our prayers and that Jews should pray only to the partzuf Zehr Anpin.

I note in that essay how alien all this is to someone influenced by the Rambam (and other rishonim). In “Between Frankfurt and Tzfas,” I also show how great Torah leaders like R’ Hirsch vigorously resisted these interpretations. It should also be noted that, over the last century or two, responsible mainstream kabbalists like the Leshem (see Sefer Hadeah Section 1, Drush 5, Siman 7) worked to actively suppress at least some of those ideas while remaining loyal to the general terms of the Ari’s system.

Paying attention to the shape of the modern siddur and researching the origins of much of its structure will give you a sense of how much came to exist only over the past few centuries. Think about Kabbalas Shabbos. Or about some other innovations that come from far darker sources. My feeling is that nearly all of the change can be traced, in one way or the other, to the hills and narrow streets of Tzfas.

The Fault Line

Here’s an excellent illustration of the distance between modern kabbalists and traditional halacha.

Saying the words “Kel melech na’aman” before Keriyas Shema when davening alone is promoted in every single siddur I remember seeing. That’s not to say it’s a widespread custom: by definition, it’s not something that people do in public, so it’s kind of hard to track. But it’s certainly the minhag among publishers to push for it in their siddurim.

And yet according to the Tur (O.C. 61), one encounters three serious halachic problems – including a full-on Torah prohibition – each time one takes the siddur’s advice. Fascinatingly, kabbalistically-oriented halachic authorities acknowledge the problems but, without even attempting to address them, promote the custom.

Here are the basics:

The Tur, quoting הרמ”ה (Rabbi Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia), sharply discourages adding those three words. For one thing, it’s a forbidden interruption in the middle of Keriyas Shema and its berachos. It’s also an extraneous addition which, unlike “ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד”, lacks the internal logic and authority of the Gemara (Pesachim 56a). But it also involves invoking the Name of God completely out of context (which, according to at least Ramban to Shemos 20:6, is a Torah prohibition). After all, those three words don’t appear together anywhere in Tanach, nor did the Sages authorize the formula.

However, the Bais Yosef justifies and recommends the practice without directly addressing the halachic issues. Instead, he notes how indirect references in older works (like ספר הפרדס and ספר חסידים) indicate that the custom had existed centuries earlier.

The Bais Yosef also quotes extensively from passages in Zohar and ספר תיקונים which assert that adding the three words is important in order to bring the total number of words within the Shema to 248 – equal to the traditional number of “limbs” in the human body. The claim is that reciting a 248-word Shema would “heal” each of the corresponding limbs of illness.

But that introduces entirely new problems. The Mishna in Avos (1:3) advises:

“One should not be like slaves who serve their master for reward, but like slaves who serve their master without regard for reward”

Traditionally, Jews would recite the Shema twice each day primarily because we were thus commanded by the Torah. But one would also hope to absorb and embrace the many moral lessons contained within its text.

Within this new kabbalistic formulation such goals are still possible of course, but they’re no longer necessarily dominant. With the promise (guarantee?) of personal profit, a decidedly selfish strain has been added to the mix.

For his part, the Bais Yosef (in the subsequent paragraph, “ויש מקשים”) defends the general approach not by denying the problems, but with an appeal to his sense of the authority of the Zohar, and the idea that:

“Those who established this practice certainly analyzed the matter and found it to be true and upright.”

Which is just why I find this discussion so illuminating. The traditional Judaism represented by the Tur relies on the Talmud and the halachic process for authority and moral guidance. To some degree, the innovations of Tzfas, by sharp contrast, shifted power away from such considerations.

Defining Limits

As I wrote, I’m not out to spark a movement towards casting off existing practices. But what I would like to see is a world where it’s normal and acceptable for a Jew to choose to live according to the traditional principles of pre-Tzfas Judaism. There should be room in such a world for other – newer – traditions. But loyalty to the innovations of Tzfas should never be a test for loyalty to G-d’s Torah.

The ultimate decision over whether some of the Ari’s teachings are or are not within the scope of acceptable Torah values is not mine to make. And I have surprisingly little interest in what shape such a decision might take. In fact, the odds are that a public discussion about such things will never take place, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s worth remembering the unspeakable chaos and destruction caused by the three great rabbinic conflicts of the 18th Century involving, respectively, Nechemya Chayun, the Ramchal, and R’ Yonason Eibschutz.

But it’s also worth keeping in mind that not everything that happens within an Orthodox community occurs with the full knowledge or sanction of Torah leaders. Sometimes lasting change just happens without anyone’s approval. That distinction will have a significant impact on this discussion.

Who Can We Trust?

One of the most unsettling parts of this whole process has been having to revisit my relationship with some beloved seforim. Can I, for instance, still “trust” the Mishnah Berurah? By that, of course, I certainly don’t mean I have any less respect for the precision, reliability, and clarity of the Chofetz Chaim’s scholarship, or of his powerful voice of moral authority. It does however mean that for all the many times he invokes the authority of the Ari and his talmidim when ruling on “our minhag,” that “our” might not include me. (We’ll see examples of this in a later chapter.)

Or consider that, despite the genuinely careful and balanced text of the Artscroll siddur, it’s been a while since I was able to automatically accept every choice they made. One or two interesting examples will appear later.

So, in an ambiguous world, I’m looking for a way to agreeably acknowledge my neighbors’ strange innovations while passionately embracing the traditional approach of Rabbi Hirsch.

Assessing Individual Minhagim

Not all minhagim were created equal. A practice clearly rooted in a gemara or within unambiguous halachic statements from rishonim is going to be hard to ignore. But later innovations are a different story. And, given the vast scope of innovation from the past few centuries, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to identify more with one specific tradition over others.

Let me illustrate using selichos as an example. Whenever considering changes, it’s particularly important to be clear about the larger halachic context. I will therefore note that the gemara (Taanis 15a) discusses adding special prayers for public fast days proclaimed in the face of looming disasters like drought and famine. The text suggested by the gemara (“מי שענה את אברהם” etc.) is actually found towards the end of our own selichos. Significantly, communal recitation of the 13 middos (Shemos 34:6) in times of urgent need is also mentioned by Chazal (Rosh Hashana 17b).

So the basic use of the modern selichos – at least in response to emergencies – does have legitimate historical origins. Although it’s not clear when and how it was decided to extend the use of the 13 middos to regular use beyond its clear context of communal emergency. (Nusach sefard goes so far as to recite the verses daily throughout the year.)

Reciting selichos – using at least the 13 middos – annually in the lead up to Rosh Hashana is clearly promoted by both the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (#581). I’d therefore want some pretty heavy guns supporting me before I’d consider dropping the practice altogether. But the specifics are vague: they don’t cover many of the details taken for granted today.

For instance, the first Saturday night selichos usually don’t begin until after halachic midnight. But why not? The Mishna Berura (565:12) is adamant: “Except on Yom Kippur, you should never say any selichos or the 13 middos in any form before midnight, ever.” He attributes this to generic “acharonim.” Predictably, his immediate source is the Magen Avraham (565:5) who, in turn, quotes “הכוונות דף ה” – a source closely associated with the Ari.

This is not to debate the authority or value of the Mishna Berura or the Magen Avraham. Their status as leading poskim is unchanged. But this is an excellent example of specific rulings that are based on the personal halachic opinion that it was appropriate to incorporate 16th Century kabbalistic innovations into the halachic process.

If, however, you happen to subscribe to a Torah approach that fiercely rejects such a synthesis – like those of the Chasam Sofer (תשובת חתם סופר או”ח נא “כל המערב דברי קבלה עם ההלכות הפסוקים חייב משום זורע כלאיים”) or Rabbi Hirsch – then that particular Magen Avraham (and others like it) simply aren’t relevant to you.

So in that context, there would be nothing wrong with (diplomatically) ignoring the midnight restriction where it doesn’t fit your needs. Similarly, if you’re having trouble working through selichos in a meaningful and coherent way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on a more limited subset of the text.

This approach would obviously apply in other places, including kinos in Tisha B’Av and piyutim on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The very last thing you want to do is imagine that there’s value in just saying words without full understanding and intellectual engagement. After all, the Shulchan Aruch rules in the very first chapter:

טוב מעט תחנונים בכוונה מרבות תחנונים בלא כוונה

“Minimal supplications accompanied by thought and intention are better than many supplications without”

Back to Finding Tradition in the Modern Torah World

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