We Have Always Done It This Way!

For some time now, wedding guests have stood up when the chatan and kallah pass by on their way to the chuppah. Although this practice feels ancient, I’m old enough to remember when nobody stood up for anyone at wedding processionals.

As traditional people, we’re committed to doing things the way they have always been done. When things change, we tend not to notice.

If you question a custom that seems unfamiliar, someone often gives you a “reason” for it.  In this case, the reason is that chatan domeh l’melech, a groom is like a king, and you stand for a king.  Maybe so, but no one treated chatanim in my day—including me—like royalty, at the wedding or after.

This new custom is still evolving. At a wedding I attended recently, the onlookers stood up for the groom, then sat down. Then they stood for a grandmother, and sat down. Then again for a grandfather, and sat down. Then they got tired of standing up and sitting down, so they just stayed upright for the siblings, aunts and uncles, the cute little kids, and everybody else up to and including the bride. Royalty must be catching.

I have seen other customs change within my adult lifetime. For instance, shul-goers who wanted to say a public tefillah for a sick person used to come forward during the Torah reading on Monday or Thursday to make a misheberach. This gave everyone a chance to ask who was ill. It also prompted people to limit such misheberachs to acute illnesses, since having two or three individual ones in a row slowed down the hurried morning davening.

Then the custom changed to having the gabbai read a list of names submitted by congregants, in person or by e-mail. This brought both greater efficiency and unplanned consequences: depersonalization (no one knew who was sick), and ever-longer lists, often of people with chronic diseases. This in turn generated new, complex, and changing guidelines about the categories of whom to daven for. We never needed such rules under the old procedure.  But now this is the way we do it.  Always have, so it seems.

The interesting thing about changes in customs is that they somehow just happen. We can’t point to a ruling by a specific authority or to a certain point in time when they started. This is just the way we do it.

And because this is the way we do it, anybody who does it some other way is set straight quick. Go into an unfamiliar community and use the wrong nusach, leyn the “wrong” way, insert a piyyut that “we don’t say,” and you will find out fast that you are out of bounds. Whole shuls have split over disputes over the right and wrong way to do things. We take the inviolability of customs very seriously. They make up a part of who we are.

Customs, minhagim, have weighty legal status. Scholars have labored to justify popular practices that don’t, to be polite, make a lot of halachic sense.  The fact that Jews do something makes it important.  Major collections of minhagim have been published over the centuries, from the Maharil in medieval Ashkenaz to Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s multivolume Minhagei Yisrael in our own day.

One reason for writing all these minhagim down is that it‘s very hard to remember them, as I can attest from my own experience.  Along with others in my community, I have been in shul daily for decades.  Periodically a question arises: Which selichot do we skip on weekdays between the Yamim Noraim?  Do we say tachanun on such and such a day, or not?  Where do we stop the Monday-Thursday Torah reading for Parashat Naso—at sheni or a few pesukim later, as some siddurim have it?

What did we do last year?   We should know.  All of us were there.

Nobody remembers.

Legal research shows that eyewitness reports are often wrong.   Testimony about what we have always done can also be far from certain.

In short, when it comes to minhagim, two things are true:

  1. Customs change.
  2. We’re sure they don’t.

We find it crucial to think that the customs that underpin our way of life are stable.  That means we and our way of life must be stable too.  The more things change, the more we stay the same.

A modest prediction: Some year in the next few decades, you will attend a wedding.  Not only will the guests stand through the whole processional, but everyone will remain standing at the chatan’s tisch, at the smorgasbord, even in the lobby.

If you work up the nerve to ask why, the person you ask will address you with a mix of pity and irritation, and declare,

“Why, whatever do you mean?  We have always done it this way!”

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts
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