Minhag BT

A BT goes to his Rabbi and says “Rabbi, I’m a Baal Teshuvah and since my father wasn’t religious, I don’t have any minhagim.” The Rabbi, with a hint of a grin, slowly shakes his head from side to side and says “That’s not true.” The BT doesn’t understand. The Rabbi continues: “Your father didn’t stand for Kiddush, right?” “And your father didn’t wear tefillin on Chol HaMoed, right?” OK, bad joke but a good introduction to the subject of Baalei Teshuvah and minhagim.

It seems that there are at least three prominent opinions on the minhagim of baalei teshuvah:

1. The pick and choose opinion which basically says that a BT does not need to follow any particular set of minhagim. He or she can choose which minhagim are meaningful to him. This opinion is most likely partially based on the fact that (in America, at least) there is no one single prominent minhag. Of course, if someone is living in a particular community within which the entire community practices one particular set of minhagim, such as in a chasidishe community or a strong German kehillah he or she would most likely be encouraged to accept such minhagim upon himself;

2. The BT should accept upon himself the minhagim of his or her Rav. This has clear practical advantages such as observing the practice of those minhagim and inquiring about the way such minhagim are conducted. It may also help speed integration; and

3. The BT should research the minhagim of his father’s ancestors based upon either actual knowledge from family members or research into the prevalent minhagim in the geographic locale from where his father came. This has the advantage of connecting to one’s past in a manner that is often of great importance to particular BTs.

Two personal notes regarding my own minhagim. I used to stand for Kiddush on Friday night. I’m not quite sure why but it’s most likely because that is the most prominent minhag I had seen. While learning shulchan aruch and its supercommentaries, it appeared to me that it seemed most proper to stand for “vayechulu…” since this paragraph is considered testimony which is given while standing (even those who state that it is not necessary to stand advise a small seated rise for the first four words) and most proper to sit for the actual Kiddush (either because that more practically attaches the Kiddush to the meal or because it more formally establishes a group and provides those listening with more kavanah). I asked my Rav whether I should continue making Kiddush as I had in the past or whether I should employ the seemingly more “preferable” method. My Rav inquired with others and advised me that, since my usual method was not based upon any family or community minhag, I should stand for vayechulu and sit for the remainder of Kiddush. So, that’s what we do.

The second personal note regards a minhag I had read about where immediately after making havdalah, the family gives tzedakah so as to start the new week with a mitzvah. I thought that this was a beautiful, meaningful minhag and so decided, bli neder, to do it in our home. Now, when we set up for havdalah, we place a tzedakah box on the table. Immediately after havdalah, we pass around coins to the family and any guests so that we can all start the week with a mitzvah.

I’d be interested in hearing how others have approached/been advised to approach the issue of minhagim.

Originally Posted 11/28/2007

43 comments on “Minhag BT

  1. Amichai’s comment (38) has caused me to think about keeping the proper spirit at the departure of Shabbat.

    While you are permitted to do certain activities after saying certain prayers (i.e., the addition to the Amidah or reciting Baruch HaMavdil ben kodesh l’chol, as we discussed in comments 39, 40 and 41) we are often in a rush to do much too soon. This is the case in my household.

    I hope that I can avoid the impulse to start making or receiving phone calls, etc., the moment that I walk in the door after davening maariv. I hope that I can encourage the others in the house to return a bit more slowly to the weekday routine as well.

    Let’s try to minimize the weekday activities, especially those not related to a mitzvah, in the 15 minutes between the end of Shabbat and Havdalah.

  2. I love this topic very much because minhagim are very important in Torah. But I do not have a rabbi or part of a community at all and I have no idea how to go about this in any way. It is very confusing when you do not have the guidance that someone needs in this situation. Good Shabbos!!

  3. I would just like to add to Mr. Cohen #40 and Gary #39 excellent responses to the issue posed by Amichai #38. The minhag for women who do not daven maariv on motzaei shabbos is to wait until Shabbos is over (following the zman she observes) and then say the complete version of the formula “Baruch HaMavdil” which Gary mentioned above. After that, the woman can do work, which includes setting out the items needed for Havdala, the twisted candle and the spicebox. They do not have to be set out from before Shabbos, and in fact I do not know of anyone who holds that these items have to be set out from before Shabbos. The only thing I can think of similar to the issue that Amichai poses is on motzaei Yom Kippur, the special minhag that the ner used that night only for the special Havdala following Yom Kippur has to have been lit from before Yom Kippur started. On a regular motzoei Shabbos though, I believe that most frum Jews follow the custom of first saying some HaMavdil formula (either in davening Maariv or on its own) and then being able to do all necessary preparations for Havdala.

  4. RE: Amichai’s comment # 38:

    After we recite the Havdalah in the Motzei Shabbat Maariv prayer, we may work.

    After we recite the Havdalah with wine [or grape juice] and spices and candles, we may eat food.
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  5. RE: Amichai’s comment # 38;

    I think that if someone has already made some other type of separation between Shabbat and the weekday, it is permissible to place the tzedakah box on the table before havdalah. Other types of separation are the “Atah chonantanu” (You have given us wisdom)insertion in the fourth blessing of the Amidah, or saying the phrase “Baruch HaMavdil ben kodesh l’chol” (Blessed is the The One Who separates between holy and ordinary).

    These are very common practices, and apply in other cases such as driving home from the synagogue at the end of Shabbat, or doing other types of household work before havdalah.

    Brachah v’Hatzlachah (blessing and success to you) in your Torah learning and performance of mitzvot.

  6. I am currently just learning, but I was thinking while I read this (sorry if its already been said by someone else), though the havdala minhag you picked up is great in intention, remember that on shabbat we are prohibited from handling money and we are not supposed to prepare for after shabbat on shabbat, so you shouldn’t put the tzedaka box on while preparing for havdala, but have it already there before shabbat, or put it there after shabbat

  7. yoni:

    i had very similar experiences, not even being a geir, child of gerim or BT (in the conventional sense).

    –other topic–

    i have a friend who is very interested in the GR”A, so after he became a “BT” and went to yeshiva and started learning more, he decided to take on GR”A minhagim.
    Unfortunately, his yeshiva thought uniformity was more important, and told him that if he kept on being a GRAnik he wouldn’t be able to find a shiddukh, and made him change to match their ways of doing things instead.

  8. The sleight of hand with a BT’s heritage is difficult to discern when intentionally concealed behind a contrast to Liberal Judaism. It is revealed more clearly when contrasted to non-haredi Orthodoxies. Because Chabad is so removed from most Jews actual heritage, their attempts at transplant glare even brighter than when non-chassidic haredi kiruvniks do it.

  9. Yoni, you were mistreated by particular people who displayed serious deficiencies in common sense, sensitivity and much understanding at all of Judaism.

  10. my experience in this regard is not so positive. To, vor the moment, dispense the complicated particulars, let us say that my parents were mgayer together 30 or so years ago, by yekkim. I am 22.

    we waited 3 hours after meat for dairy, I was taught from the youngest age that barmitzvah bochurim wore a talit while davening, we tore challah, and many other things. But upon exposure to chabad all that changed. I was told (as a child of gerim), and I quote: “you don’t have a right to minhagim.”

    this was after I was told that “what are you talking about? this is non-sense, there were no minhagim.”

    I cannot tell you how deeply I resented that, especially because my mother was too ignorant to know that she wasn’t simply doing it wrong.

  11. DK, please also explain what led you to have any “haredi teachers” in the first place. Would you have been any more satisfied with some other type of Orthodox teacher? If so, why don’t you seek one out now?

  12. DK, since you maintain that your own orientation and practices, and your family’s practices back in time, have been secular, exactly what can you add to a discussion on religion?

  13. Black Hats that aren’t appropriate for either summer or winter wearing, changing kiddush styles, adding shabbos candles for each child, yarmulkes at all times, mayim achronim, young men growing beards, having kids grow payos, tzitzis out, waiting a full six hours between meat and milk, putting Havdalah wine in one’s pockets for good luck, considering all types of raw whole beans kitniyos, an expansion of the definition of kitnyos post WWII, “preferring” (so-called) Jewish music for both kids and adults over classical music, NOT WORKING, chalav yisroel for certified cow milk, mikvah erev shabbos for men, reading the newspaper on shabbos, not wearing a watch on shabbos, bittul zman as encompassing all non-Torah study or mitzvah activities (this one is huge), washing with a cup after using the bathroom instead of just (or not even) washing one’s hands with soap and water, chazon ish shiurim, skirts to the ground, not talking to members of the opposite gender, women not singing even within a group, not opening a bottle you want to eat or drink out of on shabbos, separation of genders outside of ritual service, kissing mezuzahs (Litvaks don’t do that, I am not talking about Chassidim, I could go to town on that one for BTs from non-Chassidic backgrounds; that’s too easy).

  14. I found the issue of BT family minhagim was treated suspiciously by haredi rabbis. Since there was a general push to reinvent the BTs heritage as a lost haredi tradition that faded over the generations or suddenly, those minhagim that were retained by traditional-secular families were encouraged to be discarded in favor of haredi minhagim.

    It’s a two prong approach. If you don’t know, it was because it was lost, and you should do what we (the yeshiva people) do, as that is what it probably was. And if you know it was done differently, then it was an aberration, and you should get in line with the haredi community, and ignore those warning sign that your religious ancestors were never haredi in the first place. It was probably part of the “frieing out” process.

    Every discussion I had about minhag with my haredi teachers made no sense, but I didn’t understand exactly why, though I found it quite frustrating and suspicious. But it wasn’t about making sense. It was about grafting a foreign approach–replete with all the trappings of minhag–in place of your real one, and learning to call it your own.

    There was a common saying that “a little Judaism can be worse than no Judaism.” I did find that those of us with a connection to a traditional Jewish past did feel sometimes that somehow we were being given something presented as our own that was not really ours, and did not fit particularly well. This was not felt as strongly by those from the most assimilated backgrounds, whose more completely forgotten past (or even a partial gentile past) could be reconstructed easier, with less resistance. A lot of mention is made of these miraculous BTs from absolutely no background who integrate the easiest. I think it makes sense. They have no memory to write over. A clean slate. You can write whatever mythical past you want there.

    BTs from a non-haredi background should be free to assume haredi minhagim if they want, but they should understand that frequently: Lo aleinu; lo shelanu.

  15. I’ve been a BT for over 40 years already, and I didn’t start as a toddler, and I got married 5 years later.

    Minhagim are complicated. I should post my chapter in HIDE and SEEK: Jewish Women and Hair Covering.

    Please remind me!

  16. Fern – I raised my kids on a farm – my daughter proudly showed me a catalog of kitchenaid appliances that came in red, white and Chhrome (as in CHanuka!) so much for homeschooling jewish kids!

    A girl after my own heart!

    But I’ve heard some other novices accent the last syllable (as in parVEY), a major faux pas!


  17. “So I thought that parve was pronounced “PAR-ehv.”

    Not far off!

    But I’ve heard some other novices accent the last syllable (as in parVEY), a major faux pas!

  18. Fern – I raised my kids on a farm – my daughter proudly showed me a catalog of kitchenaid appliances that came in red, white and Chhrome (as in CHanuka!) so much for homeschooling jewish kids!

  19. I have seen, BTW, examples where people were largely self-taught through reading, and the results were sometimes amusing.
    Much of my very first forays into Torah learning were through reading books and websites. A lot of the books/websites I read spelled the word for a food that is neither dairy nor meat “pareve.” So I thought that parve was pronounced “PAR-ehv.” Similarly, I thought cholent was pronounced what a “ch” sound akin to “chanukkah.” :-)

  20. Fern, you have a great sense of humour!

    I won’t suggest halacha here, but what about the ‘philosophy’ of minhag? In other words, what is a minhag? A minhag is how a *particular* community or family comes to express it’s *individuality* or *particularity* within the general backdrop of Jewish history. Whereas Torah encompasses all of us, minhagim keep us rooted in our particular niche of Torah. If a minhag is about roots, then it may be that the minhagim one keeps depend on where they find their roots.

    It has already been noted here that for many hozrim b’t’shuvah learning what their family minhagim were is nearly impossible. Similarly, as Fern so aptly pointed, for a convert family tradition is inappropriate/inapplicable. :-) At that point, one’s functional ‘roots’ (minhag is after all a functional issue, as the word itself shows) are where one receives Torah; one’s rav or one’s community.

    I guess for those who have made courageous steps in Torah out in the boonies with little or no support nearby, they follow ‘minhag artscroll’ (said with the appropriate accent).

    I have seen, BTW, examples where people were largely self-taught through reading, and the results were sometimes amusing. I once went to a shul with no rav and noone who really knew what they were doing. If there was no minyan (usually there were 2-3 people), they skipped the first line of the first b’rachah before k’riat sh’ma. Somehow, that was what they concluded from the layout of the Artscroll siddur, until I pointed out otherwise. Of course, they were making a monumental effort, and I give them endless credit for that.

  21. How long should a BT wait between meat and dairy, six hours, three hours, or even just one hour, in view of the fact that his father did not keep kosher? What does Rav Moshe Feinstein say?

  22. Someone (not a Rabbi) once told me rather matter-of-factly that I “had” to research my father’s family’s minhagim. When I informed them that if I followed my father’s family’s customs I’d have a Christmas tree and celebrate Easter, they told me that since I was married, I should research my husband’s family’s minhagim and adopt those. Thankfully this person wasn’t in Kiruv, because they really had no clue.

    Considering that many BTs come from families that haven’t been observant for many generations, I’m not sure how realistic it is to suggest researching family traditions in order to create present day minhagim. In my husband’s and my case, we would have to go back to at least our great grandparents to find someone who even remotely resembled an Orthodox Jew.

    Even guessing family minhagim based on the prevalent practices of the area in which they were from is difficult. My husband would have to go back many generations to find someone who is not of mixed regional heritage. His forebearers are litterally from almost every area of Europe. I have the same problem. I have Jewish family from Minsk, Kiev, Odessa and a bunch of small towns in what is now the Poland/Belarus border area.

    Anyway, that was a really longwinded way of saying that as I learn/grow I usually adopt the minhagim of my community but occasionally adopt my own traditions when I come across something that particularly speaks to me. I chose this route out of practicality and because guessing at the traditions of family members that my parents never met and my grandparents hardly knew isn’t meaningful to me.

  23. David,

    I heard of Tzedaka before Shabbos into the pushka, but I never heard of it @ Havadala! I have to try that, since my kids are really into the “mitzvah thing”!

    As far as minhagim (other), my Rabbi, Rabbi Schonfeld of YIKGH, has said to go by what your family has done, and stick by it. For BT’s, that’s an interesting “problem” to have. I have always gone by what my family has done, which includes 6 hours after meat, and no tefillin on Chol Hamoed.


  24. I think exploring ones minhagim from the past is a very important thing. If you are a BT through Chabad they make it easy for you because they have there own Sefer which explains all the different minhagim if you want to follow that. Slowly I have been able to contact Rebbe’s and Rav’s that come from the same town as my family and as i meet more of them and speak with them I am hoping to get more of the minhagim from that town. By asking around you never know who might know something. This past Shabbos I met a woman who is a college professor in history and has researched her heritage and told me the most important thing is to write everything down you discover and how you discovered it so it can continue to be past down through generations without being lost

  25. I once heard that there are some that say a BT should follow the minhagim of the person or group that made him religious. This may fit into #2 (My guess is this would apply to one that doesn’t know his family minhagim.)

  26. My BIL has it interesting; we always say he “blew” it. His ancestry is German, and he was davening primarily in Broyer’s, and it would have made a lot of sense to become a Yekkie; but for some reason he went straight Ashkenazi like someone in YU and that’s what they keep. Nebach. :P

    It’s often interesting to see how it changes even within a generation. I was visiting cousins in Israel, and we wondered why we waited different times after meat – our fathers were brothers! We asked my father, who admitted to changing to 5:30 while in Ner Israel and then to 5:01 later on (probably R’ Spero in YI’s influence). My brother and I asked shailos – he to R’ Welcher, myself to R’ Abba Bronspigel – and received the same answer: Since it IS a valid minhag, even though my father changed it himself, we can keep it. ‘Twas interesting. :)

  27. Steve’s point raises the issue of—
    If someone doesn’t live anyhere near the type of rebbe or rav he/she needs, so personal contact will not happen, and has not previously developed a relationship with a spiritual mentor, is frequent contact with the apparently right rebbe or rav via phone/email/letters/books/etc. a good practical thing to attempt?
    Not everybody at every age and in every life situation can pack up and move to their ideal new rebbe/rav’s neighborhood.

  28. One simple answer is for a BT to find himsel or herself a rebbe or a rav and simply ask questions on these issues. The Mishnah in Avos states that such an approach goes a long way in alleviating doubts and allows you to make a friend in the process.

  29. Although my father a”h was not observant, his mother a”h was. They both came over from Germany in 1939. I keep what customs of theirs that either I or my mom remembers them keeping – 3 hours between milk and meat, glass treated like Sephardim do, a few other things. Since I don’t live in a Yekke community, I don’t practice general Yekke minhagim if none of us remembers them practicing it.

    This approach was ratified by the rabbi I had while I was becoming observant.

    We’ve also developed family minhagim of our own. IMHO a Jew needs to have some personal kulot and chumrot.

  30. I’ve always heard number two with regards to minhagim and bts/gerim. But, I’ve heard about 300 different things it seems regarding this issue. The problem I think with following a rav is what happens if you live in a small community with only one rav whose customs are either a. completely eccentric or b. are not in keeping with the majority of the community?

    I was actually told by a rav that trying to figure out a family’s minhagim a la option three was usually never a practical solution. His stance was there is not a book floating around somewhere detailing the minhagim of say Eastern Poland and one can never be completely sure of what their family did.

    I’m still struggling with this daily and as of now have no idea what to do.

  31. David: Your family minhag following Havdala is beautiful. I think I might need to start that this week as well!

    By the way, I always joke that if I were to follow my father’s minhagim I wouldn’t need to keep Shabbos or kashrus and I could eat chometz on Pesach! (forget about gebrokhts!)

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