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Who Keeps Whose Minhag?
By: Rabbi Moshe Taub
Originally Published in AMI Magazine
The headlines last year were everywhere:
“Mark and Michelle Schimel are running against each other for a state Assembly seat: He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat vying to represent part of Long Island…”
In case you’re wondering, the wife won…by a mile.
No, we are not going to discuss how to survive in a household comprised of people with disparate political beliefs, although that would be interesting. Instead we will focus on what practices a husband and wife should adopt in their home when they were raised with different minhagim.
Most people will tell you that in such a case the wife does not win. It is a klal—a general halachic rule, presumably ancient and carved into stone—that the couple keep the husband’s minhagim.
There is no better time than Pesach to discuss this issue.
Every year as Pesach approaches, my sister-in-law asks, “Is there any way I can get out of adopting my husband’s minhag not to eat gebrokts?”
She is not the only one frustrated by this problem. Some even take it to ridiculous levels; several years ago a group was formed called the Kitniyos Liberation Front (really). Unfortunately, much of their activity demonstrates an embarrassingly low tolerance for critical thinking and yedios haTorah.
It goes without saying that there are many wonderful Pesach minhagim, and it is important that they be kept. Pesach observance is a serious matter; we know the Arizal’s statement that one who is careful to get rid of even a tiny amount of chametz will be protected from sin all year. Our intent is not to trivialize minhagim—on the contrary—but to determine whose minhagim get the “right of way.”
It is safe to assume that for hundreds of years it was quite rare for two people from divergent backgrounds to marry. Travel was a luxury most could not afford, and many people died never having gone very far from their place of birth.
Husbands and wives generally shared, if not the same rav ha’ir, the same basic communal or provincial minhagim. It was certainly rare for a Sefardi and an Ashkenazi to meet, let alone marry. For this reason, discussion of these halachos began in earnest only about a hundred years ago.
The very first to discuss this issue1 was the Tashbeitz, Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach (d. 1444). In a brief discussion,2 he makes it clear that there cannot be two customs under one roof. The example he gives seems to be an allusion to Pesach: “It is obvious, and there is no doubt, that we cannot have two people feasting at the same table separated by their doughs.”
There remain two questions: Who assumes whose minhagim? And in the event of death or separation, R”l, would a spouse revert to his or her former minhagim?
As for the first question, the Tashbeitz cites the principle of ishto k’gufo—literally, “his wife is one with him”3—which would indicate that a wife must assume the husband’s practices. We find this concept as well in the case of a bas Yisrael who marries a kohen and thereby gains the right to eat terumah. And if the husband should pass away first, as long as they had children together, she may continue to eat terumah until she remarries.
All this, says the Tashbeitz, would apply to minhagim as well.
While this conclusion was affirmed in later sefarim,4 it wasn’t until the modern era, when many free countries became cultural “melting pots,” that almost all major poskim discussed the issue.
Rav Moshe Feinstein stated as much when he was asked this question: “For here in New York people retained their distinct city minhagim from across Europe, whether lenient or stringent…”5
Interestingly, in this teshuvah Rav Moshe does not mention the Tashbeitz’s opinion at all, but based on a separate precedent, he comes to the same conclusion.
He explains that just as it is an established halachah that if one moves to a new city he must adopt its minhagim, so too a wife “moves” into her husband’s home. It is irrelevant whether they move to the husband’s city or to hers, or whether her family purchased a house for them; the Torah’s concept of marriage, either physically or metaphysically, involves the woman moving into the abode of the man (especially when we consider the chuppah; see Ran in Kesubos).
But if this rule is set in stone, are there exceptions?
There would have to be! Consider that there are numerous minhagim, and even halachos, that exist only because of women.6 How would these practices have been perpetuated if each woman had to yield to her husband’s customs? If that were the case, these minhagim and halachos would already have been lost.
Indeed, we do find several exceptions to this rule in the poskim:
We have often pointed out in this column that one spouse may not force the other to abide by his or her personal chumros.7 Rav Chaim Jachter8 cites Rav Ovadia Yosef, who says that this principle would also pertain to the issue of a wife following her husband’s minhagim; all matters of chumrah are not included (for example, if a husband does not rely on any eiruvim, the wife may still choose to carry on Shabbos inside an eiruv).
In fact, Rav Jachter (ad loc) quotes Rav Moshe Snow, who testified that while Rav Moshe abstained from eating chalav stam, he did not interfere when his wife chose to do so.9
Another exception to the rule is that a husband can be mochel in the matter of minhagim and allow his wife to retain her family customs. However, should she first accept her husband’s minhag and only later decide to revert to her own, a rav should be consulted and hataras nedarim should probably be performed.10
A third exception is that mitzvos that are incumbent only or mainly upon women may follow the practice of the wife’s family. This would explain how minhagim originated by women were able to survive over the centuries. Rabbi Neustadt argues for this principle at least in the case of lighting candles, where a woman may follow the minhagim of her mother.11
Rav Elyashiv held that certain customs are more stringent than minhagim and carry the status of kabbalos or gezeiros. He argues that eating kitniyos on Pesach falls into the latter category, and therefore holds that an Ashkenazi girl who marries a Sefardi must continue to abstain from kitniyos on Pesach. Based on the position of the Tashbeitz that we don’t want a husband and wife with separate dishes at the same table, this is difficult to understand. Perhaps in such a case, the Sefardi man would adopt the chumrah of abstaining from kitniyos!
When Yosef and Binyamin were reunited in Mitzrayim, they both wept. Most understand that this was because they had a vision of troubles and destruction that would befall klal Yisrael in the future. The Maharal, however, understands that these were tears of joy; the brothers were relieved to foresee a future in which all the tribes would be reunited.12
May the current period, when we see Jews from so many lands coming together in communities and in marriage, herald a greater future of unity and peace.
1. Noam, Vol. 23, p. 155.
2. Shu”t 3:179.
3. Based on Vayikra 18:14; see Sanhedrin 28b.
4. See Rav Chaim Pelagi, Moed Kol Chai 2:23, for a very strong ruling on the matter.
5. Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 1:158, see also Even Ha’ezer 1:59; O”C 3:158.
6. See shu”t haRashba 2:228; hakdamah perishah to Tur Yoreh Deah 2 in the name of his mother as to the order of lighting candles for Yom Tov; Niddah 66a; et al.
7. For example, Igros Moshe Even Ha’ezer 2:22 near the end, inter alia.
8. Grey Matter, Vol. 3, p. 132.
9. This example would not apply for those who accept the concept of chalav stam as a matter of halachah.
10. Rav Shlmo Zalman Aurbach, as quoted in Halichos Baysa; Yom Tov Sheni K’Hilchasa; Shalmei Moed.
11. Weekly Halachah, Vayera.
12. As told to Yechezkel, ch. 37.