What is Mesorah?
Mesorah is not primarily a corpus of knowledge to master but a process of accessing a chain of student-teacher relationships that reaches back to Sinai. Moshe received the Torah and transmitted it to his student, Yehoshua, who in turn taught it to his students and so on, continuing through today.1 The nature of transmission of the mesorah is instruction from a rebbe to his student. We connect to the mesorah, to the sacred structure of laws, beliefs and attitudes, through our teachers.2
The Torah commands that ki yipalei mimcha davar (Devarim 17:8), when you are uncertain of a halachah, you must go to the Beit Din HaGadol, the Central Rabbinic Court. This obligation is not just because the Beit Din HaGadol is appointed as a central authority but because it consists of gedolei hador, the greatest Torah scholars of the generation. A gadol hador is halachically considered a rebbe muvhak, a primary teacher, of every Jew.3 This rule of consulting with the Beit Din HaGadol is based on the principle of receiving guidance from one’s rebbe muvhak, which applies even today when there is no Central Rabbinic Court.
If one is unsure of a matter of halachah or hashkafah, one should ask his rebbe muvhak, the special mentor who has transformed him into a Torah personality. While one is obligated to respect anyone who teaches him Torah, he is further commanded to treat his rebbe muvhak with awe.4 This rebbe muvhak serves as his source for guidance. One cannot simply search the Internet or sefarim for appealing views but must ask his rebbe muvhak. People often have more than one rebbe muvhak, 5 perhaps including their rebbe in yeshivah and their synagogue rabbi, their “mara d’atra.” Gedolei hador also have the status of rebbe muvhak. All of these teachers are appropriate sources of guidance in matters of halachah and hashkafah.
Commitment to mesorah means following one’s rebbe muvhak’s views, whether lenient or strict. Even if he is no longer alive, one must still try to determine the guidance his rebbe muvhak would have offered. One must use all the tools at his disposal in this task, including inquiring of other students who were close with his rebbe, and he is then required to follow his best estimation of his mentor’s views. We see examples in the Talmud of following a rabbi’s unique halachic positions even long after he has died. For example, Rabbi Yossi HaGelili’s community would eat fowl with milk, and Rabbi Eliezer’s community would violate the laws of Shabbat in preparation for a circumcision, all in accordance with their deceased mentors’ positions.6
Different Jews may have somewhat varying traditions. God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel but allowed for a variety of attitudes. Each tribe has its own approach and there can even be differences within a tribe. The Tanya (1:27) quotes the Tikkunei Zohar which explains that Yitzchak asked Eisav to make him several types of food—“aseih li matamim” (Bereishit 27:4)—because people enjoy variety. Similarly, God wishes to have a variety of different kinds of people. Each mesorah, though, traces its history back to Sinai and conforms to core halachic and hashkafic attitudes.7
Does Mesorah Allow for Changes?
Despite this emphasis on tradition, Judaism is not frozen in place.8 Minor practices, such as the design or color of a synagogue’s parochet, can change easily. Rules that are more rigid must also respond appropriately to changed circumstances. Someone committed to the mesorah must inquire of his rebbe muvhak to learn when and how to change practices while remaining within traditional attitudes and patterns of behavior.
Just like science progresses, so too halachah advances. The midrash states, “There is no day in which God does not innovate a halachah in the Heavenly court.”9 Similarly, Yalkut Shimoni 10 explains the verse “Yivchar elohim chadashim, they chose new gods” (Judges 5:8) as “Yivchar Elokim chadashim, God chooses new,” that God appreciates Torah innovations. The Rav would often say that Judaism allows for chiddush, innovation¸ but not shinuy, change.11
Not every chiddush, however, is acceptable. Tosafot12 note a contradiction between two Talmudic passages. The gemara in Pesachim (50b) states that one should learn Torah even without the proper motivation, because from doing so he will eventually arrive at the proper motivation. In contrast, the gemara in Berachot (17a) states that he who studies Torah with the wrong motivation would have been better off never having been born. The Netziv13 resolves this contradiction by explaining that learning extant Torah without issuing a new ruling or an innovative interpretation is certainly permissible, even a mitzvah, regardless of motivation. After all, he is learning Torah. However, chiddushei Torah, creating new interpretations, requires the proper motivation and, if done with the wrong intentions, is spiritually poisonous because the practitioner biases his judgment toward his personal desires.
The Netziv continues that this applies not only to new interpretations but also to innovations in practice. When one performs a mitzvah, even with improper motivation, he has at least performed an incontrovertible mitzvah act. When one creates a new practice, however, if his intention is not entirely proper then there is nothing by which to establish the practice as a mitzvah. It is not a mitzvah act but a subterfuge for an agenda.
Who Is Authorized to Institute Change?
Changes in practice require delicate evaluations that only a master Torah scholar, a gadol baTorah, can properly conduct. Only someone with a broad knowledge and a deep understanding of the corpus of halachah, with an intimate familiarity with both the letter and the spirit of the law, with a mastery of both the rules and the attitudes of the mesorah, can determine when a change is acceptable or even required. The more wide-reaching the proposed change, the greater the expertise required to approve it. The evaluator must not only be a master of the mesorah, but he must also be able to consider new practices based solely on values internal to the mesorah, removing external influences from the deliberation.14
Judaism allows for chiddush, innovation, but not shinuy, change.
The gemara (Berachot 28b) tells us that Shimon HaPakoli established the order of the eighteen blessings in the Amidah under the supervision of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel asked the sages present, “Does anyone know how to establish a blessing about the sectarians?” In response to this query, only Shmuel HaKatan accepted the task and completed it. The commentators ask why none of the other sages were capable of the seemingly simple task of writing a blessing that denounces sectarians. Rav Soloveitchik explained, in the name of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and Rabbi Yaakov Lifschitz of Kalisch, that those who institute new practices must perform the entire process with only the purest of intentions. The sages who were asked to author a blessing condemning sectarians were concerned that they might be partially motivated by selfish interests, namely to remedy their own conflicts with sectarians. That is why they needed Shmuel HaKatan, who would frequently say “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Avot 2:19), and in whom they had faith that if he had any personal motivation, he would have excused himself from this task.15
Rabbi Shlomo Eiger16 rules that a proper custom that was instituted by a non-observant person may not be followed. This position can be explained based on two conditions required to establish a new practice:
1. Just like “everything that the rabbis instituted is patterned after a Biblical practice,”17 so too customs must be established in the format of an existing Biblical or rabbinic practice.18 A custom that lacks such a basis is not authoritative and is called a “minhag shtut” (senseless custom).19 Verifying that a new practice is truly in the spirit of Torah requires great breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding of halachah.
2. The motivation of those who institute the custom must be pure. This is why many posekim20 require customs to be those of vatikin, God-fearing scholars whose every action is done for the sake of Heaven.
It is, therefore, perfectly understandable why we may not follow an otherwise proper custom that was instituted by someone unqualified. While the practice is itself commendable and therefore meets the first condition, it fails the second because we cannot conclusively say that it was instituted with the requisite proper intentions. Therefore, as per the responsum of the Netziv, we may not adopt such a practice.
There were many expert talmidei chachamim throughout pre-War Europe who were eminently qualified to rule on matters in all four sections of Shulchan Aruch. When a question regarding a new practice arose, however, such as stunning animals before slaughter, they would always consult with their colleagues in order to ensure that the practice be established by vatikin.21 This was done for the above two reasons.
Today, however, everything is backwards and upside down. Questions on the four sections of Shulchan Aruch are sent to the leading scholars to decide, while issues of establishing new practices are not brought to gedolei Torah for review and consultation. This is the exact opposite of how it should be done.
The considerations an authority must take into account today when evaluating a proposed innovation are numerous and complex. In addition to the technical halachic issues, there are many far-reaching concerns. The following are some of the more relevant global considerations:
1. Rav Soloveitchik insisted that we not apologize for Jewish tradition. We live in a misguided society, and if its values sometimes conflict with our mesorah, the society is mistaken. Our mesorah teaches how an ideal society operates and we must embrace that tradition, not apologize embarrassedly for it. We may not imply, by word or action, that either the Torah or the Sages were unfair or otherwise morally deficient.22
2. The Torah (Devarim 22:5) prohibits a man from wearing women’s clothes and vice versa. Chazal 23 extend that beyond clothing to more general acts that are gender-specific, such as dyeing hair color and acquiring specific hair styles.24 The Torah’s intent with this prohibition mandating differentiation between the genders is to prevent licentiousness, indicated by the end of the verse “For it is an abomination to God.” In our day, when modesty is a rarity and promiscuity abounds, we cannot allow practices that breach the boundaries of modesty by abandoning behavioral differences between men and women.
3. The Ramban (Devarim 12:30) explains that the Torah forbids our worshipping God in the same way that gentiles observe their religions. In addition to the general prohibition against following gentile practices, the Torah further prohibits performing mitzvot in a way similar to gentile religious practices.25 This was the reason that Rav Soloveitchik opposed mixed seating in the synagogue so stridently, to the extent that he publicized his ruling that one may not enter such a synagogue even to hear the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. As he explained, family seating was a Christian innovation and is therefore Biblically prohibited.26
4. The Mishnah (Chullin 41a) states: “One may not slaughter [an animal and let the blood flow] into seas or into rivers . . . one may not slaughter into a pit at all . . . one may not do so in the marketplace, so as not to confirm the sectarians.” Tosafot explain that the issue of not slaughtering into a pit in the marketplace is one of marit ayin, that onlookers might think that one associates with the deviant sect that always slaughters in that unusual way. Innovations, even if otherwise appropriate, are rendered improper if they give the appearance of following the agenda of sectarians, of non-Orthodox movements. Rav Soloveitchik emphasized that any practice, even if otherwise permissible, that serves as a symbol of a counter-halachic agenda is forbidden.27
5. Acharonim have ruled extremely strictly about synagogue customs. Just like we are forbidden to enact a change in the Beit HaMikdash, a prohibition the Gemara (Sukkah 51b) derived from the Bible (I Divrei HaYamim 28:19), we are similarly forbidden to change a synagogue practice because that verse applies equally to a mikdash me’at, a synagogue. The Imrei Yosher28states that we also learn from this verse an obligation to preserve the synagogue’s customs.
All of these considerations inform the analysis of a gadol baTorah in determining whether a practice is consistent with the mesorah he has received from his teachers and transmits to his students. Someone committed to that mesorah will make sure to remain within the chain of Jewish tradition and not deviate beyond the letter and spirit of our received teachings.
1. Avot 1:1.
2. For a more extensive discussion of mesorah, see Nefesh HaRav, pp. 34-58 and Beikvei HaTzon, pp. 21-37.
3. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 244:10.
4. Tosafot, Bava Kamma 41b, s.v. lerabot.
5. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 242:4.
6. Shabbat 130a. The Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah) applies this to contemporary times.
7. See Divrei HaRav, p. 270.
8. See Halakhic Man, Part Two.
9. Bereishit Rabbah 49:2.
10. Shoftim 49.
11. See Halakhic Mind, n. 98; And From There You Shall Seek, p. 108.
12. Pesachim 50b, s.v. ve’kam.
13. Meishiv Davar 1:46 and in other places.
14. See Halakhic Mind, n. 98.
15. See the Dor Revi’i on Chullin, page 3b of the introduction regarding ulterior motives in pesak halachah.
16. Gilyon Maharsha, Yoreh Deah 246 on Shach, no. 8.
17. See Pesachim 30b.
18. See MiPninei HaRav, p. 11.
19. Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Shiltei HaGibborim on the Mordechai at the end of Gittin and in many later works, notes that the letters spelling “minhag” can be rearranged to spell “gehenom.” See also Tosafot and Mordechai at the beginning of Bava Batra.
20. See Magen Avraham, 690:22 and in many responsa of the Acharonim.
21. See Responsa Chatam Sofer, 6:86, p. 28b, s.v. vehineh hamechaber hazeh; Seridei Eish, Yoreh Deah, no. 4.
22. See Divrei HaRav, p. 159.
23. Nazir 58b.
24. See Makkot 20b; Tosefta, Sotah 2:8; Tosafot, Sotah 23b, s.v. mah bein ish le’ishah.
25. See Nefesh HaRav, p. 231.
26. See Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 116.
27. See Beikvei HaTzon, pp. 34-35.
28. No. 178.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter is rosh yeshivah and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. His latest book is Divrei HaRav (OU Mesorah Commission 5771).