Dear Jew in the City-
I was raised to believe that eating traif was the same thing as watching a movie. How are mitzvos, minhagim and chumras weighed, in other words, how do I make sense of what is really required of me from the Torah, the rabbis or just by my particular community?
Thanks for your question. All of these things are “real” and they all “count” but of course they have different parameters. I’m going to share an analogy that illustrates the difference between the various categories of halachic practice.
Mitzvos come from the Torah, which is the direct Word of God. In secular terms, that’s our Constitution. We’re not allowed to make laws that violate the Constitution; if we do, the Supreme Court will strike them down.
Rabbinic laws are codified in the Talmud. These are universally binding on all Jews. (The closing of the Talmud represents the last time that the Jewish religious authorities were able to enact universal laws because of subsequent government oppression and geographic dispersion.) Rabbinic laws are like Federal laws. In civil law, Federal laws include things like immigration law, civil rights, patent and copyright laws, etc. These apply equally to everyone, whether they live in New York, Alaska, Hawaii or Wyoming, and the states don’t have the right to “opt-out.”
Torah laws (such as “don’t eat beef with milk”) and rabbinic laws (like “don’t eat chicken with milk”) are both equally binding. The only difference is that in a case of doubt, we act stringently when it comes to Torah laws and leniently in the case of rabbinic laws. Can’t recall if you recited a bracha before eating? That’s a rabbinic law, so in a case of doubt you would act leniently and not recite another bracha. Can’t recall if you recited birkas hamazon (AKA “bentching” – grace after meals)? That’s a Torah law, so in a case of doubt you would act stringently and recite it again.
A small number of rabbinic laws are considered “rabbinic mitzvos” – these are like Constitutional amendments. It’s why we recite a bracha that God “sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to” read the megillah, light Chanukah candles, light Shabbos candles or recite Hallel, even though none of these obligations appear in the Torah. Just like the Constitution allows for amendments, the Torah obligates us to follow rabbinic laws. For this reason, when we wash our hands for bread, we recite a bracha that God obligates us to do so because He does in that He obligated us to follow the laws instituted by the Sanhedrin.
Next we come to minhagim. I think it’s a huge disservice that people typically translate “minhag” as “custom” because the word “custom” suggests that they are optional. This is not the case. (For this reason, I like to refer to a minhag as one’s “practice” rather than one’s custom.) After the close of the Talmud, when the Sages were no longer able to institute universal laws, the authorities of each geographic area ruled for members of their own jurisdictions. Accordingly, Ashkenazim don’t eat rice on Passover; that’s the law for them. Sefardim do eat rice; that’s the equally-valid law for them. Some communities wait six hours between meat and milk, others wait three and Dutch Jews wait only one. Each of these is the appropriate law for members of the appropriate community. These minhagim are like state laws. If you live in Georgia, you can marry your cousin; if you live in Kentucky, you can’t. Each one is a valid law for residents of any given state. One can’t arbitrarily change their minhagim based on the logic that someone else’s minhag is equally valid. This is like hopping the border to marry your cousin in another state and then returning home – your home state may recognize other state’s marriages but it doesn’t recognize it when their own residents try to circumvent state law.
Which brings us to chumras (stringencies). There are plenty of chumras that people accept upon themselves but there are also chumras that are the accepted practices of certain communities. These are like local laws. An example of a local law is zoning. If you want to want to run a hot sauce business out of your apartment, local zoning laws might not allow it but all you have to do is move to another neighborhood that does. Similarly, if you live in a community that has a standard of dress beyond the basic halacha, or that chooses to end Shabbos later than most, it would be inappropriate to go against the community standard. Unlike one’s actual minhagim, however, one could stop observing certain chumras if one relocates to an area where such is not the accepted practice.
Now, I’m not in a position to give you an easy mnemonic to identify what falls into the different categories of halachic practice like the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Pillows” is used to remember that there used to be nine planets. (Wait – what?) People may not even always agree as to where a given practice falls. I might tell you, for example, that women wearing sleeves past the elbow is a rabbinic law but someone else might tell you it’s a chumra. Conversely, I might tell you that women wearing a hat on top of a wig is a chumra, while those who do it might feel that it’s a rabbinic law or a minhag. (There are reasons for such differences of opinion.)
So, let’s get to your example of movies. First of all, there are movies and then there are movies, know what I mean? Some movies are objectively problematic from a religious standpoint; there are plenty of people who actively avoid such movies but who watch other films that are more appropriate. But some authorities may feel that even these more innocuous films are also problematic, perhaps because of the Biblical prohibition against copying other nation’s ways, or the prohibition against being led astray by our eyes, or perhaps for other reasons. For this reason, it is important for one to have a trusted teacher or mentor, whose guidance they could seek in making such determinations.
There are certainly communities that have accepted standards of behavior and, if living in such a community, it would be inappropriate to flout those accepted conventions. But unlike Torah laws, rabbinic laws, and even minhagim, these chumras are not absolute. In such a case, one is able to get a rabbi or other mentor and to explore other approaches that might better suit one as an individual.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent