Preserving family customs

What group do you belong to? Are you a Chasid or a Misnaged? Are you Chassidic Lite or a Snag? Are you Satmar or Belz? Are you a Meshichist or anti? Are you Dati Leumi or Charedi Dati Leumi? Are you Zionist or anti-Zionist? Do you support the left or the right? Do you wear a hat and jacket for davening or don’t you? Do you wear a Tichel or Sheitel? Do you wear thick stockings or normal stockings? Do you wear open toes or only closed shoes? Do you drink Chalav Yisrael or is Chalav HaCompanies your Chalav Yisrael? Will you send your children to University or will they only do courses via correspondence?

Some of these questions, if not all of them, are used by potential Shadchonim to match people up. If it is indeed necessary to have a one to one match between the answers to these questions before a meeting takes place, then I wonder how many of those issues are really fundamental? This is a deeper question which I am not dealing with in this post.

Societal pressure to conform has negative and positive aspects. The positive aspect is that people feel part of a community. The negative aspect is that a level of individuality or existing family minhag is lanced.

On Shavuos, there is an Ashkenazi custom to sing Akdamus. In my youth, there were probably only two occasions each year when I heard Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’ל lead the davening in some form. One was Neilah, where his authentic Nusach was no doubt the one he heard in Telz as a Yeshivah Student, and elsewhere in Poland and London. I will never forget him reciting “Enkas Mesaldecha”. (As an aside, I can’t grok the “man made, popular hit songs” approach to Nusach. How can one sing Enkas Mesaldecha to “a little bird is crying!?!) . The other time I heard Rabbi Chaim Gutnick lead, was on Shavuos when he was called up for the first Aliya, and before commencing, he sang the ancient Akdamus Milin to its authentic tune.

In the main Shule at the Yeshiva, for many years, R” Hershel Klein ז’ל used to say the Akdamus. Those were the days when there were a significant number of Baal HaBatim who davened in the Shule who were not Chabad Chasidim. The Shule had no problem accommodating these customs and didn’t feel it had to follow the practice at 770. When R’ Hershel Klein was ill, he asked me to say it on his behalf. These days, R’ George Marcus has taken on the role but he passes the baton to me because I have a louder voice.

Interestingly, I read that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל did say Akdamus, but he did so in between the Aliyos. Apparently, his father, R’ Levik ז’ל had the custom to say Akdamus as in normative minhag ashkenaz (as did other branches of Chabad) but his father-in-law, the Rayatz  z”l did not say Akdamus loudly in a responsive manner as per minhag Ashkenaz. In order to somehow satisfy both practices, the last Rebbe said Akdamus quietly. This is reported in the name of people who stood close enough to hear it.

Why did he do so? Was it because of respect for his father or was it because it was a minhag and we are enjoined  אל תטוש תורת אמך  and לא תגדודדו? I suspect that the last Rebbe was not ready to completely cancel his own father’s Minhag even if it was not the Minhag of his father-in-law the previous Rebbe, whom he revered, all his life.

In trying to become “accepted” by a particular group or feel like a card-carrying member of that group, how many family minhagim are discarded in the process? Does membership of a particular group mean you have to throw away all or most family minhagim which are not known by that particular group?

We have a Minhag to only eat Milchig on Shavuos. Yes, there is such a Minhag, and no, it’s not in contradiction to שמחת יום טוב. I guarantee that my wife or mother’s milchig dishes will leave you completely בשמחה. To me, as a second generation holocaust survivors’ child, I feel that it is even more important to ensure that what Hitler ימ’ש didn’t manage to destroy, doesn’t get erased in the process of “becoming part of something”.

Am I over-reacting?

If you have never noticed, there are two traditions about how to pronounce לזמן  at the end of the Bracha of Shecheyanu. Most Ashkenzic Jews in my experience pronounce it as Lazman with a patach under the Lamed (ל). This is also what you will find in most standard Nusach Ashkenaz Siddurim today. The other pronunciation, which is supported by the משנה ברורה and the ערוך השלחן based on the opinion of the רמ”א and מגן אברהם is to pronounce it as Lizman with a chirik under the Lamed. Apparently, this latter form is more grammatically correct. The same is apparently true of Bazman and Bizman.

I am no grammarian. I know almost nothing about grammar. I do harbour a trenchant fidelity towards Mesorah/Tradition, however. This is one of the rare cases where the אחרונים say one thing and the Minhag (Ashkenaz) is not to follow these אחרונים and to follow the סידור אוצרות התפילה

Chabad, amongst others, say Lizman and Bizman.

Picture the scene. It’s an Ashkenazi Shule, always has been. It uses an Ashkenazi Siddur (these days Artsroll but in times gone by Singer). The Rabbi of the Shule is a Chabadnik. He decides to direct the reader of the מגילה on Purim to say Lizman Hazeh and not Lazman Hazeh. When challenged, he says “innocently” that this is the opinion of the מגן אברהם etc.

Will the Lizman vs Lazman kill me? No. Will it make a huge difference in עולם האמת … I doubt it. But it works both ways. If it won’t make that much of a difference, why insist on a מנהג which clearly seems to not be מנהג אשכנז and use the paradox of אחרונים who are Ashkenazim as support? After all, for a Chabadnik, when there is a contradiction between their Siddur and the שולחן ערוך הגרש’’ז they follow the Siddur 🙂

It’s the thin edge of the wedge; that’s what bothers me. You just don’t go about lancing an established Mesorah with a chirik.

Disclaimer: I don’t daven Nusach Ashkenaz myself. I have always said Lazman, but I’ve noticed lately that my father seems to say Lizman, so I may well have to change to Lizman myself.

Mezinke Oysgegayben Part 2

Okay, so I’ve received a short essay that researches the origins of the Mezinke. I’m advised that the essay is available in some libraries. It is entitled “Mizhinke” and is by R’ Levi Cooper (ex-Australian, ironically). I’ll summarise some new information gleaned therein.

  1. The custom appears to not be mentioned in any Jewish sources (as we surmised)
  2. The song appeared in a compendium of songs by Warshavsky in 1900 under the yiddish title “Notes to the Jewish folksongs of M.M. Warshawsky”.
  3. It is alleged that the song became well-known through Theodor Bikel’s recordings (Click here if you want to listen to a preview through iTunes)
  4. It would seem that Warshavsky intended the song to be performed at the Bedeken. The song was originally known as “Di Rod” (The circle). Indeed, the phrase “Di Rod Di Rod macht gresser” is part of the first verse (that I sing) although it is the third verse in the original. I only sing two verses (those that mention Hashem) not that any of the other verses are “wild” in anyway. My own feeling is that it was moved from the Bedeken to the wedding party itself because the Bedeken is an halachic religious ritual (indeed, I think the Rav would sometimes announce the Eidim for the Bedeken to be sensitive to the position of the מרדכי as brought by the ט’ז who held that the Bedeken was actually the נישאוין, the wedding proper!) and this tune really didn’t fit in at the Bedeken.

I understand that R’ Cooper hopes to further update his booklet at some stage.

In conclusion, I stand by what I wrote in the first part, namely, that I can see no reason halachically why this practice may not be performed and indeed continued. As some have pointed out, they see it as one of the more beautiful parts of a wedding party and they hope to be healthy and do it at their own simcha. That being said, there is, so far, no evidence to suggest it was some ancient מנהג ישראל. In all likelihood it was (as Joel Rich put it) an acculturation, like the practice of Rabbis giving drashos every Shabbos.

If I get a chance to ask Rav Hershel Schachter, I will do so, but in the meanwhile, I will happily continue doing it, although I won’t call it a מנהג ישראל. What will I call it? Stay tuned to that next Simcha.

Mezinke Oysgegayben

I’d like a dollar (Tzedaka of course) for each time I’ve been asked to perform the Mezinke. For those who haven’t come across the Mezinke, it comprises of a special tune, lyrics, and little ceremony performed when the youngest daughter is married (די מיזינקע אויסגעגעבן).

It is generally presumed that children, especially girls, are married in order of age, and when that last girl has “flown the coop,” it is a happy occasion signalling a milestone for parents and any grandparents. The custom has evolved so that some also perform this dance when the youngest male is married. In that case, the same dance and little ceremony takes place, except that the word Mezinig instead of Mezinke is used in the lyrics.

Musicians of yesteryear

Recently, I performed at a nice Chabad wedding. Of course, in keeping with their הנהגה  the wedding was segregated in respect of both dancing and seating. At the commencement of the 3rd dance bracket (yes in Australia we even have a 4th dance bracket), I announced (in keeping with a request from the בעלי שמחה) that the Mezinig ceremony would now take place. I announced that it was a מנהג ישראל in some places to perform this dance. The parents of the חתן sat down on the women’s side of the dance floor and the children performed the traditional dance around their parents. Normally the dance is accompanied by brooms signifying that the youngest is now proverbially swept out of the house. Some put garlands on the head of the parents, although that is rare.

At the end of the evening, as I was packing up, a respected Rav approached me and informed me that I was gravely mistaken. Not only wasn’t it a מנהג ישראל the practice was likely derived from עבודה זרה. In the least it was a מנהג הגוים and in this Rav’s opinion it was אסור to host the dance/ceremony because of חוקת העכום. Taken aback by this sudden cause célèbre, I asked the Rav how he knew it wasn’t a מנהג ישראל. He responded that his own מחותן had researched the matter and discovered that the Mezinke had no source in יהדות and was derived from גוים. I was somewhat shocked. I hadn’t heard this in over two decades! I responded meekly that this is something that was done for many years and I had simply assumed that it was a מנהג ישראל or at least מנהג from Ashkenazim. I don’t recall ever doing it for Sephardim, and there is no Ladino equivalent 🙂

An internet search proved to be interesting but somewhat inconclusive. The well-known mendele group which revels in the yiddish language, had various contributions:

“Martin Stern [Mendele 14.039] asks about “mezinke” and “mezinik.” His Belzer neighbor had it sort of correct, and I cannot weigh in on local pronunciations there, particularly in Ukrainian. But Harkavy refers “mezinke” to “mizinke” and “mezinik” to “Mezinietz”, and that gives us the origin.. “Mezinietz” is the littlest finger or the littlest toe”


“One probably needs to first go to the masculine form, which is muzhinyik. This appears to be “The little(est) man” from the Russian, moozh, for a man. This is the root for muzhik, which is a peasant. It was probably feminized in Yiddish by the usual mechanism of attaching a German suffix to a male noun.”

or the perhaps more stretched explanation

“I always thought ‘mezinek’ to be a corruption of the posik, ‘ki ven zkinim hi loy’. It is in berayshis (Genesis) where it tells the story of Yosef and his brothers. It says that Yankev liked Yosef more than his other sons because he was a child born to him in old age. The keyword here is ‘zekinim’ which has its root in ‘zokayn’, Hebrew for ‘old’. I always took it for granted that ‘mezinek’ is a corruption of the above with the ‘n’ changing places with ‘k’. Is this normal in language development? And is it possible that the Ukrainian and Russian words cited in connection with ‘mezinek’ have their roots in the Hebrew? I also think that the image of the mezinek may have its origin in the above biblical story. Yosef and Binyomin, two children born to their old father, are given special treatment. Yosef gets a special shirt while Binyomin is never allowed out of sight. The whole story is built around Yosef being punished for behaving like a spoilt kid, a trait of a mezinek, Yankev’s reluctance to let Binyomin go and Yehuda’s intercession on behalf of his youngest brother. As regards the tradition of dancing with a broom, mentioned by Fay Lipshitz [6.223], the minheg is alive and dancing all over the world in frim communities. As the weddings have a mekhitse I only see the father dancing with the broom.”

Then there is this archived post from the respected hirhurim blog:

“According to Hankus Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and professor of Jewish music at the New England Conservatory, the dance is a Ukrainian custom, brought to America by Ukrainian Jews

and which went on further to note that

And yet there is one puzzling thing about this, which is that while the mezinke tantz is said to be a traditional one, the lyrics and music of “Di Mezinke Oysgegebn” were written in the second half of the 19th century by the songwriter Mark Varshavsky, who also composed the much-beloved “Oyfn Pripetshik.” Is the dance not as old as it is thought to be? Or was it (as is more likely) performed to different music before “Di Mezinke Oysgegebn” was written? I would be curious to know.

Let’s assume the “worst” scenario, namely, that it’s really derived from the Ukrainian Krenzel (Crown) dance, and that the words were Judaised by Mark Warshawsky. Interestingly, we see that despite the seeming secular origin, one of the correspondents on mendele gave testimony that the Mezinke was indeed practiced among “frim communities.”

I have played at all manner of wedding: from the most extreme chassidic to the most extreme secular. I don’t recall performing the Mezinke at a Chassidic wedding of any variety so it’s likely that it’s not part of the Chasidic panoply for weddings. That’s only a Melbournian observation though. The Chassidic weddings I play at are either the Hungarian variety where חדש אסור מן התורה or Chabad. I don’t have any reference to the Mezinke taking hold in Hungary. There are, of course, unique quirks belonging to Melbourne that are indeed derived from Poland,  such as the singing of “Lo Mir Aleh”

although we don’t do it with the pomp or groove in the youtube above 🙂

Certainly the idea of a father and mother being seated on either the men’s or women’s side with the children (men and/or women) dancing around them and kissing their parents as they circumlocute is not something I’d expect to see at a Chassidic wedding, Chabad or otherwise. If anything, Chabad are stricter in that they don’t even have a tradition to do the controversial Mitzvah Tantz at the end of the evening, where the Rav and others dance with the כלה via a connecting Gartel, carefully avoiding a furtive glance at the כלה.

On the other hand, Litvaks or Misnagdim often encourage the bride to be brought into the men’s side so that the men may dance around her and be able to fulfill כיצד מרקדים לפני הכלה. My understanding is that Litvaks insist on this practice to be sure that they are מקיים a מצווה to be משמח the כלה and not just the חתן. Chabad doesn’t practice either of these two מנהגים. The most I have seen is the lifting of the כלה on a chair or table above the Mechitza at some stage.

Over the weekend I discussed this with a few people, and they affirmed that they had seen the Mezinke performed at frum weddings in the USA.  Of course, I have seen this at centrist orthodox style weddings. I don’t have the time to conduct a proper exhaustive academic search revolving around the origins of the Mezinke, beyond what I quickly found and presented above. I have, however, emailed a number of world-renowned academics who I expect might know.  At this stage, I think it is fair to say that there is no evidence to suggest that it is a(n old) Jewish מנהג.

What about the allegation that dancing the מיזינקע constitutes an act of  חוקות העכום  and is therefore prohibited? My feeling is that unless there is an explicit link between the מיזינקע and a ritual of עבודה זרה it is difficult for me to understand how this could be construed as חוקות העכום.

Tosfos in עובדה זרה י’א contend that one of two conditions need to hold in order for a custom to constitute חוקות העכום:

  1. The custom has a link with idolatry
  2. The custom has no link with idolatry but is foolish (eg the Ukrainian Wedding Custom of abducting the bride!).

We don’t pasken like Tosfos, however, even if we did, one would need to illustrate that there is a link with perhaps Roman Catholicism or Pagan rite given a derivation from the Ukraine, or other form of idolatry if not these. I don’t think anyone considers the מיזינקע ceremony “foolish” with the possible exception of some Hungarian Charedim who consider anything derived from Goyim as foolish (unless one can make a dollar from it).

The רמ’א in יורה דעה קעח:א paskens like the מהרי’ק  that as long as a custom

  1. has no link with idolatry
  2. has a reasonable explanation

it does not constitute חוקות העכום. Again, unless a link between the מיזינקע and idolatry is found, I cannot see how it can be considered חוקות העכום.

It is known that the Vilna Gaon יורה דעה קעח:ז  is extreme with his definition of חוקות העכום to the extent that he argues with the רמ’א. According to the Gra one must show that a מנהג has explicit Jewish roots, otherwise it is always considered to be חוקות העכום (by default) and prohibited. I think I saw in the name of Rav Menashe Klein in his משנה הלכות that the Gra’s reasoning was that in the absence of alternative information, the Gra is concerned that there might be an etymology from idolatry and so the Gra is always prudent to be מחמיר.  Rav Y. Y. Weinberg in the celebrated שרידי אש ג:צג lists those who disagree with the Gra. According to the Vilna Gaon the מיזינקע would seem to be אסור as we have no evidence that it was a מנהג ישראל מדור דור. From my experience, however, we don’t follow this opinion of the Gra in normative halachic practice.

There is perhaps one more consideration. What is the הלכה if there is a ceremony that is no longer in use by גוים? In other words, even if we assume or are concerned that a practice used to be performed as part of some idolatrous service (and there is no evidence to suggest this is the case with the מיזינקע) what does the הלכה say about such a practice in our day and age, when the practice is no longer performed by גוים. In other words, how can something be considered חוקות העכום if the practice no longer has anything to do with גוים!  Additionally, the widely held opinion seems to be that the פסוק of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו is parametrised around both space and time: if we live in a different time or different place where a מנהג or חוק is no longer practiced then the איסור doesn’t apply (see מנחת חינוך, רנא:א).  It could well be argued that perhaps the only people in the world who now practice the מיזינקע are Jews, and as such, it should be considered completely מותר?

Disclaimer: I am not a Posek. All of this is simply me thinking out loud. Ask your posek, for an authoritative Psak.