What Is Mesorah (Tradition)? מאי מסורה

“The Paroches of the Aron Kodesh (Curtain of the Holy Ark) will feature Batman or Superman, and some portraits of NFL greats will adorn the walls of our new shul, which will cater to the local Baby Boomer population”, explained the congregation’s president. “But we can’t do that! It is too untraditional”, replied the chairman of the building committee. “Where does it state so in the Shulchan Aruch?” “Umm; not sure. I guess you’ve got a point. But it just doesn’t feel right.” “Look, we’re not bringing anything lewd into the shul – we’ll stick with traditional players like Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach – no OJ stuff – and Superman and Batman are as clean-cut as they come. Synagogue decoration is all just based on common custom and preference, and the appealing reasons to move forward with this project clearly override the flimsy reasons against it.”

The shul’s president seems to have a good argument on the merits. Images that convey Truth, Justice and the American Way, as well as heroism, humility (Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson never took an ounce of credit for their superhero work), good sportsmanship and fair play would seem to be desirable, praiseworthy and so “Jewish”. Nothing in the Gemara or in codified Halacha specifies that a shul must be adorned exclusively with overtly Judaic images, so what’s the matter?

Never for a moment would any shul be decorated as suggested above; the very idea is ridiculous, intolerable and sacrilegious. Why is this?

The answer is one word: Mesorah (Tradition). The Jewish People have a tradition as to how a shul should and must look. This tradition is not formally codified, save for a few scant aspects of it, yet we would irregardless never veer from this Mesorah.

What makes something Mesorah? What indicates whether a practice is Mesorah or whether it is mere changeable custom?

The answer to the second question is more evident. When a practice has been firmly in place for a long time, and there is no tradition of alternative practices relating to the specific matter at hand – and there is no clear, pragmatic reason as to why the time-honored, uniform practice applied only to a specific scenario and would not logically apply any more – we are faced with a practice that bears the signs of Mesorah. Thus, whether a shul’s floor is carpeted or tiled is obviously not an issue of Mesorah, but the general nature and appropriateness of a shul’s ornamentation are manifestations of Mesorah.

However, this is pretty imprecise. The truth is that precision can only be found by returning to our first question: What makes something Mesorah?

Mesorah reflects enduring and traditional practices that are based on solid halachic and/or hashkafic (ideological and attitudinal) considerations, when such considerations are not formally codified or patently evident. In the case of synagogue ornamentation, the synagogue is classified as a Mikdash Me’at, a “Miniature Beis Ha-Mikdash” (Holy Temple), and, as such, must reflect the highest degree of holiness and dignity. Anything that hints at Kalus Rosh (secular levity or amusement) is disallowed. This tradition and sentiment, which is based on halachic and hashkafic concepts yet is not codified specifically in terms of the actual adornment of the synagogue, forms the Mesorah as to the appropriate physical decor of a shul (and precludes introducing superhero or sports themes, as appealing and “Jewish” as they may seem).

In virtually all congregations that follow Eastern European traditions, the chazzan leads the Kabbalas Shabbos service from the Bimah; in Western European shuls, the chazzan and tzibbur (congregation) recite Kabbalas Shabbos responsively, such that neither the chazzan nor the tzibbur recites every verse of Kabbalas Shabbos, but only recites every other verse. Why is this? It is due to the fact that Kabbalas Shabbos is not part of Maariv proper, and a marked distinction is therefore made, either by the chazzan not leading Kabbalas Shabbos from his normal position at the Amud (lectern) at the front of the shul, or by everyone skipping every other pasuk (verse). None of this is codified anywhere, yet it is the Mesorah of how Kabbalas Shabbos is purposefully conducted.

Certain piyutim (hymns) are recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a very odd manner: the chazzan recites the first half of each stanza, and the tzibbur recites the second half of the stanza as well as the first half of the succeeding stanza, such that neither the chazzan nor the tzibbur ends up reciting complete stanzas at each interval, but instead recites fragments. The most well-known case of this is the piyut Ha’ochez B’yad Midas Mishpat, in which the summarizing”V’chol Ma’aminim” refrain seems to be recited totally out of place, as it is recited as the commencement of a new responsive statement rather than as the completion of the immediately previous statement. Why? It seems so strange. Since it is not written anywhere to do this, and the practice appears to be incorrect, should it not be pointed out as an error and corrected?

No. Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik zt”l of RIETS explained (please see pp. 79-81 here) that this piyut (and others in that context) are purposefully recited in such a manner, such that the chazzan and tzibbur each recites partial stanzas and prompts the other to complete the stanzas, mimicking the malachim (angels), who praise God through Amirah V’aniyah, responsive prompting of each other to complete the praise of God, each one authorizing the other to commence or finish another line of praise. Hence does the Kedushah prayer consist of prompts, such as “L’umasam ‘Baruch’ yomeru” and so forth. B’nei Yisroel (the Jewish People) mimic the prayer of the malachim in the piyutim recited in the context of Kedushah, and thus are these piyutim recited in this special (otherwise apparently odd) fashion. This unique system of recital and symbolism are not codified, yet they are important and eminently meaningful age-old practices – practices of Mesorah.

Rav Soloveitchik explained that every traditional Jewish practice has a deeply rooted source and is thus innately significant and cannot be jettisoned. Although taken at face value and subject to technical halachic scrutiny, a shockingly large number of our observances could be dismissed and discarded due to lack of apparently compelling source or halachic mandate, to do so is to assault the very notion of Mesorah, which is at the core of Torah practice and of how mitzvos are to be approached. One may claim that a certain practice from time immemorial should be reconsidered or overturned, as it does not have halachic basis and has no perceptible Mesorah element – yet to do so reflects great hubris, as the very concept of Mesorah is traditional practice which has firm roots yet was never codified, remaining largely hidden and elusive to most of us, save for those few outstanding chachmei ha-dor (preeminent Torah scholars of the generation) who can discern and elucidate the concealed and whose grasp of Torah transcends the revealed and conspicuously stated.

Semicha for women is a case in point. While foremost poskim (halachic decisors) have ruled and articulated their reasons that women cannot be rabbis, some (whose Torah knowledge comes nowhere close to those poskim) have questioned the ruling and the reasons and have challenged the notion of a Mesorah that women cannot be rabbis. Aside from the dubious value and propriety of a position that is in conflict with the unanimous ruling of top-tier halachic authorities, to assert that there is no clear Mesorah against women serving as rabbis misses the point. It is akin to a person claiming that there must be no birds in a given tree, as the person has not seen a nest there nor heard chirping therefrom. But that is the problem: Mesorah relates to that which is beyond our local perception, which lacks codification, which is nearly inscrutable and is not at all apparent to one standing on ground level. Inability to discern Mesorah does not negate its existence. Mesorah remains in practice and in force through tradition; Halacha has accepted and embraced Mesorah as part and parcel of the binding Torah system. (Please see here, here, here, and here.)

Our Mesorah is that women are not ordained as rabbis. There is no tradition to the alternative, and to assert that no Mesorah exists on the matter requires a near-omniscient understanding of this eternal practice and its background, so as to rule out any and all unknown material considerations behind the practice, such that it can be declassified from the category of Mesorah. The reasons expressed by the preeminent poskim who have addressed the issue of semicha for women and ruled it out of bounds may very well form the basis for the Mesorah that women are not ordained as rabbis. It is meaningless to argue against the Mesorah character of this practice, even if the reasons given for it do not personally resonate, for such is not the applicable yardstick to measure and determine what is or is not Mesorah.

Mesorah demands humility, as it informs us that there is much more beneath the surface and behind the scenes, and that we dare not dismiss and discard that which we cannot readily perceive due to our natural human limitations.

Let us embrace traditional Torah practice and do our utmost to understand its ins and outs, so that we may be able to appreciate why that which is “in” defines that which is “out”.

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28 Responses

  1. Arys says:

    It is interesting that you mention the marked differences in order to do kabbalos shabbos. Isn’t kabbalos shabbos against the Masorah? We have never had song (and sometimes dance) between mincha maariv in shul on Shabbos night, and then suddenly we have this new minhag?? It seems irreverent and against the attitude of the Torah. In fact, many were against this practice when it first started. What makes it part if the masorah? It “feels” wrong to me.

    • Mycroft says:

      Arys has made a very good point. Kabbalah Shabbos is a recent innovation,originally one had to go to the fields to say it, then to a special room in schul, then later it was admitted to main schuls. In my lifetime standard tunes have changed to those composed by one who certainly was not classically fru. Other innovations include Simchas Torah , where Rabbis acquiesced to reading at night, repeating Aliyah’s etc.
      My schul the Rabbi introduced dancing with Torah when returning the Torahs after Kol Nidrei. Many of those changes are ones that I believe are contemptuous of Mesorah but no one cares. It seems to matter who is behind the changes rather than what the change is.
      Full disclosure I am against woman Rabbis and certainly have been since before I first heard Rabbi Riskin advocate women Rabbis in an early 70s sermon. BTW where was the outcry then against him.

  2. micha says:

    I tackled the same topic in my post “What Does Mesorah Mean?. My conclusion differed somewhat.

    Rabbi Gordimer is identifying “mesorah” with accepted halachic practice, mimetic tradition, or, as Chazal put it “‘ve’al titosh Toras imekha’: al tiqri ‘imekha’ ela ‘umasekha'” — “‘… and do not foresake your mother’s Torah’: do not read it as ‘your mother’s’, rather as ‘[do not foresake your nation’s [Torah]'”.

    I though Rabbi JB Soloveitchik was referring to something more subtle, not so much the culture and practices of the masses, but the culture and practices of halachic decisors. Which is why the Rav could speak about Rashi and Tosafos being more critical to the mesorah than codes like the Rambam’s. I see in this (and other examples) that Rav Soloveitchik was speaking about the flow of Torah down the generations.

    In his own words:

    … For a moment, the Rebbe is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainly. He asks himself: Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rebbe in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives? The Rebbe starts his shiur, uncertain as to how it will proceed.

    Suddenly the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rebbe, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker…. The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the 17th century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law (dinai mamonot) is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and others harking back to antiquity – Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Raavad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats. The Rebbe introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. …

    All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision; and all operate with the same categories. A Mesorah collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times. This joining of the generations, this march of centuries, this dialogue and conversation between antiquity and the present will finally bring about the redemption of the Jewish people.

    After a two or three hour shiur, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the Mesorah experience, years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in commonality, bridging the gap with separates the generations. Thus, the “old ones” of the past continue their great dialogue of the generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the Mesorah.

    Or, as summarized by Rav Herschel Schachter:

    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. 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.

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    “The Conference observes with great regret the deviations”

    The Arutz Sheva article’s translation of “The Conference views with great pain…” seems to better reflect the meaning of “tzar”.

  4. dr. bill says:

    Drawing new artwork on a parokhet is a poor example of violating the mesorah. Your examples are assur because they are stupid or ridiculous, not because of some amorphous notion of mesorah. Would something commemorating the Shoah or the birth of the State of Israel or the recapture of Jerusalem also be disallowed? Clearly many Chassidic Jews cling to various behaviors of old and give them religious significance. But that hardly elevates it to Masoretic status outside of Chassidic comic books with Moshe in a Shtreimel.

    The truth is that many non-halakhic practices evolve, albeit slowly. If you want to dispute that truism, enjoy yourself; but stay away from history and stick with whatever beliefs you like. Please don’t expect everyone to salute and follow suit.

    In many areas of the tefillah, change has occurred. (How many shuls sing Keil Adon (improperly) in unison?) The reasons why some rabbis insist on a particular practice is often they ascribe to it a quasi-halakhic origin. However, those who often shed light on such areas are often not rabbis but historians. In the modern day, Prof. Sperber and Leiman are good examples. Mistakes about tradition have been made even by geonai olam.

    And though the Rav ztl often tied minhagim to a strong motivational source, it is well known that he declared a number of widespread practices inauthentic. What you write “Rav Soloveitchik explained that every traditional Jewish practice has a deeply rooted source and is thus innately significant and cannot be jettisoned. “ is incorrect. I personally know of 2 practices the Rav ztl told students to abandon despite family tradition; I assume there are (many) more.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Yes-when there was no halachic basis for the minhag-such as not eating in the Sukkah on Shemini Atzeres.

      • dr.bill says:

        we agree, despite the fact that the Rav understood the conceptual cogency of not sitting in the Succah and (I believe) was even aware of limited halakhic support among (less often quoted) rishonim and achronim.

      • Mycroft says:

        Historical irony-The Rav essentially spent the last couple of de ades of how life in his daughters house. His daughter was married to a chasid. Thus, the only eating in the Sucah would be the Rav on Shmeinei Aseret..

      • David says:

        Not all chasidim eat out of the sukka. So you first need to ascertain what Rabbi Twersky did before we determine the irony.

      • Mycroft says:

        Rabbi I Twersky did not eat in the Sukkah Shmeinei Aseret, nor did his wife and children. They would eat inside the Rav would eat outside by. Himself unless of course the Twersky’s invited someone else to use the Sukkah.

    • Nachum says:

      Actually, I think it was exactly two- to eat in sukkah on Shemini Atzeret (which is of course not done in Israel- they even lock the sukkah in Brisk!) and not to skip birkat kohanim on Shabbat (again, not an issue in Israel).

      However, I don’t think bringing up the Rav’s attitude toward tefillah is a good support for this argument, which I am generally in sympathy with for very different reasons. The Rav famously had a very un-historical attitude toward both tefillah and corrected texts which many even in the charedi community would find to be going too far. As it happens, there are many who “correct” tefillah, for example exactly as said in this article, moving the words “melech elyon” or “imru le-lokim” to their original places.

      Of all things, I just heard a hesped by R’ Herschel Schachter of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, in which he describes how R’ Aharon changed the way a tefilla is said based on dikduk considerations. (R’ Schachter later saw the same arrangement in an old siddur, but that wasn’t what R’ Aharon was basing himself on.) Now, perhaps R’ Soloveitchik wouldn’t have approved, but that R’ Aharon did it doesn’t mean nothing.

      • David says:

        Dr. Bill and Nachum: Actually, I’ve always heard it otherwise: i.e., despite the Rav’s many chidushim, some of which he implemented halacha lmaaseh, he didn’t recommend TO HIS STUDENTS to change anything they did, except for 2: eating in the succa on SA and using a single dalet and not a double. So the point was that he wasn’t one of those people who went around forcing his own chidushim on others.

      • dr. bill says:

        None of us said anything about his chiddushim. you are quite right, consistent with generations of tradition among gedolai olam in Europe, their chumrot based on talmudic insights or quandaries that were inconsistent with practice were not followed even by many of their students. however, we were talking about minhagim, like standing or sitting for havdalah, where the Rav ztl gave weight to practice over his chiddushim/ sevarah. your examples are not chiddushim of the Rav or anyone else but simple pshat, according to the vast majority of poskim.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    I would like to add the following Mashul. There is a wonderful book entitled “Driving Mr. Yogi” which was co authored by former Yankee great Ron Guidry and a sportswriter in which Guidry relates stories that he heard from the late Yogi Berra while driving Yogi around Florida during spring training. Yogi related that in 1946 he arrived at spring training with a reputation as a potentially great hitter who needed to be taught the nuances of being a major league catcher. The Yankees brought Bill Dickey a Hall of Fame catcher to camp who showed Yogi the ins and outs of catching-how to call a game, frame the plate, etc. Fast forward to the late 1990s-Joe Torre has a young infielder who can hit but who can’t pay the infield or outfield but who night be a decent catcher-Jorge Posada. Yogi taught and transmitted to the then young Posada the ins and outs of catching that he receivedfrom Dickey and the rest is history-Posada became one of the “core four” of the great Yankee teams. That, in a word , is Mesorah.

    • dr. bill says:

      Steve Brizel, What you describe is more akin to shimush than mesorah. In many disciplines book knowledge absent practical on hands training under a mentor is insufficient. It’s true with shechita, ma’arot dam, surgery as well as many less complex fields like driving. Mesorah is extremely important; it often informs halakhic practice. Many halakhic terms are only known mimetically. Mesorah does not axiomatically mean adherence to past practice in a changed world.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        dr bill-have the skills entailed in becoming either a Hall of Fame catcher or a Talmid Chacham changed ?

      • dr. bill says:

        you seem to major in non-sequiturs. you mashul should use the word shimush NOT mesorah. You misused a word; i was trying to help.

  6. DF says:

    Arguing for anything on the basis of Mesorah is generally not a good idea. The charedi and yeshivah world, almost completely devoid of mesorah as they are, effectively undermine any argument one wishes to use against their left wing counterparts, and the latter are quite aware of that. On this particular subject there are far better arguments, if one wishes to engage in argument (itself a mistake.)

  7. Larry says:

    The mesorah is that women should not be Rabbis. Despite what the Rav wrote, the mesorah is also against coed education and requiring women to learnTalmud. The overwhelming majority of preeminent orthodox Rabbis forbid both.

    Mesorah demands intellectual honesty. If the Agudah is right about OO then the RCA should either remove all OO Rabbis from its organization or the Orthodox Rabbis within the RCA should resign. The RCA should replace its leadership of pulpit Rabbis with RY’s steeped in decades of study whose commitment to Torah Jusaism is beyond reproach.

  8. Jo says:

    The ignorance of this piece is so enormous that it almost doesn’t deserve response. One could name hundreds of elements of the mesorah that have been abandoned or changed. Do you listen to a sermon in the shul in English? Do you use a mirror?

  9. Mike S. says:

    Historically, while there have been many innovations denounced as breaches of the mesorah that have either fallen by the wayside or become the practice of the heterodox movements, there have been many others that were denounced by the Gedolei Hador of the time as breaches of the mesorah that have become part of the regular practice in many or all Orthodox communities. Among the latter (a sample taken from the left and the right and neutral) are: Chassidus, Mussar, the prohibition of kitniot on Pesach, sermons in the vernacular, bat mitzvah celebrations, girls’ schooling, multiple shuls in one city, the Brisker approach to Lomdus, salaries for rabbis, and black hats for yeshiva bochurs.

    So yes, we need to have the utmost respect for mesorah, and great humility in its face, but that doesn’t mean that practice doesn’t change. And historical awareness would suggest a little humility in how we speak about those with whom we disagree.

  10. Yair Daar says:

    Can you please share the link to the statement by an Open Orthodox representative arguing for the silliness you are attributing to them in the opening paragraph? You should be careful with your analogies if you want to be taken seriously.

  11. Alan Haber says:

    There really are two legitimate sides to the debate about female rabbis. But this article is NOT one of them.
    Of the many holes in this dubious argument, I’ll point out only one. R Gordimer writes “Nothing in the Gemara or in codified Halacha specifies that a shul must be adorned exclusively with overtly Judaic images, so what’s the matter? Never for a moment would any shul be decorated as suggested above; the very idea is ridiculous, intolerable and sacrilegious.”
    Rabbi Gordimer, I invite you to come to Israel and take a tour with me of batei knesset from the periods of the Gemara, Savoraim and early Geonim. We’ll look at the mosaic floors together and see how many “overtly non-Jewish” cultural symbols we can find. Batman and Superman are actually pretty good analogies. Please get your facts straight before engaging in polemics.

    • Mycroft says:

      The best example IMO to prove Alan Haber’s point is Zippori – the same small village that the Sanhedrin met has schuls adorned with non Jewish images.

  12. Benjamin E. says:

    I think anyone who has heard a shiur given by…well, by any woman, and certainly by one of the great female teachers and scholars out there today, would be horrified to hear a comparison of such deep and serious talmud Torah and guidance of Jews to decorating a paroches with superhero comics.

    I think anyone considering the comparison of the two *in good faith* (as opposed to trying to prove their similarity via selective technical similarities to highlight one thing in common to serve their point) would find it a shockingly disrespectful comparison to some incredible teachers out there, and I don’t think anyone would find any insight on the issue to be gained from such a comparison.

  13. YbhM says:

    R. Gordimer’s argument appeals to people who already agree with him (we can see this from the comments).

    Whereas I am convinced that by nature men and women are essentially different, that this notion is inherent in the narratives and laws of the Torah and expressed by thinkers like the Maharal, and that the organization of traditional Jewish society reflects this basic truth and represents a superiority of our culture over general culture. The pendulum of the zeitgeist may well start swinging back in our direction soon.

    Moreover if we appreciate what Torah scholarship actually is, it’s apparent that there are few women who are capable or suitable to be halakhic decisors (though of course they do fine as halakhic researchers), that the few women who might be able to do this are overwhelmingly inclined to traditional roles as wives, mothers, and teachers, and that institutional acceptance of female halachic authorities unavoidably leads to demands to change halakhic jurisprudence in ways that more consistent with female modes of thinking.

    • Benjamin E. says:

      It’s not apparent to me at all, actually, that few women are *suitable* to be halakhic decisors. If it is even true that there are few who are currently *capable*, that might be more related to the fact that they are not being trained to become them (few frum male doctors are capable of being halakhic decisors, but nobody would say that if they spent years in yeshiva they couldn’t *become* equally capable).

      Further, I am unclear as to why being a wife, mother, and teacher would prevent a competent woman from being a halakhic decisor any more than being a husband, father, and teacher would prevent a man from being one – and I think most halakhic decisors *are* in fact husbands, fathers, and teachers, and are still able to fill this role!

      And though I think I *do* appreciate what Torah scholarship actually is, I am quite unclear as to which aspect of it is only capable of being generated in the presence of one or more of the 458 genes on the Y chromosome.

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