Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Do Converts Choose a Minhag?

What is a minhag? "Custom." Plural: minhagim. However, some minhagim have been practiced so widely and for so long that rabbis have declared them to be mandatory halacha. More generally, each large group of Judaism are considered to have a "minhag," including Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Yemenite, Indian (from India), etc.

Further, some minhagim are how someone does an actual halacha. One of the most common examples is how a person ritually washes his or her hands. There is no wrong answer. You're fulfilling the mitzvah, but there are several customs on how to fulfill it.

Back to the point at hand. This is a question that born-Jews ask me all the time. As far as I can tell, there are basically four sources that seem to form a hierarchy:

1) The first one you hear/learn.
2) A significant other's minhag.
3) Your community's minhag.
4) The one you like better.

Of course, some people may skip directly to the personal preference. Interestingly, born-Jews constantly encourage me to pick the "most convenient" option and express jealousy that I get to choose!

Let's be clear that I don't mean Ashkenazi v. Sephardi. As a general rule, you will have to choose there. And as nearly no Sephardi community does conversions, chances are that you should consider yourself Ashkenazi. However, my understanding is that you may change that self-designation later, particularly if your heritage is a Sephardi culture. The only exception here is Hebrew pronunciation. Many Ashkenazi baalei teshuva and converts choose to use modern Sephardi pronunciation because of Israel. (However, note that there is a real push for Jews of color to "be" Sephardi. Interestingly, I've seen this peer pressure even between Jews of color, so it's not just rabbinic/born-Jew racism/stereotyping.)

Don't forget that some of this choosing may be irrelevant. If a convert marries a born-Jew, there is certainly a temptation to adopt the minhagim of the spouse and the spouse's family. However, for females, it is tradition (halacha?) for a wife to adopt the minhagim of her husband. Being a female convert, I look forward to following both of those reasons. Unless he waits 6 hours between meat and dairy. (For convenience and health reasons, I chose 3 hours as my minhag!)

The lesson here is that you may adopt whichever minhagim you wish, regardless of what someone may tell you. As long as you are within acceptable custom and halacha, you may have a mishmash of minhagim; and even for born-Jews, a mishmash is becoming much more common. There is no "right" minhag, even though inevitably, someone will tell you that a minhag is "pure halacha." Personally, and because of practicality, most of my minhagim are the first ones I learned. It was just simpler that way.

The only problem with that method is that I don't always remember where my customs came from. That's a problem because I can't explain it or track down a reasoning whenever someone tells me I'm practicing some strict minority opinion that very few people follow. Then I'm stuck giving them an awkward smile and "'s just what I know." Then either a lecture happens or the person walks away thinking I'm a nut.


  1. Very interesting.

    As a convert (Liberal here in the UK = Reform in the US, loosely speaking), I have noticed that there is a temptation to get minhagim to be adopted as if they were halacha. This is so wrong, it makes me really rather cross!

    But, back to the good stuff - I love the fact that I can choose my minhagim and don't have to follow anyone else's, just because. I get to create my own history.

    Love what I've read of your blog, by the way. I think I found it via Samantha's Jewish Journey blog.


  2. I wait 6 hours between meat and milk, and 4 between chicken and milk :) Simply because this one was the first one I learnt - and that's the source of my minhagim. I feel a particular emotional connection to the minhagim I first learnt, especially because they remind me of the people who taught them to me.

    I also do Netilat Yadaim before Motzi 3 times on each hand - and I'm seeing a lot of people online who do only 2 :S *puzzled*!

  3. Sophia, I also do 3 on each hand. My other half argues and tells me it's only 2(he is FFB), but I can just as easily pull up which says to do 3! Pretty much everyone else I know, BTs/converts/chasidim aside, do only 2.

  4. Yes, 3 on each hand is a Chabad minhag, but it seems limited to Chabad and converts/BTs who get confused :P Someone got really excited once, thinking I was also Lubavitch!

    Further, most people don't teach converts/BTs about there being 3 separate kinds of ritual handwashing, all of which have their own rules, minimum observance, and customs. 1) Before eating bread (motzi). 2) After using the bathroom. 3) Upon waking in the morning.

    1. Your blog has been really helpful to me so thank you for sharing, I can really relate!
      I think I will adopt these hand washing customs, I have not been taught this yet.

  5. I *thought* it was limited to Chabad, but I know other (non-Chabad) Chassidim who do 3, and my community also do 3, and they're very liberal Sephardi - almost secular.
    But the Aish website says 2!

    1. It's the custom of Sephardim to do 3

  6. Note that there are 2 kinds of handwashing. Most communities do 3 washings (alternating each hand) for morning washings while many of those communities do 2 washings (consecutively for each hand) for washing before bread. But this sort of detail can legitimately differ by community.

    One thing that is not often stressed is that your hands are supposed to be physically clean and dry before you ritually wash them. Ritual washing is not supposed to be a replacement for actually getting your hands clean.

  7. As a BT, I would just like to point out that I use Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation (well, mostly), because that's what I learned in Hebrew school as a kid. The reform and conservative movements pretty much teach Hebrew that way. So I guess it really goes back to what you learned first.

  8. yehudis golshevskyJune 21, 2011 at 2:17 AM

    And if you wash four times alternating upon waking, you do not have to dry your hands! That is our custom.
    And three before bread. And three alternating for netilas yadaim before prayer or after the bathroom. Four is only for the condition of ruach ra after sleep.
    You're joining a people that gets pleasure from submission to G-d through small details. Welcome.

  9. Most non-chassidic Ashkenazic jews do 2 for bread and 3 in the morning.

    Regarding choosing minhagim, another option is to follow what your rabbi/rebbitzin does. My brother in law (a BT) chose different things from different rabbonim. It gives you a sense of not choosing because of convenience, but doesnt tie you into one thing.

    Regarding waiting between meat and milk, the truth is that waiting more than an hour is a chumra, albeit a universally accepted one. However, I know a girl in the process who was told by the B"D that she had to keep 6 hours from the time she started the process until she gets married at which time she could do her husbands minhag.

  10. "And as nearly no Sephardi community does conversions"

    What do you mean?!

    1. Originally posted: August 23, 2011 at 6:09 PM

      Anonymous, it's a combination of two things:

      There are very few Sephardi communities. To my knowledge, they are concentrated in the greater NY area, Los Angeles, and Seattle. While there are many Sephardim in America, they usually don't have their own synagogue with Sephardi customs. Usually, they attend an Ashkenazi synagogue because that's just what is available.

      On the other side, many Sephardi communities do not perform conversions. The Syrian community is the most stringent as they do not even recognize conversions. No matter who did it. They do not accept converts. Period. That is a story for another day. Other communities just don't do it because they don't have the time or resources and feel that the Ashkenazi rabbis are more than willing to deal with the hassle. However, there IS a Sephardi rabbi who does conversions in LA (and who is on the Israeli approval list). I believe there are also a few in the NYC area, but I don't know who they are.

      All that said, converting with an Ashkenazi rabbi does NOT prohibit a convert from adopting Sephardi minhagim or rulings. But they'll have to find a Sephardi rabbi to give them rulings because Sephardi resources just aren't as prevalent in the US as the Askenazi rulings.

    2. Originally posted by The Library Lady on February 10, 2012 at 2:28 PM:

      I'm curious, does this reply only to Orthodox Sephardim or Sephardim in general?

      If I were to convert (seriously considering it) I would want to include myself in the Sephardic tradition, since it is my patrilineal Sephardic ancestry (from Spain) that has me interested in conversion in the first place.

      Also, could you (or anyone else) recommend some good books on Sephardic traditions, including minhag? I'd be very interested to find out more!


    3. Originally posted by B.BarNavi on August 9, 2012 at 2:39 PM:

      Despite what they want everyone else to think, the Brooklyn-Deal Syrians are not the be-all and end-all of Sephardim. Most other Sephardic communities are much less concerned with blood-purity. Spanish-Portuguese are particularly very open as concerning descendants of Benei Anusim.

  11. FYI, there is a Sephardic rabbi at Achdut Israel Synagogue in Dallas who does conversions. There is a sizeable Sephardic community there, in Panama City Beach, FL and in Miami, most are Israeli immigrants.

  12. (Rafi)
    Some interesting Questions... Hhhmmm?
    The 3 vs. 6 hours are based on Halacha. others are on questionable footing. Take time study this well, and each such opportunity, it’s your Path to learn and connect to HIM. he will answer you in this DeReCh, way... (smile) If you want more deeper answers… ask, m ore later…
    As to the hands; According to my study of Halacha, research, & observations from Kabalistic perspective of the ARI'zl and others... Water in Hebrew is MaYiM as per the letters Mem-Yod-Mem, they contain the numerical value of 90 (as does MeLeCh, King, who we subordinate to,) so 6 x 90 makes good logical reasoning. How you asked? Well.. Water/ MaYiM is an often used to describe and link to the KING, to HIM, to Infinite Wisdom/Understanding, ChoChMaH & BiNaH, of the Holy GD given Perfection of HIS ToRaH, and to/ through it to the "Infinity of HaSheM". So one connects to His "Endless Light" - EiN-SoF (207, -infinity) in/by an important Physical Act & thereby initiate, open a Channel & a Path to HIM. Note that "Light" or "OhR" equals 207, as does EiN-SoF, (formula-add parts: 1+6+200) as does HaVvaYaH-ADoN'-ADON-HaKoL (HaSheM (26+65+61+55) is the "Master of ALL, the Universe." And so, 6x90 equals 540(+1 kollel to gift-wrap,) equals 541 which then equals "Yisrael." Nice fit? So now dear Daughters of YIsrael, what better way to start the day and, also when you eat; to begin sharing HIS food and His Bounty & Blessings, and this, first thing in the morning. And connect with HIM your Creator, and thus to teach, (with) your Husband & Children? Why take a shortcut? What did you save? And at what cost? Think - Speak - Act…. Have a wonderful fruitful and productive day; fell free to share this with others.
    ...(Rafi Natan

    1. The 3 vs. 6 hours are based on Halacha. others are on questionable footing.
      The Rema(*) himself, while urging a six hour waiting time, acknowledges that the common custom in his time and place to was wait one hour. The various views given in the Talmud, not all of which survived as acceptable present day practice range from 'bench, wash hands,and then eat something pareve in between' to 24 hours. I wouldn't call an opinion brought down in the Talmud as 'not based on halacha', even though I would call some of then "not halacha l'maaseh" - that is, not halacha as it is currently practiced.

      In general I believe most of the round hour waiting times represent the underlying rule 'after you've eaten meat don't have dairy until the next meal' The 3/6/1 hour customs represent implementations of that rule in different cultures.

      (*) The Rema wrote the Mappa (tablecloth) a close commentary (today we would say 'fisking') on the Shulchan Aruch(Ready Table). The two are invariably published today as a single work with the Rema's commentary interwoven with the words of the Shulchan Aruch.

  13. Also, the Vancouver beis din does have 1 Sephardic Rabbi and he is currently one of the Rabbis who teach the 2 year conversion course. So, a Canadian possibility for someone wanting to convert Sephardic. The second Rabbi who teaches is Ashkenazic.

  14. As an Orthodox convert now for almost 30 years allow me introduce a couple of different thoughts.

    Within the body customs there are two general categories. One is called "Minhag Yisroel", which is a practice or custom which has been adopted by all Jews everywhere.

    The second category is those customs which follow hereditary background through the laws of inheritance. This second category is where the more commonly known customs such as "Askenazi" or "Sefardi" or "Poilisher" or "Mizrachi" or "Venetian" or "Temani" or "Indian", etc. minhagim come from.

    According to the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, based on the Maggid of Mezeritch who quotes the Ari, z"l, these "inherited" customs are generally believed to fall into 12 groups which correspond with the 12 tribes who descended from the 12 sons of Yaacov Avinu and also correspond with the 12 private gates which led into the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Each of those gates would only be used by the appropriate tribe. In addition, there was a 13th all inclusive main gate through which anyone could enter. That general gate would also appear to relate to the "Minhag Yisroel".

    It is this second tribal category upon which the halachic restriction of "not abandoning the ways of your father and the teachings of your mother" (which is derived from Proverbs 1:8) is aimed. Your mother follows her husbands practice and you listen to both parents.

    Interestingly, in the case of a convert, this does not apply. The individual tribal customs are something which the written Torah teaches us do not apply to converts. The details of this are brought in Leviticus 24:11 and the case of the son of Shlomit bat Divri and her non-Jewish, Egyptian husband. It was decided by Moshe, our teacher.

    And so, where this all leads is that for converts, they are minimally to follow the halachic requirements accepted by all Jews, which means practice as laid out in Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law along with any custom that has been accepted by the entire Jewish people, like for example the lighting of eight lights for Hannuka as opposed to the minimum legal requirement of 1 light. The restrictions of minhag imposed from one tribe or another are not upon them.

  15. there are significant problems with 2 and 4 that you have list. choosing your significant other's minhag is a problem as one shouldn't be dating until the conversion process is complete. secondly choosing what you like best is also a problem. deciding the path one chooses is a serious matter to consider and simply treating minhagim like a buffet and choosing the ones you like best isn't a good idea. the best approach to what minhag to follow is after an investigation into the various options of minhagim and a conversation with one's mentor. If you do not currently have a mentor and you are considering converting that is the very next thing you should be doing before adapting any other practices

    1. Many people enter the conversion process with a significant other, whether a dating relationship, engaged, or married. Whether that person is still there at the end of the conversion process is a very different question...

      As for "which one you like best," that can be any number of criteria. It is essentially the catch-all option if you have no particular attachment, personally or communally, to a specific minhag. Very few conversion candidates have mentors simply because people are not willing to serve as one. Some have tutors, but those tutors are often not from the same community, and many like myself are left to learn alone from books and questions we ask online and in person. The conversion process is not as simple and clear-cut as you seem to portray.