I have a question regarding how minhagim can become ‘binding’ on Jews in general.
Specifically, I was researching the question of wearing a kippah, and found that although some hold according to poskim that have regarded it as a mere midat chasidut (authority stemming from, most notably the GRA),many say that it has taken on the status of a universal minhag and is thus binding Halacha.
My question, though: how can a minhag based on midat chasidut becoming binding on all of klal yisroel?
Shouldn’t one feel free to chose for himself which chumrot to decide to follow? Keeping taryag mitzvot is hard enough!
Specifically, is there a Biblical proof for the concept that minhagim can become binding even on those who disagree with them?
Concerning the wearing of a kippah, the Talmud states that a number of Sages used to cover their heads, to show respect for the Divine Presence (Shechinah) above them (Kiddushin 31).
Elsewhere, the Talmud writes that covering one’s head protects a person from sin, describing how a person who by nature would have been a thief, was protected from his fate by virtue of his covering his head as a child (Shabbos 156).
These sources suggest that there is no formal obligation to wear a kippah. However, the matter is subject to a dispute among authorities, some of whom write that there is no obligation, whereas others write that the custom has become obligatory (according to one opinion, this is because it is the way of non-Jews to go with uncovered heads, and therefore prohibited for Jews).
Note that even authorities who write that there is no obligation to wear a kippah, write that one must do so when a Shul (see Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 91:3), or when reciting blessings (Kol Bo 11; or Zarua 2:43; Tur, Orach Chaim 8; Taz 8:3).
Concerning the question of customs in general, there are different types of customs, some of which are obligatory in nature, and some of which are not.
For example, the beating of the Aravah on Succos is a “custom of the prophets,” and is therefore obligatory, even though no blessing is recited.
Davening the night prayer, which is in principle optional, has also become obligatory by power of the custom: Because the nation as a whole has accepted the practice as being obligatory, a person is bound to follow it. Another example is the Ashkenazi custom to refrain from eating beans or bean-related products (kitniyos) on Pesach: Although this custom has no ancient source, halachic authorities see it as a full prohibition. A further example of a custom that has taken on notable halachic stringency is the ‘custom’ of Jewish women to count seven full “clean days” after any blood is emitted from the uterus.
However, many customs have not been acccepted as being binding, and although there are popular, there is no obligation to follow them. For instance, there is a popular custom not to cut a boy’s hair until he is three. Although this is a popular custom, and in some circles it is almost universal, is does not become obligatory, because its inherent nature is ‘optional’.
There is of course much more to write about the power of the custom, and we will please G-d dedicate an article to this important topic.
Sources: Concerning the obligation, or otherwise, to wear a kippa, see Kol Bo 11; Tashbatz 549; Maharshal 72; Darkei Moshe 2:3; Magen Avraham 91:3; Biur Ha-Gra 8:6; Bach 2; Birkei Yosef 2; Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 191.