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Changing Customs


Which customs can be changed, and which cannot? When is nullification required to change a custom and when is it impossible? This week’s article focuses on customs, particularly those of The Nine Days. What custom takes on the status of a vow and must be upheld like one, and when can it be changed? How is a custom established? What’s the different between a personal custom and one that obligates descendants? Are children obligated to follow their parent’s customs? How is a communal custom established? Which community does a convert join? Of this and more in the following article.

Vows and Customs

Last week’s article provided outlines for oaths and vows – what is considered an oath or vow, and what is not. This week we will focus on vows from another angle – which good deeds are considered vows despite not being made verbally, and which remain optional actions.

The first question this week is one that applies to the first ten days in the month of Av, which are days of mourning. Every community observes the laws of mourning differently during this period. Is changing customs an option?

Changing Nine Days’ Customs

A man of Sephardi descent who always followed the Sephardi custom of washing, bathing, and shaving up until the week of Tisha B’Av, decides one year to follow the Ashkenazi custom. He stopped shaving from the 17th of Tamuz, then stopped eating meat and doing laundry on Rosh Chodesh Av. The next year, he decides it was actually too hard last year, and wants to revert back to his original custom. Can he change back?

The Shulchan Aruch notes there are different customs regarding meat consumption during these times. Some refrain from eating meat only during the week of Tisha B’Av. Others refrain from eating meat from Rosh Chodesh. Sephardi communities also have several customs. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da’at, volume I, chapter 41) notes that the Jerusalem custom is to refrain from consuming meat from the second day of Av, not Rosh Chodesh. Jewish communities in Egypt (Mihagei Mitzrayim 551:60) consumed only fowl (versus bovine) meat during The Nine Days. Yemenites continue eating regularly until the day before Tisha B’Av, at noon. After being more stringent one year, can one retract his decision and go back to his original custom the following year?

And the opposite, too, is a question: Can an Ashkenazi boy whose forefathers refrained from eating meat for the entire Nine Days eat a meaty lunch in his Yemenite yeshiva, or is he obligated to find another place to eat dinner? Can he simply change his custom

To answer these questions we must first define the halachos of customs, or minhagim. Which are obligating and cannot be exchanged, and which are obligating but can be exchanged after undergoing vow-nullification. And, which are customs that don’t obligate anyone.

Announcement vs. Minhag

Last week’s article referred to positive actions which were either verbally announced or committed in thought, and the degree of commitment. This week’s article  discusses  commitments that were not only announced or thought of, but have already been acted upon. This results in a commitment of a higher status.

Another important point is the difference between the kinds of Minhagim. There is a personal minhag, a family minhag, and a communal or local minhag.

Personal Minhagim

The Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 214:1) that after following a positive custom with intention to continuing doing so for the rest of his life, one is considered having taken it on as a vow and is obligated to continue observing it.

The Shach (ibid, footnote 1) clarifies that not every positive action constitutes a custom. A minhag is only an action that is clearly permitted halacha-wise, and one adheres to it because it helps him stay clear of transgressions or it aids him in reaching a higher level of abstinence from worldly pleasures.

Fasting During Selichos

The Shulchan Aruch notes a minhag that some people fast during certain auspicious days (YD 214:1): On days Selichos are recited; the day before Rosh Hashana; the Ten Days of Repentance; the anniversary of a parent or rebbe’s death. Since fasting on these days is considered a positive action, one who did so once with intention to continue doing so for the rest of his life is obligated to continue. One who, for whatever reason, can no longer follow the custom (due to failing health, for example) needs to undergo vow nullification. Only if the rabbi deems it a viable reason can the vow be nullified, and he can stop observing this custom.

Abstaining From Meat During the Three Weeks

Another example for changing minhagim mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch is one who belongs to a community in which meat is consumed until the final meal before Tisha B’Av (as some Yemenites) who decides to start following the Ashkenazi custom, refraining from consuming meat and drinking wine from the onset of Av. After doing so for one year with intention to continue doing so, or taking on an additional stringency of abstaining from meat from the 17th of Tamuz for a full three weeks until after Tisha B’Av, one is obligated to continue doing so. This is considered a vow, and one who wants to change  it is required to undergo nullification.

Mitzva Meal

The Shach (YD 214:2) writes that one who took upon himself to fast during Selichos or the Ten Days of Repentance, or not to eat meat over the entire Three Weeks, is permitted to eat meat at a seudas mitzva because a seudas mitzva was never included in the vow.

Health Reasons

The Shach writes (YD 214:2) that one who refrained from eating meat during the entire Three Weeks or Nine Days and is now forced to eat meat for health reasons is obligated to undergo vow nullification. Health reasons are a justifiable reason to stop observing a custom, but one should have taken it into consideration when taking on the custom, stating explicitly this custom would be his, bli neder. Then, if any need arises (such as failing health) he would have been absolved from his vow without nullification.

However, the Gra (footnote 2) and Dagul Mrevava (214:1) write that this is specifically for one who wants to change a custom forever due to a prolonged health condition. One who is temporarily weak and plans to return to his regular custom when he regains his strength, can eat meat temporarily and does not require Hataras Nedarim-nullification. He is like one who temporarily eats at a seudas mitzva, which is permitted.

Hataras Nedarim – Vow Nullification

How is a custom annulled? The rabbi asks the person if he regrets having followed this custom without specifically stating it should be bli neder. After regretting it and saying that had he known it would be hard for him to continue with the custom he would not have begun doing so without stipulating it was bli neder, the rabbi may annul the vow.

When Bli Neder is Not Recommended

There are some customs for which the poskim don’t recommend stipulating bli neder so as not to bring disregard of halacha. Therefore, when necessary, one can rely upon the general proclamation made before Rosh Hashana.

One such example is hand washing. The Shulchan Aruch notes (OC 161:4) a dispute: is one required to wash his entire hand to fulfil the mitzva, or is washing only the first portion of the fingers (like on Yom Kippur and Tisha’ B’Av) sufficient? The Shulchan Aruch recommends being stringent and washing the entire hand, but the Mishna Brura explains (161:21) that one who is lenient and only washes the top of his fingers need not be reprimanded, but when teaching the halachos one should teach others to wash the entire hand.

The Magen Avraham writes (161:13) that since there is a dispute on the matter, one who washed only the tops of his fingers has fulfilled the basic halacha, and at the first chance (for example at his bar mitzva) he should announce that his full-hand washing is done bli neder. However, the Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha, ibid) disagrees. Since many Rishonim maintain that full-hand washing is the basic halacha not a superfluous stringency, one should not say his full-hand washing is bli neder so as not to disregard the halacha and come to only wash his fingertips.

Mistaken Custom

A custom becomes a vow only when it is known to be permitted and the individual decides to be extra-stringent. One who follows a custom because he mistakenly thinks it is a full obligation — for example, one who thinks fasting on Erev Rosh Hashana is a full obligation, and later learns it is a custom, is not obligated to continue following it. Some say he still requires vow nullification, but most agree he does not. Nevertheless, nullifying is recommended (Shulchan Aruch and Rama YD 214:1).

Furthermore, the Shach writes (YD 214:5) that a person or community who, due to lack of knowledge in halacha decided to follow a stringency, are permitted to later, upon learning the halacha, change their ways (obviously, only if they learn their stringency was halachically unnecessary). Their stringency in this case is not considered a vow, and changing their custom is permitted without Hataras Nedarim.

Public Minhag

The above refers to a private custom, but there are also customs taken on by certain communities or locales which obligate everyone, even without making a conscious decision. The Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 214:2) that if a community decided to adhere to a certain stringency, they are obligated to continue following it, both they and their descendants just like a vow. Even newcomers to the city must follow the community’s customs.

Hataras Nedarim (vow nullification) is effective only if the custom is a private one. Where the custom is public, or communal, nullifying it is impossible. Therefore, an Ashkenazi cannot undergo vow nullification and begin eating kitniyot on Pesach (Maharshal, chapter 6; Shach YD 214:4).

Parental Minhagim

The Shulchan Aruch’s terminology seems to indicate that minhagim parents take on obligate their descendants, but the Achronim explain that parents do not have that kind of power. Often, a pious father follows many praiseworthy customs, but his children may not be so spiritually attuned. The Gemara mentions several Amoraim who complained they could not follow their father’s praiseworthy customs. The Chavos Yair (chapter 126) expounds on this topic, explaining that family customs are less binding than communal customs. Usually, a child grows up in his parent’s locale and naturally follows his father’s customs. The Zichron Yosef (YD 14) adds that while parental Minhagim do not obligate their children, when a child begins following his parent’s custom (even once) without saying it is bli neder, he is obligated to continue doing so.

My rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Dov Wiesel shlita told me that his rebbe, HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Nissim Karelitz zatal told him often that one is obligated to follow the customs of one’s spiritual parents’, not necessarily his biological ones. Therefore, one who was raised or learned Torah by rabbis of a different community that the one he was born into, should follow his rabbis’ customs, not his biological community.


This brings us to the topic of converts. Rabbi  Nissim Karelitz zatal would instruct converts to follow the customs of the rabbis who taught them Torah, and follow the customs of their communities.

Committing to Praiseworthy Practice

The Shulchan Aruch writes (YD 214:1) that one who wants to take upon himself a praiseworthy custom should be careful to say that he is performing this custom bli neder, adding that he does not intend to follow it forever, only this time or whenever he again wishes to follow it. Therefore, if he is once unable to follow it, he will not transgress the severe prohibition of breaking an oath.

Nine Days’ Customs

In light of the above halachos, we can now present the answers to the questions we began with:

All Nine Day customs taken on by a community or locale cannot be changed or annulled. Therefore an Ashkenazi student in a Yemenite yeshiva where meat is served during the Nine Days must find another place to eat his dinners.

One who takes upon himself a stringency — either for added spiritual awareness or because he is in a society that adheres to it — if he began following the stringency without stating it is bli neder, he must undergo Hataras Nedarim should he wish to return to his original customs.

One who changed his minhagim because his Torah teachers belong to another community, changing his entire lifestyle to match theirs, must ask a rabbi if he can revert back to his original custom.

One who, due to a mistake, began following a certain custom (for example, a Jew of Sephardic decent who read halachos of the Nine Days written for Ashkenazim, and refrained from doing laundry during this period) and after several years found out it was a mistake, can stop following the custom, and does not require Hataras Nedarim.

Hataras Nedarim, though, is recommended to retain the reward for mourning the Temple’s destruction in this manner. Therefore, Hataras Nedarim should be performed, stipulating that had he known the halacha was only  the Ashkenazi custom he would have done so only bli neder. This way, he is not regretting having followed it, and the reward for this minhag remains his.

Hataras Nedarim on Shabbos

Hataras Nedarim is not performed on Shabbos except in special circumstances, or for a mitzvah. The Gemara (Shabbos 32b; Kesuvos 72a) writes that children die young due to their parents’ failing to keep their vows.

An intriguing question was presented in this regard to the Hisorerus Teshuva (chapter 179). The mother of a very ill child was afraid her son might have become sick due to her (unkept) vows, and wants a Hataras Nedarim to be performed for all her vows on Shabbos. Since Hataras Nedarim annuls past vows, erasing them as if they were never made, she hopes this ceremony will save her son’s life. Afraid her son might not make it until Shabbos is over, can Hataras Nedarim be performed on Shabbos?

The Hisorerus Teshuva answered that if she knows of an oath she didn’t keep, nullification can be done on Shabbos to save her son’s life. But if this woman is usually careful not to use the term “vow” or other related terms, and only wishes to perform the nullification as a precaution, in case she might have made a vow and forgotten about it, nullification should not be done on Shabbos.

He adds, though, that since many people make charity pledges and don’t live up to them, or start following a positive custom and then fail to continue, parents of a child whose life is in danger can undergo Hataras Nedarim on Shabbos. This way, if their child’s situation is a punishment for their unkept vows, after nullifying them, their sins will be cancelled, saving their child’s life.






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