Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Triumph of Textualism

In the old days, there was a very widespread custom that was stamped out by leading rabbis who felt that it did not sufficiently conform to the Talmud. This despite explicit approval of the practice by scholars of the highest tier.

No, I am not referring to any example of the so-called Haredization of the Jewish community in the twentieth century. I am talking about a development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the practice is washing one's hands (with a blessing) prior to reciting kiddush over wine and then proceeding directly to reciting a blessing over the hallah.

The Talmud (Pesahim 106b) records a view that one who washes his hands may not recite kiddush, presumably because the kiddush is an interruption between the washing and reciting the blessing over the hallah. Another view is then presented that if one wishes, one may recite kiddush over hallah rather than wine and, presumably, wash one's hands before the kiddush. The simple understanding of this passage is that one may not wash before kiddush unless one is reciting kiddush over the hallah.

However, the practice developed to always wash before kiddush. Rashi (quoted in Mahazor Vitry and Sefer Ha-Oreh) and Rashbam (ad loc.) seem to permit the practice, albeit not ab initio, while Rabbenu Tam and the Ri (Tosafos, ad loc.) permit it even ab initio. There is ample testimony that the practice eventually became widespread in France and Germany, to the point that it was the personal practice of the Rosh. Rabbenu Tam was able to justify this practice textually by explaining that the initial opinion in the Talmud is entirely dismissed based on a disagreement elsewhere, and the concluding view is that one may always wash before reciting kiddush, even over wine.

In Sephardic lands, the Rambam (Hilkhos Shabbos 29:10) rules according to the simple understanding of the Talmud but the practice of washing before kiddush was not halted by his ruling. Rashba (ad loc.) and Ritva (ad loc.) record that this practice was standard, and they attempted to justify it textually.

However, the Tur (Orah Hayim 271) opposed this practice -- despite the fact that his father, the Rosh, followed it -- because the simple understanding of the Talmud forbids it. This, even though he was well aware of Rabbenu Tam's textual justification of the practice. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 271:12) rules like the Rambam, forbidding this practice. R. Yoel Sirkes, the Bah (ad loc.), explicitly states that this practice is widespread but that he opposes it because it contradicts the simple reading of the Talmud. He recommends a compromise, that the one reciting kiddush not wash beforehand but that everyone who is just listening may. His son-in-law, the Taz, goes further and rules like the Rambam, that this practice is entirely prohibited. Later authorities generally rule according to either the Bah or the Taz. This, despite the fact that leading Ashkenazic authorities, the Rema and the Maharshal, supported the practice of washing before kiddush. They were not able to preserve it from the stringency based on the authoritative Talmudic text, despite an available alternate reading.

By now, what was once a widespread custom in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic lands has been almost entirely wiped out. To my knowledge, it is still practiced by Jews of German heritage. Before the Holocaust, there were also some other pockets of tradition in which the custom was still practiced, but very small. The great contemporary defender of German-Jewish customs, R. Binyamin Hamburger, devotes a chapter in the second volume of his Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz to this custom.

I find this to be an extremely interesting example of the great halakhists of the past four centuries preferring a simple reading of the Talmud over a practice that was established and justifiable (not to mention endorsed by great scholars). It seems to me to be an exception, but a noteworthy one.

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