The problem of the “Mazkir Exodus”
We are still very much into our Holiday season, having just completed our Yamim Noraim and now entering the festivities of the Succot week, culminating in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Please come to our synagogue and rejoice in the Holidays.
What I thought would be of most value to you is a little guidance on the following question: what exactly does Judaism require of me? What is law? What is custom? What is bubbe meise, or folk religion? The reason why I share this lesson with you is that each year at Yom Kippur, at Yizkor or, as we say at Belsize Square, Mazkir, there is a mass exodus from the synagogue as we begin to recite the memorial prayers, meditate upon the lives of our loved ones and recite our affirmation of love and faith with the words of the Kaddish, always in their memory.
The exodus from shul is one of the most interesting examples of how folk religion has in many ways come to replace the dictates of Jewish law and normative minhag, or custom. There is no good reason why it should have become such an odd replacement of traditional mandated behaviour, since there is no prohibition in any shape or form on reciting Kaddish and being in synagogue with living parents to remember our departed loved ones.
There is always someone for us to remember – a grandparent, friend, Jews of the past, anonymous individuals who need to be remembered. We miss a great opportunity, an essential part of our spiritual beings, in leaving just at the time we need to remember and do right by those no longer with us. Leaving is entirely bubbe meise, an unnecessary superstition.
There are three categories that dictate Jewish behaviour: halachah (Jewish law), minhag (normative custom or convention) – and then there’s bubbe meise. Halachah is mandated, required for each and every Jew after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Halachah is mitzvah, commandment.
The halachot are rooted in the 613 Torah Mitzvot, a large chunk of which we can no longer fulfill because they require the existence of a Temple. In addition, there are later rabbinic halachot, such as lighting Shabbat or Chanucah candles, which carry the same weight as a Torah commandment.
Halachot are both ethical and ritual and they run to a long list. To take some well-known examples: asking for and granting forgiveness (Teshuvah), ethical business practices, giving to those in need (Tzedakah), studying Torah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, refraining from gossip and slander (lashon harah), and fasting on Yom Kippur.
Halachah is required of us but halachah changes. Some halachot fall out of use or lose their relevance, such as shatnez, the Torah prohibition against mixing wool and linen, which pales into insignificance in today’s wide range of materials. But these emendations to halachah are part of a process of legal interpretation, growth and evolution.
As an example of the evolution of rabbinic understanding of Jewish law, take the participation of women in Jewish ritual life. Not until the late 19th century were Jewish women allowed to study Torah in major Eastern European communities. Yet halachah has never restricted women in any way.
Minhag is a tougher definition since some “customs” do eventually find their way into normative Jewish practice while others fade away. We bow during the Aleinu, we eat honey and apples at Rosh Hashanah, we refrain from eating meat in the nine days before Tisha B’Av, we cover our mirrors in a house of mourning, we do not eat dairy after eating meat for either one, three or even six hours depending upon local minhag, we come the long way to the Torah for our Aliyah, we recite early morning prayers before the formal call to worship, and so on.
There are different customs for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as for Jews living in Israel today. All these customs have a vital role to play in how we as Jews express our commitment to halachah and Jewish values.
And then there are Belsize Square customs, customs that belong to no other Jewish community! Yes, we have our very own. You might have your favourites, here are some of mine: bowing at the Ark before the Torah scroll is removed, the Cantor shifting the Torah scroll from the right to left shoulder before the blessing of the coming month (birkat hachodesh), not announcing page numbers (in common, admittedly, with most British synagogues), calling Yizkor – the normal term for the Memorial Service everywhere else – Mazkir, and … starting services punctually on time and, following unspoken guidelines, taking one hour on Friday evening and two hours on Saturday morning!
Finally, there are superstitions, pure and simple, developed over the years. Many originated from the kabbalistic movement in the late mediaeval shtetls of Eastern Europe. They are mostly concerned with graveside and mourning practices. One belief I heard recently is that it is inappropriate for a grandchild to recite Kaddish for a grandparent while the parents are still alive. That’s totally superstition.
Reciting Kaddish is binding on the deceased’s children, siblings, parents and spouse. But there is nothing that precludes a grandchild, or anyone for that matter, from reciting Kaddish at the cemetery, in synagogue or in a minyan.
There is no bar on remaining in synagogue, even if both parents arealive, for the Mazkir/Yizkor service,which is also recited on the three Pilgrimage Festivals. And only superstition would stop a pregnant woman coming to the cemetery.
I hope this synopsis helps. If you have any questions about what Judaism requires of us through halachah, or suggests that we do because of minhag, or seems to prohibit by virtue of folk religion, just ask. That’s why I’m here.
My wishes to all of you for a week of Succot joy and celebration. To rejoice is a mitzvah. It’s an order! So mo’adim l’simchah (fixed times for joy). May your Holidays be celebrated with simchah, with joy.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler