The Logic of Customs… How Far We May Have Strayed

An Interesting Find

As I was reading through a new edition/compilation of responsa attributed to Rav Natronai Gaon, I came upon the following statement:


וששאלתם כשיקרא אדם קריאת שמע צריך לאחוז ציציותיו או לא. דבר זה לא דרך חכמים ותלמידים הוא, זה יתירות הוא. וכי מאחר שהתבונן בציציותיו בשעת עטיפטן וברך עליהן לאחר מכאן למה אוחזן בידו? אלא מעתה כשמגיע וקשרתם צריך נמי לאחוז בתפיליו. ואם תאמר לאחוז כשמגיע וכתבתם צריך לבוא לביתו ולהניח ידו על מקום מזוזה. הלכך העושה כן צריך ללמדו ולהסבירו שלא יעשה


“And as for what you asked [regarding if], when a man recites keriyat shema, he needs to take hold of his tzitziyot or not: This thing [i.e. holding one’s tzitziyot during keriyat shema] is not the way of Torah scholars and their students, it is the way of excess (derekh yetirut). For after one has reflected on his tzitziyot at the time he wraps himself in them and has made a blessing on them – after this point why should he hold them in his hand? Rather, [if he adopts this position] he now, upon reaching [the recitation of ] “ukshartem,” needs to take hold of his tefillin as well. And if you say that one must take hold [of his tefillin as well], then upon reaching [the recitation of] “ukhthavtem,” he needs to come to his house and place his hand on the place of the mezuzah. Therefore, the one who acts thusly [i.e. by holding his tzitziyot during keriyat shema] should be taught and it should be explained to him that it shouldn’t be done.”

When I read this I was both pleased and stunned; pleased, because this is how I tend to think, and stunned, because it seems that Rav Natronai Gaon is not just dismissing the practice, but is firmly opposing it. What harm, I thought, could there be in grabbing one’s tzitzit?

Hold On

The practice of gathering one’s tzitzit and holding them until shortly after keriyat shema is almost universal in the Jewish world today. It seem to have first become a practice during the time of the rishonim, being found in the writings of the Mordekhai, the Ra’avyah, and other prominent Ashkenazi scholars. However, we see that it was already beginning to come onto the scene nearly 400 years earlier, during Rav Natronai‘s lifetime (9th Century CE – and possibly a bit earlier since a note in the Otzar HaGeonim states that a similar view is also expressed by a certain Rav Mosheh Gaon, on whom Rav Natronai Gaon may have possibly based the wording of his reply).

It should be noted that the Rambam does not mention either of these practices in his Mishneh Torah – either holding tzitzit or touching tefillin during keriyat shema – and they are never mentioned by Hazal. The Ashkenazi rishonim that do mention them cite a certain Sefer Yerushalmi, a work that is no longer extant. The silence of both Hazal and the Rambam on this custom is why I personally dropped these practices years ago (and happening upon this statement by Rav Natronai gave me so much extra hizzuk about doing so!)

Le-aniyut da`ati, the reason why Rav Natronai so strongly opposed a seemingly harmless practice (even one that for many today holds considerable religious significance) is because he felt that it was “excessive” (or possibly, “adding [to the Torah]”). What is amazing is that he not only says that such things shouldn’t be done, but he then proceeds to show the logical absurdity of such a practice. Further, he instructs his questioner to teach those who are found doing so in the synagogue to cease from the practice!

So, the question is: What kind of logic is the Rav Natronai working with here? How is he arriving at such an abrupt response? Why not just tolerate such practices as they arise? It seems that he is holding strictly to the principle that since the prayers and related observances were instituted by Hazal through their rabbinic authority, then to add to or take away from them is completely inappropriate. It is, in effect, redefining them without either permission or proper authority to do so. In other words, if Hazal did not instruct us to hold our tzitzit for keriyat shema then there is simply no good reason to begin doing so.

As those who uphold the authority of halakhah, our job (during keriyat shema, tefillah, or other rabbinically-instituted observances) is to focus on those aspects that Hazal instructed should be our focal point, such as the proper enunciation of the Hebrew text of the shema [cf. MT, Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 2:8-10], et al. This manner of relating to rabbinic institutions is the plain implication of Devarim 17:11, “According to the Torah that they shall teach you, and according to the judgment that they shall render for you – you shall do. And you shall not turn aside from the matter that they will explain to you, either to the right or to the left.” This is talking about a Sanhedrin (the Beit Din HaGadol) and those courts which were acknowledged as an extension of such until the end of the Talmudic era (see Rambam’s hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah regarding the “hatimat ha-talmud“).

Rav Yosef Qafih z”l (known affectionately to his students as “Mori Yusuf”) once explained similarly regarding the keriy`ot (bows) performed during tefillah. He noted in a letter to one of his students that the Talmidei HaGR”A do not do keriy`ah at any other time except for the five required instances in the shemoneh esrei. They do not bow neither for BarekhuKaddish, nor for Aleinu. The reason for this is that Hazal, explained Mori Yusuf, only instituted these five specific bows during tefillah (beside tahanun/nefilat apayim, which is a different type of bowing called hishtahavayah or kida) – and we are not allowed to add on to their words. Electing to make new customs, especially in matters which arise purely from them in their halakhic authority (such as prayer and berakhot), is forbidden.


The implications of the geonic statement above – when properly considered – are staggering. It contrasts completely with the popular conceptions of tradition and custom (“minhag”) today. The main lesson to take away from this passage is to beware of what Rav Natronai calls derekh yetirut (“the way of excess/adding”) in our Judaism and to return to the simplicity of halakhah as explained by our ancient Sages.

A good place to start in this regard is with the text of the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam.