The word “mesorah” is often used within Haredi-Hasidic circles with a meaning that closely approximates to “a generational custom from a certain locale.” In other words, a “mesorah” is an expression of Judaism that has existed for at least several generations and has been practiced by a certain group of religious Jews that either live in or hail from a certain place in the exile (e.g. Spain, Morocco, Yemen, Germany, France, etc). It is often equated to the idea of “minhag” (which will be the subject of another post, God willing), as if to say that their particular ethnic customs that originated in their particular exilic country somehow obligate them as if they are part and parcel of Torah She-be-`al Peh. Many simply view “mesorah” as being all practices and beliefs received from the previous generation, regardless of what they are. But is this truly “mesorah“?
The halakhic concept of mesorah is used primarily to refer to authoritative and authentic halakhic rulings that carry the force of law. We see this is the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot:
משה קיבל תורה מסיניי, ומסרה ליהושוע, ויהושוע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה
“Mosheh received Torah from Sinai, and passed it onto Yehoshua – and Yehoshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it onto the Men of the Great Assembly.”
So we see that mesorah is much more that simply just “what we have always done.” Rather, it is an official term referring to that which is passed on by those who have the authority to effect binding halakhic rulings (see my post “The Lawyer and the Lawmaker” for an explanation of this distinction).
In fact, this is the very definition that Rav Sa`adiah Gaon gives in his siddur. While laying out his methodology for the halakhot that he included in his prayerbook, he writes:
ובכל מה שנכלל בשער זה לא אקבל עלי להביא ראיה על החיוב בו מן הכתוב ולא לתת הוכחה על פירושו מבעלי המסורה ר“ל לאמר ממה שבמשנה והתלמוד אלא אביא בכל הענין הזה דבור סתמי אך מדויק בלבד
“And regarding everything included in this [halakhic] section, I will not be taking it upon myself to bring a proof for every [halakhic] obligation [stated] in it from the written Torah nor to give a verification regarding its explanation from the ba`alei mesorah, that is to say from what is in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Rather, for this entire section I will give a clear yet unsourced statement.” (Siddur RaSaG, pp.11-12)
The same view can also be extrapolated very easily from the Rambam’s introduction to the Mishneh Torah.
So, what is the true definition of “mesorah“? To be honest, it is a much larger study than what I have presented here, but it is essentially the collective halakhic rulings of the Torah She-be-`al Peh as have been passed down to us by the hakhamim. These rulings are now embodied in the works of Hazal. All other opinions subsequent to them may be useful, but they are ultimately interpretations of the mesorah, not the mesorah itself. Mesorah is not the kind of fish you eat on Shabbath, not the type of hat you wear for davening, not humrot on Pesah that were first instituted in France – it’s what is written in the Mishnah and the Talmud(s).
This understanding has far-reaching implications, but for anyone who sees the roadblock to the future of orthodox/halakhic Judaism that the popular [mis]understanding of this concept represents, it not only makes sense but is a source of hope.