Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Minhag Shtus?

I suppose, we've all heard the story of the American shul with the strange Simchat Torah minhag (custom). Each year, as the congregation circled the sanctuary during hakafot, the men would crouch as they passed the point directly across from the aron (ark). Why? No one knew, but in the fullnes of time it became a treasured community custom. The Rabbi would remark upon it in his sermons occasionally, and offer learned reasons for it. When the boys and girls of the community became men and women and the members of other congregations they would feel a tinge of sadness at Simchat Torah because no one in their new shuls observed the childhood tradition - though a few of the braver men were willing to ignore the bewildered looks of their neighbors; these brave men continued to crouch, even in their new shuls.

Finally, one day, a historian traveled to the European hometown of the shul's founders. When he entered the building that had once served as the community's shul, he discovered that the ceiling on one side of the sanctuary was very low. Though he could not determine why the shul had been built this way, he saw at once how the crouching custom had developed: If you wanted to circumnavigate the shul, you had to pass that point, and you simply couldn't pass that point without crouching.

The historian published his findings, and hand-delivered the paper and his photographs to the shul and all its members. Though some of the more enlightened folks were impressed, hardly anyone was willing to stop crouching. "It won't feel like Simchat Torah without crouching," remarked one old timer, and this sentiment was generally agreed to by everyone who had grown up in the shul. The custom survived.

Something similar, certainly, has happened in Judaism, but I'd like to discuss one example in particular. Gen. 46:13 reads: "And the sons of Issacar are Tola and Puah and Yov and Shomron." However, in Num.26:24 the name is given as "Yashuv." What was the man's name? When we consult other texts, and answer begins to emerge. Both the Samaritan version of the verse in Genesis, as well as in the Septuagint, have "Yashuv." I Chron.7:6 says "And the children of Issacar are Tola and Puah, Yashiv (Qere: Yashuv) and Shomron, four sons." All of this suggests that an error has crept into Gen 46:13. When we continue to read it that way, we're like the crouchers in that shul. We know our tradition for reading Gen 46:13 is based on an error, yet we continue doing it.

I'm an Orthodox Jew, who believes in the revelation at Sinai, and I have no easy way to address this problem. I've satisfied myself that Issachar's son's name was Yashuv, and not Yov. But I don't wish to change the way we've been reading the Torah for the last millenium or two. What to do?

Related: Rambam's Eighth Principle; Rishonim and Achronim on this Subject

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