Humrot as Refinement, Not Confinement

Judy Taubes Sterman Tradition Online | March 23, 2021

“Like jewels around your neck,” writes R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, citing a verse from the Song of Songs, that is what the humrot, the stringencies we heap on top of the already demanding prohibitions of Passover, should be compared to (Mei HaShiloah I, Ta’am LeHumrot Yisrael baPesah, 278). For many today, in the age of Kosher for Passover tinfoil and COVID facemasks, stringencies may sometimes seem more like a heavy chain around our necks. And yet, R. Mordechai Yosef, founder of the Ishbitz-Radzin Hasidic dynasty, offers an original take, and an ardent defense of humrot. Throughout his Mei HaShiloah, R. Mordechai Yosef actually cites numerous reservations about “safeguards,” and added stringencies, claiming, in one place, that one who “makes fences” without understanding their meaning “is a fool,” and that “in fact there is no real place for humrot” as they are far removed from the mitzva itself (Mei HaShiloah I, Shoftim, 36d and 278). Professor Benjamin Brown claims that the Ishbitzer’s hesitation regarding humrot may be a direct reaction to the hyper-stringent and extreme asceticism of the Kotzker Rebbe from whose court R. Mordechai Yosef famously broke away, parting on less than amicable terms. But in this derasha, where he quotes his Rebbe, R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, the Ishbitzer offers an alternative take on humrot and encourages us to see them in a new light. 

Whether one perceives the laws and customs of Passover as difficult and burdensome, or one relishes the opportunity for a thorough spring cleaning, there is no doubt that if each holiday in the Jewish calendar has its own unique character and flavor, Passover evokes a feeling of restriction. Our menu for the week is significantly limited, as we abstain not only from actual hametz, but even from items that resemble hametz, that might have once been used like hametz; we completely close ourselves off from hametz, creating boundaries and greatly constricting our usual behavior. Matza, the star of the holiday, the plainest of foods, only underscores this attitude of restraint and abstinence. Compare that to the carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim with its indulgent eating and drinking, its lighthearted merriment, where boundaries fall away, and the open, generous sentiments of sharing, connecting with others, and gift-giving prevail. 

Each of these holidays represents a different attitude, an alternative approach to those seeking a genuine, meaningful religious experience. There is the expansive, open, intuitive approach – think of dance or jazz music, or street graffiti, where things are fluid, and natural, where we let go of all constraints and release our deepest feelings letting them flow freely, in abundance, unchecked. But what R. Mordechai Yosef intimates here is that Passover proposes an opposite, if unexpected, approach. Uninhibited, spontaneous and expansive expression may be one way to reach for something lofty, for something beyond ourselves, but so may be precise and careful attentiveness to the finest of details, paring away the extraneous and going straight to the heart. The humrot and restrictions, the exacting minutia, can be seen as ways to encourage us to pay close attention to the specifics, to subject everything we do to close scrutiny and razor-sharp focus. Turning one’s full absorption to the exact placement of the arms, or the intentional swerve of the wrist in a graceful dance move or tuning in to the precise tone and timbre of each individual musical note, being fully absorbed in the moment, sometimes referred to as “flow,” can be another way to invite and encourage an elevated experience. Humrot are the beads of a necklace which at first seem utterly extraneous and serve no particular purpose. But, in fact, the function of the jewels is actually to draw all of our attention and to highlight the neck around which the beads hang. On Passover specifically, we focus on the throat and pay careful notice to everything that goes into our mouths and moreover to everything that come out of our mouths. As R. Mordechai Yosef says in a related derasha, Passover is a time to practice “restraint in eating and restraint in speech” (Mei HaShiloah II, Masekhet Pesahim, 185) He intuits the message of refined and restrained speech from Pesahim’s opening Mishna, with its well-known euphemistic phrase, “Or le-arb’a asar.” Based on the ensuing discussion in the Talmud, he learns that Passover reminds us to refrain from speaking coarsely, and to strive to use gracious, elevated language. The holiday is an opportunity, an invitation to be mindful about our food – what we eat, why we eat, — and our words, whether they are true and whether they are kind and helpful, so that both revolve around and are focused on holiness.

If we just change our perspective a bit, humrot can be viewed like a necklace, as “adornments to the holy” says R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, which draws our attention upwards. They can serve to remind us to keep our eyes and minds trained on what lies behind the humra, on what is truly essential. Viewed in this way, a humra is seen not as something which confines, but rather something which refines, not as limiting but as liberating.

Judy Taubes Sterman is co-author, with Baruch Sterman, of The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered, winner of the Jewish Journal Book Prize.


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