VARIANTS = NO MINHOG?
Question: How can you speak of מנהג אשכנז, when all Ashkenazic areas did not have totally identical minhogim? Even in Ashkenaz proper (Germany), not all places followed the same practices in all matters. Can there be a minhog without absolute uniformity in a place?
Answer: This question implies that if there is any variation within a territory, there can be no such thing as that place having a מנהג (a notion that might kill just about all such notions of minhogim if taken to it’s logical extreme).
WHAT ABOUT ‘MINHAG ERETZ YISROEL’?
Before proceeding further, I would like to note the irony that some of the people putting forth the above question, at the same time, when it comes to Eretz Yisroel, claim that there are such things as ‘minhag Eretz Yisroel’ and ‘minhag Yerusholayim’, and therefore people can’t put on tefillin there on Chol Hamoed, say ברוך ה’ לעולם at תפלת ערבית, etc. Now the fact is that ארץ ישראל has much variety in מנהגים. Yet still, they don’t let that get in their way, and continue to maintain that constructs of מנהג ארץ ישראל and מנהג ירושלים nevertheless exist at present. Anyone else notice an inconsistency?
WHAT ABOUT VARIANTS IN MINHAG SEPHARAD?
Anyway, getting back to the question, I ask those who raise this point the following. Anyone familiar with Sepharadic minhagim knows that there is wide variation among them. Catalonia didn’t have the exact same minhagim as other parts of Spain. Moroccan minhagim are not identical with Turkish ones. Amsterdam and London Sepharadim differed from those in Eretz Yisroel, Syria, Baghdad…etc. So perhaps there is no such thing as מנהג ספרד?
VARIANTS IN PRACTICE OF YIDDISHKEIT IN GENERAL – HOW DO THEY FIT IN?
People can take this logic further as well. They can ask, hey, how can you say there is a תורה שבעל פה, a מסורה in Yiddishkeit in general, if we see variations among frum groups? If presence of some variation is such a problem for people, it is not just a problem for מנהג אשכנז. It is a problem far beyond that. A problem for our faith in general.
LOSS OF KNOWLEDGE DUE TO PERSECUTION AND EXILE
The answer is, that the absence of a totally universal and absolutely uniform mesorah for every detail nowadays is not necessarily indicative of lack of a מנהג.
We know that over time, and with the vicissitudes of גלות, things have been forgotten. Even as far back as the time of mourning for מרע”ה, thousands of הלכות were lost.
So now, in brief, this is the situation of מנהג אשכנז today (as I have understood from רבש”ה).
MINHOG ASHKENAZ IN ANCIENT TIMES
מנהג אשכנז is an ancient and holy mesorah, which goes back to the time of the churban Beis Hamikdosh, as stated by גדולי אשכנז (such as the רא”ש, רבינו אשר בן יחיאל ז”ל).
The heartland of מנהג אשכנז was along the Rhine river, in the area of the famed ancient Jewish settlements at Worms, Shpeyer, and Mainz – וורמייזא, שפירא, ומגנצא.
MIGRATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT OF VARIANT CUSTOMS
Over time, due to persecutions and other factors, people migrated from there to newer communities, but, at times, the traditions did not fully survive these moves. Some minhogim were forgotten or changed over time, in the new places. Not having phones and computers, they could not call back home every time they had a question.
On the other hand, in the older communities, where there was greater continuity, and less disruption due to migration, the old מנהגים were generally preserved better.
The further away in time and space one got from the ‘alter heim’, the old communities of Ashkenaz, the more there was a loss of certain traditions (this doesn’t necessarily mean in very major ways, it could be in relatively small details), and the new communities developed their own ways of doing some things, at times at variance with the old minhog. After a while, מנהג אושטרייך (minhag Austria) developed in this way, as a variation from the Rhineland minhag Ashkenaz. The word Oestereich is made up of Oest (East in English), and Reich, which means realm. They were quite similar to minhag Ashkenaz overall, but had lost some of it along the way. Later מנהג פולין developed from מנהג אושטרייך.
Some communities excelled in keeping the old מנהג אשכנז relatively intact, one particular stellar example being Frankfurt am Main.
ASHKENAZ IN THE MODERN ERA
As time went on and people moved further away, there was more and more loss of the old מסורות. But people still called themselves Ashkenazim and knowledgable ones still realized their roots and connection to the old Ashkenaz along the Rhine. Masses of people however, lost touch with their roots, to the point of forgetting where their ancestors had migrated from in the old Ashkenaz, centuries earlier.
In the modern era, newer Jewish communities like Berlin, in northern Germany, far from the Rhineland, followed minhag Polin and not the ancient minhag Ashkenaz, having been settled by migrants from the newer areas.
THE APPROACH OF MMA AND THIS WEBSITE
Now since we are speaking here of מנהג אשכנז, which is the older and more venerable mesorah of which the רא”ש and other gedolim wrote, the fact that there were parts of (modern – the old Germany was not the same as the current nation-state) Germany where the later developments of minhag Oestreich or minhag Polin were followed, is not relevant, as the goal here is to preserve the more ancient minhag Ashkenaz specifically.
Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz, although researching and discussing various Ashkenazic practices, is especially interested in identifying and following the old minhag Ashkenaz (which most of the time is basically the same as minhag Frankfurt am Main). It keeps the old מסורות alive, בעזרת השי”ת, by preserving and disseminating them, ע”פ הדרכת גדולי אשכנז. This website basically follows that path as well.