Daf Yomi Nedarim 2
Everyone knows the urban legend of the woman who would always cut her chicken in half before cooking one half and then the other. Upon being asked her rationale, she explains that it’s their family custom, and that’s what her mother would do. They go to the mother who likewise explains that her mother cooked the chicken that way. Finally they ask the great-grandma about this strange ritual and she laughs and says that back in the day, her pot could only hold half a chicken.
Mishnah: All nicknames for vows are just like vows. [And partial vows are like vows]. If one says to his friend, ‘I vow abstinence from your property,’ he is forbidden to derive benefit from him. If one said, ‘konam, konach, or konas,’ it is a nickname for the word ‘korban,’ meaning sacrifice.
The Gemara asks: Why does the Mishnah open with nicknames followed by partial vows, but then proceed to explain the law of partial vows first?
The Gemara answers: The Mishnah always explains the topic it most recently mentioned, unless there are multiple laws, in which case, it follows the original order.
Tosfos explains: When dealing with multiple laws, we are worried that he will err. Therefore we explain that which is written at the head.
Many people mindlessly perform rituals without a clue why they are doing what they are doing. But without any reason, it becomes a meaningless act. Rather, we need to explain what is written on our heads – what we are doing in the name of religion.
Throughout our history, we have many Sages that have gone to great lengths to explain reasons for the mitzvos we are commanded to perform. For example, the Sefer Hachinuch goes through each mitzvah in the Torah outlining the meaning. Certainly, many mitzvos fall into the category of chukim, for which there is no human rationale. But with regards to most mitzvos, we can discern some kind of rationale for their performance.
If that is true of mitzvos, then how much more so of customs and rituals. Everything you do must have a reason. Granted, a law in the Torah may be beyond human comprehension, but a man-made ritual must have a source and rationale! For the reasons behind customs there are many holy books such as Sefer Taamei Haminhagim. If you can’t find your minhag (custom) in such works, and you don’t have a reason for doing what you do, chances are it’s probably not a very sound minhag.
We pride ourselves on how meaningful Judaism is. If you’re doing something and you don’t know the reason, go and find out! Ask your rabbi, look it up in a sefer (holy book)! But don’t go through life just doing things that may be as meaningless as a small pot that contains room for just half a chicken. May you merit a life full of meaning and purpose!