So you see the title of this article, and a thousand things flood your brain. After all, we have a ton of weird traditions. Kaparos with a live chicken, whipping hoshanos until the leaves fall off, casting our sins into a lake (and that’s just Tishrei). What about having a specific order for tying shoes or having four different New Year’s Days depending on what it is you’re counting, or redeeming a first-born son or donkey!) from a priest?
But these examples are all halachos, laws that we have to follow. When I am referring to traditions, I’m not talking about our strangest laws. Every religion has weird laws. Muslims will plop a rug down anywhere to pray. Catholics just spent a day walking around with an ash cross on their foreheads. I’m talking about traditions that are not necessarily part of Jewish law, but for whatever reason became the norm in Judaism. Singing zemiros on Shabbos is a tradition. Latkes on Chanukah, Hamentashen on Purim, cheesecake on Shavuos, and basically whatever we eat on Rosh HaShanah are traditions.
So among these non-halachic traditions, what is the strangest, oddest, and most bizarre one we have developed? It’s referring to a Torah scholar, not by name, but by the name of the sefer he wrote. Why? What? Who came up with this method? In what area of society does this make any sense to do? When one attends a shiur, they will inevitably hear “The Shulcahn Aruch says…” The Shulchan Aruch doesn’t say anything. Rabbi Yosef Karo said all of that stuff. But sometimes the Mishnah Brurah argues with the Shulchan Aruch. But the Mishnah Brurah isn’t a person. It was written by the Chofetz Chaim. But that wasn’t his name either! That was just another work written by the same man. By the way, if someone writes multiple sefarim, how do we decide which one is the dominant nickname for the rest of time?
And this is not limited to the two most prevalent works on Jewish law. We do this for everyone. The S’fas Emes. The Chovos Halevavos. The Imrei Emes. I guarantee many more of you have heard of these people by the name of their sefarim than their actual names. And the lists go on. I don’t know when this started, or why this started, but I would love to hear any rational reason why more people know the name of the book than the author.
And it’s not like this exists in the secular world. We don’t quote non-fiction authors by their work. The How to Win Friends & Influence People never disagrees with The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Maybe it’s the length of the titles that’s the issue. After all, the Federalist Papers always disagree with the Antifederalist Papers. But a) literally nobody talks like that, and b) those were groups of people, one of which was anonymous. It’s like Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel arguing. Or a more contemporary example would be the Orchos Tzadikim, which was written by an unknown author.
It’s not like this was decided on by each individual author. They didn’t think, from now on, I choose to be known by not my name, not my nickname, but by the book I wrote. We did it later on. We chose this method. Why? I need to know. And why do we keep doing it? It’s not like this stopped in the 1800s. Sefarim that come out today are still referred to by the name of the book rather than the author. It’s really odd and certainly deserving of the title of “The Weirdest Tradition in Judaism.”
By Izzo Zwiren