With the festivals behind us, it is time to return to the hergel of six days of work and one of Shabbat. Hergel means routine or habit and comes from regel, foot or leg.
By and large, tradition views hergel as a negative thing, thoughtless behaviour that comes as naturally as putting one foot in front of the other. Thus the Talmud takes measures against hergel aveirah, the situation in which transgressing the halachah might become habitual.
Chasidic masters raise the problem of worship becoming hergel, a mere habit devoid of meaning. We need constant spiritual renewal to ensure that the mitzvot do not become hergelim.
Rav Kook associates hergel with the baser human instincts. Jacob’s hand over Esau’s heel at their birth symbolises Jacob’s ability to control and uplift these instincts to a higher purpose.
The biblical term for meaningless worship comes from Isaiah. God criticises the people’s worship as mitzvat anashim melumadah, the commandment of men, learned by rote (Isaiah 29:13).
Hergel can obviously be a good thing if it provides a stable structure for nurturing creative growth.