Latest update: May 19th, 2013
Question: Lately I have seen some young men who though they wear a yarmulke have ponytails or other long unruly hair – I’ve even seen some ear piercings. Somehow I find this behavior to be incongruous. My real problem is that my own nephew and a few of his friends wear their hair in this manner. Even though his parents look upon it as a passing fad, I am at a loss to understand such behavior. Luckily, whether right or wrong, I’ve held my tongue. I wonder what is the proper positive action in this matter.
No Name Please
Synopsis: Parashat Acharei Mot includes (Leviticus 18:3), “K’ma’aseh eretz mitzrayim… u’che’ma’aseh eretz cana’an…lo ta’asu u’bechukoteihem lo telechu – Like the practice of the land of Egypt… and of the land of Canaan… you shall not do, and in their ways you shall not walk [go].” Rashi (ad loc) at first seems to limit the prohibition to practices found in these two most corrupt lands, but then adds that “ in their ways” refers to going to theaters and stadiums, applying to all lands. Rashi refers to the gemara (Shabbos 67a and Jerusalem Talmud Shabbos 6:9) where our sages explain “darkei ha’amori – the ways of the Amorites” including carrying a fox’s tooth or similar amulet [either as idolatry or superstition] as not exclusive to the Amorites. Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim Chap.11: 1) explains that we are not to appear like them in dress, hair and similar matters. He allows one who mingles with the secular authorities (11:3) to dress as necessary. The Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 179: 1-2) rules accordingly.
Rema (ad. loc. 179:2) notes that the obligation not to copy the idolaters (today – the gentile society) applies when a practice is done for pritzut – licentiousness or superstition, and other practices (other than those forbidden elsewhere in the Torah) are allowed. We are not required to be different in general, rather we are to avoid pagan and heathen behavior.
One’s hairstyle may not be darkei Amori. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 83a) cites a baraita about having one’s hair cut in a komi style, which Rashi explains as leaving a beloriyoth – a specific pattern of hair growth which leaves hair either only in the back or on the crown of the head. This hairstyle is associated with idol worship (see the Mishna Avoda Zara 8a). Rambam’s opinion (Hilchos Avoda Zara 11:1) is debated: Some say he did not interpret growing bangs or forelocks as a transgression, while others (Bach Y.D. 178; Machatzis HaShekel, Orach Chayyim 27) maintain that he did.
Some people interpret Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 27: sk15) as disallowing forelocks, yet he only discusses hair as a potential chatzitza – an interposition between the tefillin shel rosh and the forehead. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (Divrei Chamudot, found in Vilna Shas at the end of tractate Menachot) cites Rashba’s view that a head covering [and surely one’s own hair] is not necessarily a chatzitza under tefillin. Rashba also cites the Jerusalem Talmud saying that we see what the preponderance of people do (compare B.T. Berachot 45a). Today we do see that to have some hair in the front is common practice even under tefillin.
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Interestingly, we may violate the prohibition of darkei ha’amori – following in their ways – without realizing it. An interesting example is the use of birthday cakes with candles, as pointed out to me by my copy editor, Mrs. Bracha Holczer. According to sources that she found, this centerpiece of many birthday parties is grounded in ancient Roman and Greek culture.
According to their traditions the early Greeks used to place lit candles on cakes in order that they glow like the moon. They would then take these candle-laden cakes to the temple of Artemis, which they deified as a “goddess” of the moon. There was a folk belief that the smoke of the candles carried wishes and prayers to the gods in the skies. Thus developed the custom for the birthday celebrant to first make a wish and then blow out the candles. Further, it was believed that if all the candles on the cake were blown out in one breath, the coming year would bode well for the birthday celebrant.
Yet it seems that this “ceremony” has found its place in many Jewish birthday celebrations including some Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and nary a word is said in opposition. It would thus seem that once a practice has become so universal and generalized to the point where pagan origins no longer have any meaning or remembrance to the individual, there is no second thought or any hesitation in engaging in that practice. Simply put, party participants, especially the younger set, enjoy a nice birthday cake, and there is no intention or semblance of idol worship involved. Also, as we will see further, since it is a widespread practice in our society, irrespective of religion, practiced by Jew and gentile alike, it should not present itself as a problem.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminar at Yeshiva University, in his volume Nefesh HoRav, cites the following that he heard from his Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, late Rosh Yeshiva at R.I.E.T.S., in the name of his father Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik zt’l.
In the year 1848, the Czar Nicholas of Russia, who then ruled over Poland as well, issued an edict directed at the Jewish populace. All Jews under his domain were to discard their Jewish garb in favor of modern garb. Most noticeably this meant that a short jacket would replace the traditional long kaftan. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik Zt’l (the famed author of Bais HaLevi and father of Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik) considered this to be a matter of Shmad (a practice that may contribute to Jews leaving the fold) as related in the gemara (Sanhedrin 74a – b) where Rabbah bar R. Yitzchak states in the name of Rav that when the government so decrees, one may not even change his shoelace to the gentile style. Rashi interprets this to mean that it would be forbidden to tie one’s shoelace in the same style as the gentiles. Tosafot explain that Rav meant to forbid changing the color of one’s shoelaces if theirs is black and ours is white. Thus we would then be forbidden to wear black like them.
Yet Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik realized that he had little choice in the matter, so he set off to the city of Brod in Galicia where the donning of short jackets had already become the custom. He stayed there for two years before returning to Poland.
What we see from here is that if one happens to be in a place where there is an accepted distinction between Jew and gentile in the manner of dress, one may not change even the smallest iota. However in a place where there is no such distinction, one may dress as one pleases. Obviously one must take care to assure the rules of modesty are followed.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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