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