Question: Lately I’ve seen some young men who, though they wear a yarmulke, have ponytails or 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 the proper positive action to take is in this matter.
No Name Please
Answer: Parshat Acharei Mot includes the verse (Leviticus 18:3), “Kma’aseh eretz mitzrayim…u’chema’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, which would apply to all lands. Rashi refers to the Gemara (Shabbos 67a and Jerusalem Talmud Shabbos 6:9) where our sages classify various idolatrous and superstitious acts as being “darkei ha’amori – the ways of the Amorites” (although they were not exclusive to that nation).
Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 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 idolators (which today essentially means gentile society) applies only when a practice is done for pritzut (licentiousness) or superstition; other practices (other than those forbidden elsewhere in the Torah) would be allowed. We are not required to be different from society in general, rather we are to avoid pagan and heathen behavior.
Regarding hairstyle, the Gemara (Bava Kamma 83a) cites a baraita concerning cutting one’s hair in a komi style, which Rashi explains refers to leaving a beloriyoth on one’s head – 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 Avodah Zarah 8a). Rambam’s opinion (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:1) is unclear: some say he did not prohibit growing bangs or forelocks while others (Bach, Y.D. 178; Machatzis HaShekel, Orach Chayyim 27) maintain that he did.
The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayyim 27:15) only discusses hair as a potential chatzitza between the tefillin shel rosh and one’s head. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (Divrei Chamudot, 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. Rashba also cites the Jerusalem Talmud which states that we see what the preponderance of people do (compare B.T. Berachot 45a) and act accordingly. Today we see that many people grow their hair in the place where the tefillin shel rosh is placed.
The prohibition of darkei ha’amori applies even today if the practice in question maintains a semblance of idol worship. Many practices, however, with pagan origins are now practiced by the masses who ascribe no idolatory or superstitious purpose to them; these practices are permitted.
When there are specific differences between Jewish and gentile attire in a given society, more stringencies apply, as related in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a-b). In Nefesh Harav, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University quotes his rebbe, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, who related in the name of his father, Rabbi M. Soloveichik, zt”l that his great-grandfather (the Beis HaLevi) moved out of Poland for two years when Czar Nicholas decreed a change in Jewish attire in 1848 so as to avoid the decree.