Latest update: May 19th, 2013
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.
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Let us now address how to appropriately react to our fellow man in whom we perceive a weakness or possible wrongdoing. The Gemara (Sotah 47a) relates that Elisha the prophet suffered three illnesses in the course of his life. One was a direct punishment for having incited bears to attack the youths who mocked him (II Kings 2:23-24). (He received this punishment even though Rashi notes that Elisha was able to see that no descendant of worth was destined to come from these children.) The second illness was due to his having pushed away Gechazi, his trusted aide, with “two hands” (ibid., 5:27), i.e., Elisha totally rejected Gechazi. The third was the final illness from which Elisha died (ibid., 13:14).
The Gemara discusses in detail why Elisha’s treatment of Gechazi was improper, citing a baraisa that “l’olam tehe semol docheh v’yemin mekareves – the left hand should always ‘push away’ but the right hand should ‘draw close,’” – not like Elisha who pushed away Gechazi with both hands.
In II Kings (5:23) we learn, “Vayomer Na’aman ho’ail kach kikarim – And Na’aman [the general of the king of Aram’s army] said, ‘Please take two talents [of silver].’” Elisha had previously cured Na’aman of his tzora’as disease and had rejected any compensation for having done so. Gechazi, however, dismissed Elisha’s rejection of payment and went back to Na’aman and requested compensation.
Gechazi subsequently returned to Elisha and denied meeting with Na’aman. Elisha, however, knew the truth: “Vayomer eilav lo libi halach ka’asher hafach ish me’al merkavto likrasecha ha’et lakachat et hakesef velakachat begadim vezeitim u’keramim vetzon u’bakar va’avadim u’shephachot – And [Elisha] said to [Gechazi], ‘Did not my spirit accompany you when [Na’aman] turned from upon his chariot toward you? Is now the time to take money and buy clothes, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, slaves and maidservants?’”
The Gemara (Sotah 47a) states that Elisha then cursed him: “Wicked One! The time has come for you take the reward for studying Shemonah Sheratzim [a chapter of Mesechet Shabbat that Gechazi had apparently studied with Elisha]. May Na’aman’s tzara’as cleave to you and your children forever.” Indeed, this terrible curse took effect.
The Gemara, however, also relates how Elisha then regretted his action and sought to bring Gechazi back as the verse states (ibid., 8:7), “Vayavo Elisha Damesek – And Elisha came to Damascus.” Why did he go there? R. Yochanan explains that Elisha sought to convince Gechazi to repent but Gechazi did not do so. Indeed, he responded, “Did I not receive a tradition from you that whoever sins and whoever sins and causes others to sins is not given the opportunity to repent?”
The Gemara lists a few possibilities as to how Gechazi caused others to sin. One possibility is that he hung a calf and suspended it between heaven and earth (this alludes to his seeking to seduce the people who would see this wonder and attribute supernatural powers to this idol worship). Another possibility is that he engraved the Divine Name in the calf’s mouth, causing the calf to declare, “I am Hashem your god.” Others say that he caused the sages to depart from Elisha’s presence, as the verse (ibid., 6:1) states, “Vayomru bnei henevi’im el Elisha hina na hamakom asher anachnu yoshvim sham l’fanecha tzar – The disciples of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘Behold the place where we are staying before you is too cramped for us.’” The verse implies that until Gechazi left Elisha, there was sufficient room.
What we can learn from this story is the importance of the sages’ rule that “the left hand should push away but the right hand should draw close.” The left is the weaker of the two hands (in most people) and, thus, pushing away will be more difficult; the right hand, meanwhile, draws close. Consequently, a rebuke by a teacher or parent, even when warranted, will be tempered and easier to handle.
Sociologists argue that much of our daily behavior is motivated by interactions with peers. Thus, if one chooses and surrounds oneself with proper peers, who are both sensitive and of strong character, one’s behavior will adjust accordingly.
Therefore, if we remain peers, or at least within the social group of those we wish to influence, just imagine how much easier it will be for them to ultimately improve their behavior.
It would seem that the young man’s parents, with their unrequited love, are keeping all channels of communication wide open (and you by holding your tongue are doing the same) while offering positive role modeling or mentoring.
(Next week – some related thoughts)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, Torah editor of The Jewish Press, serves as rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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