Friday, September 19, 2008

Jewish Clothing

QUESTION: (paraphrased)
R. Moshe Feinstein z"l (in his "Iggeros Moshe," Yoreh De'ah I, responsum # 81) clearly permits a Jew to wear gentile garb, and yet you say that such clothing falls under the category of "chukas akum" in Lev. 18:3 / Lev. 20:23 and should be prohibited. R. Moshe Feinstein obviously relied upon the words of the RAMA in Shulhan Arukh YD 178, who, in turn, relied upon the Maharik (Rabbi Joseph Cologne), where they, both, prohibited only those items of clothing that are either immodest in their design, or connected somehow to idolatry, or are worn by non-Jews on account of some superstitious belief, like 'the ways of the Amorite.' All other items of clothing, even those that resemble the clothing worn by the gentiles, are not forbidden! Are you not being presumptuous by saying that only you (the Yemenites) have a tradition in this regard, while other communities do not have one and are mistaken in their practice? (Rabbi Joshua)

Rebbe Joshua, Shalom.

I do not know if we'll ever find a commentary on the RAMA that discusses what we've been discussing here, and, really, it doesn't matter – seeing that we'll never get down to the core of all this by looking at a commentary of a commentary on Maran's Shulhan Arukh, whose own expressed purpose was to make a condensed version of the Beis Yoseph which, in turn, was written to give us the majority opinion of only three selected Rabbis (The Rambam, the Rosh and the Rif). The fine points of any argument can, however, be explained logically, step-by-step and in systematic order, by examining the sources. To put it in the words of Rabbi Yehiya Abyadh (Weiss), a fellow judge and member of the Court at San'a in anno 1915 C.E., who wrote about the method in which Maimonides paskens:

"…Be apprised, [therefore], that Maimonides, of blessed memory, did not write in his great composition save those laws and customs which are mentioned in the Mishnah, and in the Talmud, and in the Tosefta, and [in] Sifra and [in] Sifrei, and in the Mekhiltas, seeing that they are to be relied upon; as well as the words of the Geonim, seeing that they are to be relied upon. For all these, the house of Israel are required to observe and to practise in accordance with that which has been expounded in them. And there is no wise man in this world that has the power to be at variance with them whatsoever, except in four or in five places in the entire composition, where he had written, 'It seems to me that the case is like this, or like this,' he being in need of some explanation… It goes without saying, [also], if we should find his language being explained contrary to that of their words, that in this [case] they unquestionably stand in disagreement with him. This brings us back to the rules [by which we are to decide] upon whom to rely [in matters of halacha], just as it is explained in Hilchos Mamrim (Mishne Torah, ibid. 1:5)…."

Note that this same principle does not only apply to Maimonides, but would also apply to the Shulhan Arukh, to Rabbi Yitzhaq al-Fasi (the Rif), to Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), to the Tur and to the RAMA. For "there is no wise man in this world that has the power to be at variance with them (i.e. the Sages) whatsoever." Remember this.

If we were to look at the ancient-most rabbinic sources, we would find the following:

1) The first Tanna began by saying "chukoseihem" (חוקותיהם) means those things that the gentiles institutionalized amongst themselves, such as their way of attending theatres, circuses and stadiums. (Source: Sifra, P. 13:9 on Lev.18:3)
2) Rabbi Meir disagreed, saying "No! The word 'chukoseihem' (חוקותיהם) refers specifically to 'the ways of the Amorite' mentioned by the Sages." (Source: Sifra, ibid.) These were later enumerated by Rabbi Hiyya in his Tosefta (Shabbos 7), meaning, only those illogical actions and superstitious practices performed by them, that is, like unto some "ordinance" that is not based on reason. (A similar example is found in Jewish law where the laws concerning the purification of those defiled by the dead, and the ashes of the red heifer are said to be a "chok" – "ordinance"). So did R. Meir understand the word "chok," but as far as theatres and circuses are concerned, R. Meir forbids them because of a literal presence of idolatry in those places. – cf. Tosefta Avod. Zar. 2: 2-6.
3) Onkelos, following the instructions of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, translated the word, "chukoseihem" as "nimoseihon." (Source: Lev. 18:3; Lev. 20:23) This word is a Greek loan-word. According to "A Greek-English Lexicon" compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, published by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, the word has been defined in this way: "that which is inhabitual practice, use or possession; 1. usage, custom." The two authors also bring down examples from ancient Greek literature where the word is found and used in sentence structures, e.g.: "where it is the custom (nomos)" –Alc. Supp. 25.5; or "custom (nomos) is lord of all" – Pi. fr. 169.I. Note that, in these examples, there is nothing here which would suggest that we are talking about superstitious conduct and behaviour. In the same Greek-English lexicon we also find a secondary meaning, namely, "law (statute)" and "ordinance."
In our own Midrashic literature, we also find the word "nimos" (a variant
spelling for the word "nomos" – νόμος) used in various instances: e.g.
(Genesis Rabba, P. 48:16)
ר' מאיר היה אומר משל: "עלת לקרתא, הלך בנימוסא."
"If you've entered a city, follow after its customs." (It's like the proverb:
"When in Rome, do as the Romans.") Here, in Genesis Rabba, the intention of
"custom" was meant to imply that just as Moses went to convene with G-d on
Mt. Sinai, and in the place where G-d dwells there is neither eating nor
drinking, so, too, Moses abstained from eating and drinking for forty days and
forty nights. That is to say, Moses behaved like local custom.

In the Aramaic Targum known as Targum Yerushlami, we find these examples: (Gen. 19:1) "And Lot looked and stood up before them, and bowed down on his face towards the ground as the custom of the land." – כנימוס ארעא

While in the same Aramaic Targum in Lev. 25:42, we find: "…they (Israel) shall not be sold as the manner of slaves." – כנימוסי עבדא

And in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3 (4):16, we find this statement:
"…Had he (an indebted Jew) given him (his Canaanite slave) [to a gentile] as security for a loan, if the gentile did for him (the hypothecated slave) what is customarily prescribed by law (Heb. נימוסות) [to take possession], he (the slave) becomes thereby a freed man, but if not, he does not become a freed man."

Of course, there are many, many other examples like unto these, yet, for the sake of brevity, we have mentioned only a few. Few there be, if any, which speak of "nimos" in the strict sense of being a superstitious practice. I have yet to find one example. So, here again, the import is clear that we are talking about mores and manners in a general way, as well as about local custom.

While, indeed, the word "nomos" also means "law" in the sense of "statute," or "ordinance," this cannot possibly be what Onkelos had in mind by saying, "And ye shall not walk in the manners (nimoseihon) of the nation which I evict from before you" (Lev. 18:3). Had the Torah been speaking only about laws in general, this would mean even in civil laws, such as in their fixing speed-limits, and so forth, we – as Jews – could not abide by those laws! And there are a myriad of other laws and ordinances that they pass, which we could not abide by, yet, this is not so. We can and do abide by them. Therefore, even Onkelos, himself, had the wisdom to draw a distinction between the word "chukos" in Lev. 18:3 and Lev. 20:23 (where he translates the word as "nimos" - customs), and in other places throughout the Torah where the word "chukos" is also found, such as in Deut. 26:16, but where he translates the word as meaning "kayema" – covenant/law.

Rabbi Meir has, however, a different interpretation. It is ONLY in the sense of "superstitious practices" that R. Meir understands this word, which same interpretation was taken-up by the Maharik and by the RAMA, including the addition of certain other strictures – such as not wearing clothes that are "promiscuous" or "immodest," and not wearing clothing that is linked to an "idolatrous practice." While looking for examples in our rabbinic literature where the Rabbis mention "nimos" in the sense of "superstitious practice," based upon the meaning of this word when taken in its context, I could find none! This tends to show us, almost unequivocally, that Onkelos meant in his writing "nimoseihon" only what all the other Sages have been using in their examples, that is, "custom" in a general sense. Afterall, he studied under two Sages – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua – at a time when the word "nimos" was being used to express almost entirely "custom / mores & manners," with no specific references to idolatry or superstitious practices. (Bear in mind that R. Meir's explanation stands on its own merits and is independent of that of Onkelos' explanation. R. Meir only expounds on the word, "chukos," but does not say anything about "nimos.")

Note here that we have three different explanations for the word "chukoseihem." Anyone examining the words of Maimonides (Avodas Kokhavim 11:1) with a critical demeanour cannot be insensitive to the fact that he incorporates within the parametres of the laws governing "chukas akum" the idea of "local custom." The general prohibition of our not appearing like the gentiles in their manner of dress, saying, "let the Israelite be distinguished from them and recognised by his own [distinct] apparel," is of especial importance to him. The statement is a general statement, with no mention of specifics, such as: "let the Israelite be distinct from them only with regard to those items of clothing that, if the gentiles were to wear such apparel on account of some ill-founded belief or because of idolatry, they'd be forbidden unto him." Maimonides' statement is general and bears the interpretation of forbidding any item of clothing worn exclusively by the gentiles. How can we be recognised by our clothing if we were to wear the same clothing that they wear? Here, we can say that his teaching is compatible with that of Onkelos, insomuch that he interpreted the word "chukos" to mean "nimos" – having the same implications as we explained above in the first two examples. The Maharik (R. Joseph Cologne), as stated, has chosen to take up the words of Rabbi Meir, in his interpretation of the word "chukos." Wherefore, he outlaws the illogical behaviour of the gentile nations, defining such actions as "the ways of the Amorite." (Maimonides only adds this prohibition later in Avodas Kokhavim 11:4, under the laws of one that believes in omens / practises divination, saying אין מנחשין כעכו"ם. Look there and you will see by his definition of this word that he is referring there to superstitious practices. He seems to group customs and superstitious practices into two separate and distinct categories.) The RAMA, while he extensively quotes from the Maharik in his glosses, he also seems to incorporate the Tur's remark about "custom" or "minhag" into his commentary, saying:
או בדבר שנהגו למנהג ולחוק

I say "seems to incorporate" since you disagree with me here and will say, "the word 'minhag' (custom) is ambiguous in meaning, seeing that a custom might sometimes include a superstitious practice, and therefore may actually mean only those customs that are like a 'chok' or 'ordinance' to which there is no reason or logic behind the said customs (hence: the RAMA's necessitating of, both, custom and superstitious practice)!"

Concerning the true intention of the RAMA, which I concede that I do not know what it is (and do, hereby, rescind my words "no doubt" in an earlier post), if I might still premise my words in this post by saying what others have said long before me:

אם קבלה היא נקבל. ואם סברא היא יש תשובה!

(Translation: "If it were a matter based simply upon tradition, we'd receive it gladly! But if it is a matter based upon reason, we have our own logical explanation to give!")

Perhaps the RAMA had what you said in mind and, again, perhaps he did not. Yet, you and others like you seem to have relied too heavily on only this one side of the coin and have neglected the reverse side, Viz., A custom, while it might sometimes include a superstitious practice, does not necessarily have to be at all times a superstitious practice. This has been proven by our Rabbis' usage of the word "nimos" ("custom") in the volumes of Jewish lore quoted above.
Perhaps those who explain the RAMA's teaching in the way that you did wanted to make the words of the Maharik and the Tur congruous with one another – that is, without standing in contradiction one with the other ליישב דברי המהרי"ק עם הטור)).
However, I would add from a simplistic viewpoint that since it is a habit of the RAMA to quote the Tur in his glosses on the Shulhan Arukh, and the Tur has unequivocally spoken about custom, saying:

"אסור ללכת בחוקות העובדי כוכבים ואין צריך לומר שלא לקסום ולנחש וכו'...אלא אפילו מנהג שנהגו אין הולכין בחוקות העובדי כוכבים ולא מדמין להם לא במלבוש ולא בשער וכיוצא בהן אלא יהיה הישראל מובדל מהם וידוע במלבושו וכו'..."

That here, too, it only follows that the RAMA wanted to incorporate both teachings into his glosses – that of the Maharik and that of the Tur – and, therefore, he mentions, both, "minhag" (custom) and "chok" (the ways of the Amorite). This is not a "non-sequitor," as you phrased it, but rather, it follows a natural train of thought and logic. And if you should ask: "If the RAMA indeed forbids everything that the gentiles have a custom to wear, why bother to mention concerns with tznius (modesty) or those things the gentiles practice which have no known cause? According to your 'interpretation,' those are subsets of what has already been forbidden, namely practices of the gentiles in general!"

The answer is plain: The RAMA never did say that he forbids everything that the gentiles will wear, but rather, only those items of clothing which are a "custom," meaning, which are a peculiar custom unto gentiles alone. But where there is a custom for, both, Jews and gentiles to wear certain types or brands of underwear, or stockings, etc., this does not fall under the category of "custom." Therefore, the RAMA's use of the word "custom" presents no difficulty, as he never meant to exclude by that word all types of clothing worn by them. For this reason, he also mentions the concerns with "tznius" (modesty). Yet, since his teaching can also be explained in the way that you have alleged its import to be, namely, the RAMA spoke only about a custom which is based on superstitious belief, this brings us back to basics and the rules by which we are to decide upon whom to rely in matters of halacha.

Maimonides wrote:

"…Ever since the Grand Court (Sanhedrin) was demised, disputes have multiplied in Israel, this one defiling [a certain thing] and showing argumentative proofs to that effect, while the other one purifying [the same thing] and showing argumentative proofs to that effect; this one prohibiting [a certain thing], while the other one permitting [it].
Two wise men, or two [rabbinic] courts, that were divided [about a certain practice] at a time when there was no Sanhedrin, or [at a time] when the matter was not yet clear to them (i.e. the Sanhedrin), whether it (i.e. the dispute) surfaced at one time, or had surfaced later, a certain man declaring a thing clean and another declaring it unclean, a certain man prohibiting [a certain thing] and another declaring it permissible, if you do not know where the law lists (i.e. inclines), what concerns the Torah go after the more stringent practice, [while] what concerns the scribes, go after the lenient opinion." (Hilchos Mamrim 1:4-5)

The Jews of Yemen and their Rabbis forbade wearing the clothing of gentiles. It was a tradition for them not to do so, as it was for the Jews of ancient times and for Maimonides of late to only make use of certain clothing that was unique unto the Jewish nation alone and which stood out as different in style from the attire worn by the gentiles. This is what Maimonides meant by writing (Hil. Avodas Kokhavim 11:1):

"...שלא ידמה להן. אלא יהיה הישראל מובדל מהן וידוע במלבושו ובשאר מעשיו... לא ילבש במלבוש המיוחד להן..."
"…He (G-d) warns [us] not to resemble them. Rather, let the Israelite be distinguished from them and recognised by his own [distinct] apparel, as well as by his other actions… Let him not dress in the fashion that is peculiar unto them…"

So has this tradition been passed down unto me, personally, by the elderly Jewish men and women who came up from the exile of Yemen, whether other communities will agree to what they ascribe to or not. Tradition is not dependent upon others who may have lost their own tradition in this regard. It is like as we find with the tradition of eating locusts, still recognised by the Jews of Yemen as being only those specimens that are called in Arabic "jarad," the best tasting of which being those that had a reddish colour, followed by those of a greyish colour with spots. There were also those of a yellowish-colour which were inferior to these, while the worst of them all was the whitish-coloured locust. The people, moreover, had it also as a tradition not to eat of those locusts bearing the names of 'Aousham, and Hanajir, and Jazaleh and Sadat Hanish, although they, too, had all the signs affiliated with locusts esteemed to be clean. So, while others may have forgotten this ancient tradition about peculiar Jewish clothing and attire, and can no longer be found eating locusts, the Jews of Yemen persist in their own traditions – though, these traditions, too, are slowly being forgotten.

The English word, "tradition," is a word which, in Hebrew, is "mesoreth," meaning, "a thing passed down." Thus, a "tradition" is some teaching or action that has been passed down generation after generation, and which was prescribed to by the early fathers. The word, "kabbalah" is yet another word used to denote the same thing, viz., "a certain teaching that has been 'received' by way of transmission, generation after generation." (Today, this word has also come to mean "esoteric teaching").

Thank-you for maintaining this discussion - whether we agree with each other or not. If I wasted your time, I'm sorry. Yet, for me, it's been a worthwhile and learning experience. And though I was buffeted by a Rabbi from and not spared the rapacity of your harsh comments, I remain your friend. Such differences should not prevent us from expressing our opinions. As for the halacha, let every man make for himself a Rabbi and follow his guidance. As for the matter of clothes, if he can act stringently in this matter and wear only "traditional Jewish clothing," a blessing will come upon him. Yet, if he fears to stand out as different amongst his peers and to be scorned by them, he has Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's words to rely upon (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De'ah I, responsum # 81). This is how I view the matter.
Your friend, David



In the Talmud (Ta'anis 22a), we find the story about a certain Jewish jailor in the marketplace of Bei Lefet in Babylonia who was declared by Elijah the prophet as being destined for the world to come, and yet he wore no blue cord in the threads making up the tassels of his talis, and he donned only black shoes (which were not customary for Jews in Babylonia to wear in those days). When asked why he did so, he remarked that he was a jailor and that his business was to go in and out amongst the gentiles, and that he did not want them to know that he was a Jew. In doing so, he was able to eavesdrop and to learn about harsh decrees that the government was planning against the Jews, reporting the same to the Rabbis who, in turn, initiated public prayer against the government's decrees and would, thereby, cancel such harsh decrees. We learn from this episode three things: 1) That Israel abstained from wearing black shoes since they were strictly associated with the attire worn by non-Jews; 2) That wearing such black shoes was not a true imitation of idolatry, but only rather an imitation of a gentile custom. (For had it been a true idolatrous practice, it would have been forbidden for him to wear such shoes even on such occasions.); 3) That if the intent is to save Jewish life, it is permissible to wear such footwear.

In my conversations with the Jewish elders who came up from Yemen, particularly with those who came up here while they were in their mid-30's and had a clear impression of Yemen and of the pure Jewish lifestyle they once lived, I was told that never once did a Jew don gentile garb, but that there was a distinct style of clothing for Jews, and another style for Arabs or non-Jews. It must be emphasized here that the bounds were drawn to extend only to certain pieces of clothing, but not to all pieces of clothing. Some pieces of clothing were indeed similar to those worn by non-Jews. Using Erich Brauer's own description of the clothing worn by Yemen's Jews (from the book, "Ethnologie der jemenitischen Juden," p. 81, published in Heidelberg, 1934) we find the following account (translated from German):

"Instead of trousers, the Yemenite Jews (as well as Yemen's Arabs) carry a piece of cloth worn around the hip (loincloth), called maizar. The expression fūta, quoted by Sapir, is used [for the same piece of clothing] by the Jews in Aden and partly also by Arabs from Yemen. The maizar consists of one piece of dark-blue cotton that is wound a few times around the waist and which is held up by a belt made of cloth material or leather. The maizar is allowed to reach down to the knees only. Today, the Yemenites will therefore wear [underwear made like unto] short-length trousers, called sirwāl, [instead of the traditional loincloth beneath their tunics].
A blue shirt that has a split that extends down to the waistline and that is closed at neck level is worn over the maizar. If the shirt is multicolored and striped, it is called tahtāni, meaning, 'the lower.' If it is monochrome, it is called ‘antari. Finally, the outer layer of clothing, worn over the maizar and ‘antari, is a dark-blue cotton tunic (Ar. guftān or kuftān)*. The tunic is a coat-like garment that extends down to the knees, that is fully open in the front and is closed with a single button in the neck. Over the tunic, the Jewish people were not allowed to wear a girdle."

(* This is true also with the Arabs of Yemen.) As you can see, some of the dress-codes were forced upon them by laws of the State. For example, in Yemen, Jews were not allowed to wear clothing of any colour besides blue. (Formerly, in Ya'akov Sapir's time, they'd wear garments that were "utterly black").

Jews of the Orient also had it as their practice to wear a central hat (כומתא) with a habit (סודרא) made of cloth wrapped around it, which headgear was traditionally worn by married men in accordance with a teaching in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29b). Rabbi Yoseph Qafih, in his Halichoth Teman, wrote of the headgear on this wise: "Our fathers told [us] that in yonder days the Jews used to wear upon their heads an 'imameh, [that is], a turban, just like the turban of the High Priest during his time ('Like one who wraps around a broken [arm]' – see: Maimonides, chapter 8, Kelei Hamiqdash, vs. 1), and just as the Moslem nobility will do unto this day. Yet, because of their being ill-effected [towards the Jews] and wanting to humiliate and insult them, they decreed [in anno 1667 C.E.] against their wearing the turban in the traditional fashion, but rather in a haphazard way, and that it only be made short, and not large. From here comes its name, 'shusheh' (habit). …Usually, a [Jewish] man begins wearing the 'shusheh' when he is wedded to a wife."

In another place, he calls the "shusheh" by its other name, "massar" (kerchief), saying: "Massar – a kerchief which is [simply] a piece of square cloth about 80 X 80 cm. [in size], made of silk or cotton; woven with black checkered-squares, and [with] white stripes that run criss-cross [across the fabric]. The [men-folk] wrap the 'Massar' around a portion of their fore-head, and around a portion of the [felt] hat, in an awkward fashion, while it was folded diagonally, and is called 'shusheh' (i.e. habit)." From this description, we learn that the habit is sometimes worn while wrapped around a man's head, or simply partly draped over his head.

When in doubt about the halacha, the Sages once had a teaching which said: "Go out and see how the people observe a practice!"
פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר

Yet, if we were to apply this rule today, what was once seen as quintessential Jewish tradition in this regard has since changed. Moreover, dress codes in Yemen were different from dress codes in Germany and in Poland at the beginning of the last century. What exacerbates the problem even further is that, today, we all wear black shoes – including those Jews in Yemen who'd shod themselves in black shoes when they'd not go out barefoot. Today, instead of tunics, we wear western trousers, and instead of habits most orthodox Jews will wear brimmed hats, while some will even wear ties about their necks, &c. As someone once said, "The truth is that we are affected by the society around us." Here, the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z"l (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De'ah I, responsum # 81) have taken on uttermost importance, and are seen as a "leniency" in this regard. Otherwise, we'd all be guilty of abandoning traditional Jewish dress codes and culture, if it were not for him. Still, in a dirge written by a Yemenite Jew who made aliyah to Israel, he lamented his situation, saying: "gentile garb has replaced that of our own!" (see: book "Genocide in the Holy Land," published by Neturei Karta out of Brooklyn, N.Y.)

(Acknowledgment: Thanks to our dear friend, Esther van Praag of Switzerland, who translated into English for us the German excerpt taken from Erich Brauer's book.)