Too Much Heart – Comments on Parashat Kedoshim

The 15th of Shevat

Not long ago, we celebrated the holiday of Tu BiShevat (ט”ו בשבט), commonly referred to as “the new year for trees.” In actuality, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is not a “holiday” at all. In was only in the 16th century that the kabbalists of Tzefat, most notably Yitzhak Lurya (the “Arizal”), imbued the day with mystical significance and even formulated a “seder” after the fashion of the seder shel Pesah – complete with four cups of wine, a haggadah, and special foods – a rite which has unfortunately become nearly ubiquitous among Jewish communities today. Being a late contrivance that was specifically invented to further the dualist mystical system of Luria, it should be altogether avoided. The more modern modern conception of Tu BiShevat as “Israeli Arbor Day,” wherein children are taught about the fruits of the land of Israel and the regulation of agriculture by the Torah, is a positive development and should be encouraged.

Tu BiShevat is actually nothing more than a calendrical marker created by Hazal in order to facilitate the observance of the laws of orlah. The Mishnah, in Masekhet Rosh HaShanah 1:1, lists Tu BiShevat  as one of the four “new years” that takes place throughout the year. It says,


באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן כדברי בית שמאי בית הלל אומרין בחמישה עשר בו


“On the first of the month of Shevat is the ‘new year for a tree,’ according to the words of Beit Shamai, but Beit Hillel say, ‘One the fifteenth day of the month.'”

This rosh ha-shanah le-ilan (ראש השנה לאילן) is a necessary institution in order to objectively determine when the fruit of newly-planted trees becomes permissible according to the Torah in Vayikra 19:23-25, which says:


כג וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאָכֵל כד וּבַשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִת יִהְיֶה כָּל-פִּרְיוֹ קֹדֶשׁ הִלּוּלִים לַיהוָה כה וּבַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִישִׁת תֹּאכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם


23 – And when you come to the land and you have planted every type of [fruit-bearing] tree for food, you shall consider its fruit as forbidden as the orlah of the uncircumcised. For three years shall those trees be as uncircumcised to you and you shall not eat from them. 24 – In the fourth year all of its fruit shall be holy to, and comprise a praise of, HaShem. 25 – In the fifth year you shall eat its fruit so that it may thereby produce additional fruit. I am HaShem your God.”

The word “uncircumcised” is arel (ערל) and refers to an uncircumcised male, while the world orlah (ערלה) is a direct reference to the remaining foreskin of such males. But what do a tree or fruit have to do with either circumcision or foreskins? This question will be answered in the course of this essay, but first let us consider the overall process regulating the life of a fruit tree.

  • First, the tree is planted.
  • Second, it is left completely alone for its first three years.
  • Third, the fruit produced by it in the fourth year is brought to Yerushalayim to be consumed there.
  • Fourth, from the fifth year onward its fruit is permissible and may be eaten as usual.

This wasn’t the end, however. From the fifth year onward, most trees were subject to further laws, such as the bikkurim. These laws applied to grapevines, olive trees, pomegranate trees, fig trees, and date trees – which, together with wheat and barley, comprise the shiv’at minin (the “seven species” of special produce grown in the land of Israel). Beyond these five, the fruit of all trees were subject to the laws of berakhot, which one is required to recite before and after consuming them. In other words, the tree goes from a state of being completely forbidden to being regulated by laws and principles of the Torah. But what is the connection to circumcision?

Brit Milah and Milat HaLev

In Vayikra 12:3, the Torah commands the circumcision of eight-day-old infant males when it says,


וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ


“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin (orlah) shall be circumcised.”

What is the purpose of this operation? The Rambam says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Milah 3:8, that its reasons are two:


מאוסה היא העורלה שנתגנו בה הרשעים שנאמר כי כל הגויים ערלים. וגדולה היא מילה שלא נקרא אברהם אבינו שלם עד שמל שנאמר התהלך לפניי והיה תמים ואתנה בריתי ביני ובינך


“The foreskin (orlah) is disgusting and the wicked of the world were deprecated thereby, as it is said, ‘For all of the nations are uncircumcised (arelim)’ [1]. Great is circumcision (milah), for Avraham Avinu was not called complete until he circumcised himself, as it is said, ‘Walk before me and be perfect, and I will give you my covenant, between me and you’ [2].”

[1] cf. Yermiyahu 9:25
[2] cf. Bereshit 17:1-2

So, (a) the foreskin is considered disgusting, and (b) it is the sign of completion and the covenant (berit) between the Jewish nation and God.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim (“Guide to the Perplexed”) III:49, the Rambam further explains his view of circumcision from the standpoint of philosophical erudition. He states that, “One of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, to weaken the organ of procreation as much as possible, and thereby cause man to be moderate…The natural drive [for sexual fulfillment] retains its full power, but is guarded against excess.” In other words, the functional purpose of circumcision is to make it easier for Jewish men to make less use of their genitals’ sexual function.

The removal of the foreskin, beside its influence on sexual function, also has hygienic and practical daily ramifications. Uncircumcised males are often faced with the build-up of bacteria, discomfort, infections, and an extra need to touch or handle their members when urinating. All of this extra touching and the need for daily pre-occupation with and care for the sexual organ is obviated through the removal of the foreskin.

After the circumcision of a male, the surgical removal of the orlah, the usage of that organ is regulated by the wisdom and laws of the Torah related to sexual relationships. So it seems that the concept underlying the “circumcision” of trees and of Jewish males is the same: to lessen its overall usage and subject it to the laws of the Torah. For trees, years in which we can make use of their fruit are lessened and we are commanded to exercise complete restraint for the first four years. For males, their foreskins are circumcised, they enter into a time of complete sexual restraint, and then, once married, are directed to manage their drives and body in accordance with the regulations of the Torah.

“Circumcision” of the Heart?

Perhaps the imagery of circumcision makes sense when applied by the Torah to fruit trees, but what relevance could it have to one’s “heart”? In Devarim 10:16, the Torah commands us to,


וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד


“Circumcise the foreskin (orlah) of your hearts, and do not anymore stiffen your necks.”

In the Torah, the heart is seen as the seat of an individual’s emotional as well as intellectual activity. However, it requires development and training and is not naturally governed by principles or intellectual virtue. Without such training, the heart is essentially no different than that which is possessed by animals, operating on a level of reaction and instinct. So, what does this have to do with a “circumcision” of the heart?

In Bamidbar 15:39, we are warned,


וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם


“Do not turn aside after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you tend to go astray.”

The word usually translated “go astray” is zonim, which literally means “to prostitute oneself” or “to commit illicit sexual acts.” And herein lies the connection between one’s heart and circumcision.

Apparently, when we circumcise our hearts, we train ourselves to utilize it and be pre-occupied with it less, not more. It seems to me that the common conception of the Biblical phrase of “circumcising the heart” having the implication that we will have a greater and more intense use of our will and passions, may be mistaken. When one removes the orlah of their heart, they are effectively making it a subservient psychological organ with which they are not constantly pre-occupied. By virtue of being endowed with our rational capacity, signified by the tzelem elohim, we are supposed to be ruled by our intellects and not our passions.

Reflect on that for awhile.

Perhaps more later,

Kol tuv,


Women Covering Their Hair – A Mekori Perspective

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]


At the outset, I will admit that what I present here is my own understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim (כסוי ראש לנשים – lit. “headcovering for women”). As with nearly every topic of halakhah there are conclusions that disagree with my own, but when one speaks his own view he cannot be divided. Honest and sincere study demands that one arrive at an honest and sincere conclusion – as it says “a judge can only rule in accordance with what his eyes see.”

The subject of women covering their hair when in public has been, and continues to be, a topic of intense discussion among women and halakhists alike. Questions such as “Who is required to cover their hair?” “Where are they required to cover their hair?” “How much of their hair is required to be covered?” “What type of covering(s) may be used?” “What is the purpose of covering hair, modesty or some other consideration?” “Is it a matter of cultural practice or positively-enacted law?” still seem to beset many women who grapple with the practice of kisui rosh today. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that, although these are all important questions, many of them seem to elude an explicit explanation by Hazal. In fact, because the primary sources leave many of these points to the imagination, the few statements Hazal did make gave rise to a host of interpretations by the rishonim. What’s more, the actual text of the Gemara uses terminology that unfortunately caused some expositors – including the Rambam, the “Great Eagle” on whose wings many are carried out of the darkness of ignorance  – to turn an explicit statement of the Mishnah on its head, as will be discussed below, leading only to further confusion among later writers who referred to what he had written.

After much study and careful consideration, it is my firm belief that the explanation put forth by the late, innovative, and intrepid halakhist, Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974) cohesively explains all relevant texts and correctly contends that kisui rosh le-nashim is no longer a halakhic requirement in our times. At the conclusion of his famous responsum, Rav Messas writes that “there is much more that could be explained in detail regarding this matter, but the time is not currently available for me to do so.” As such, the majority of the analysis below is not included in Rav Messas’ original examination of the topic but is intended to serve as an appended explanation of the primary sources which time did not permit the holy sage in his lifetime to expound. However, before we discuss the conclusion, let us begin at the beginning.


The Mishnah – Dat Mosheh & Dat Yehudit

The entire subject begins with a short passage in the Mishnah (Ketubot 7:4):

אלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית איזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נידה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת איזו היא דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם

“These are the women that are divorced without their ketubah payment: one who transgresses a matter of dat Mosheh or [dat] yehudit. What is considered to be dat Mosheh? If she feeds her husband produce from which priestly portions and tithes have not been taken, if she has intercourse with him while she is a menstruant, if she does not separate the requisite portion of dough for the priests, or if she makes a vow and does not fulfill it. What is considered to be dat yehudit? If she goes out in public while her head is uncovered, if she spins thread in the open marketplace, or if she speaks flirtatiously with any man who will engage her.”

As is clear from the text, dat Mosheh refers to “religious practice” (the actual meaning of “dat – דת”) which is established by the laws of the Torah, and dat yehudit refers to the religious practices established by Jewish women and is explained in this way by various Rishonim:

i. Rambam states in Hilkhot Ishut 24:11: “ואיזו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל – What is dat yehudit? It is the custom of modesty that Jewish women practice.”

ii. Rashi defines it similarly: “שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע״ג דלא כתיבא – That which Jewish women practice even though it is not written explicitly in a Biblical verse.”

iii. Lastly, the Tosafot HaRid defines it as follows: “דבר שאין בו איסור אלא שהנשים נהגות בו דרך צניעות – Something which is not connected to an actual prohibition, but women practice it as a part of feminine modesty.”

What is most important to note at this point is that the Mishnah categorizes the uncovering of a woman’s hair in public (peru’at rosh – פרועת ראש) explicitly as dat yehudit and not in that of dat Mosheh.

Does the Gemara Disagree?

The attendant Gemara for the Mishnaic phrase “she goes out in public and her head is uncovered” is found in b.Ketubot 72a-b and is fairly brief, but its pithy and somewhat unclear phrasing has become the occasion for volumes of commentary since redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי״ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר׳ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי


“What is considered a violation of dat yehudit? If she goes out in public and her head is uncovered: An uncovered head is referred to in the Torah itself, as it is written, ‘And he uncovers the head of the woman’ (cf. Bamidbar 5:18). The school of Rebbi Yishma’el taught that it is a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out in public with their heads uncovered. [Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el*], ‘According to the Torah, a kalatah (קלתה) is permissible, but according to dat yehudit even a kalatah (קלתה) is forbidden.’ Rebbi Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘While wearing a kalatah (קלתה) she is not considered to have an uncovered head.’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty, ‘Where is this statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable? If we say that he referred to the open marketplace, then we already have a statement by Shemu’el that it is forbidden by dat yehudit, and if he is referring to a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband!** Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.’”

*represents the girsa of the Rif and other Rishonim

**i.e. since there is hardly a woman who covers her head while in her private courtyard

Upon reading the above Gemara, several important observations and questions immediately stand out:

  1. Nowhere in b.Ketubot 72a-b does it mention dat Mosheh, but only dat yehudit. In fact, the phrase dat Mosheh never appears in the Gemara of the entire tractate of Ketubot, whereas dat yehudit appears twice. The most natural assumption is that dat Mosheh is simply not under discussion here. (The use of the phrase de-oraita will be discussed in detail below.)
  2. A proper understanding of this Gemara depends on the identification of kalatah (קלתה). What is it?
  3. What does “according to the Torah” mean? Is it indicative of a law, or is it merely discussing the implications of the Scriptural passage in Bamidbar 5:18?
  4. Why does the Gemara lack a description of a proper headcovering? The passage never discusses materials, how much hair needs to be covered in each context, or what a covering is supposed to look like. Why wouldn’t Hazal simply explain what constitutes a proper headcovering, especially when matters of family life (i.e. divorce) are at stake?
  5. What is the meaning and scope of the word “uncovered” (פרוע)? What does it mean when the kohen “uncovers” (ופרע) the hair of the sotah?

The Meaning of “De-Oraita”

Twice in the above passage, the Gemara uses the Aramaic phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא), generally understood to mean the same as min-hatorah (מן התורה – “from the Torah,” i.e. a Biblical law), but it can also have other meanings. The Sedei Hemed (4:19) demonstrates that there are numerous instances where the term de-oraita indicates a concept that is either rabbinic in nature or that the law under discussion is hinted at in the Biblical text, using the passage as an asmakhta (“support” – i.e. a verse used as a mnemonic to remember a law, or to lend it Biblical credence, but not as the actual derivation of it). In his entry on the Aramaic term de-oraita, the Sedei Hemed writes as follows:

י״ט דאורייתא – מצינו דנאמר לשון זה על דבר שאינו מה״ת ור״ל שיש לו סמך באורייתא כ״כ מרן הב״י יו״ד רסי׳ קפ״ד ד״ה ובשעת וכו׳ במ״ש התוס׳ והרא״ש וסמ״ג דפרישה שסמוך לוסת דאורייתא עי״ש וכיוצא לזה כתב הר״ב הדרישה ביו״ד רס״י קפ״ג ע״ד מרן שכ׳ דין תורה וכו׳ עי״ש וכן מצינו שכתב מרן הב״י א״ח סימן תי״ח סוד״ה ויחיד דמ״ש בש״ס גבי ר״ח דאורייתא הוא  ר״ל שנרמז אסמכתא שלו בתורה עי״ש ועיין ש״ך ח״מ סי׳ כ״ח ס״ק י״ד דבין להרב מגילת אסתר בין להרמש״ך כי אמרינן בעלמא דאורייתא שלא בלשון תמיהא דאורייתא היא וכו׳ אפ״ל שהוא אסמכתא גם הרב עפרא דארעא ע״ד הרב ארעא דרבנן במ״ב אות קמ״ד כתב דמ״ש רש״י שבהרי״ף במס׳ ביצה דף ל״ז במקח וממכר בשבת הוא איסור דאורייתא לאו דוקא דהא ודאי אינו אלא מדרבנן ובמכתב לחזקיהו בחלק השיטה דף מ״ב ע״ב כ׳ בשם הרב מחזה אברהם שצדד לפרש מ״ש הרב רבנו יונה בפ״ג דברכות שהוא מן התורה דר״ל דנרמז בתורה ושסיים שזה דוחק וכ׳ ע״ז במכתב לחזקיהו דכיון דמבואר בדברי הרמב״ם שהוא מדבריהם תנוח דעתינו לפרש גם דברי הרר״י שיהיו  מוסמכים לסברת הרמב״ם עי״ש ויש סעד לזה דהא חזינן דרבנן קדישי הנז״ל ניחא להו בהני ועיין במה שכתבתי במערכת הבי״ת אות קט״ז (בד״ה ולכן) ובאות קי״ו וגבי מלאכה בחוה״מ דאורייתא יש מן הראשונים שפירשו דהכונה לומר שיש לה אסמכתא בדאורייתא עיין להרא״ם בס׳ יראים סי׳ קי״ג ובהג״מ פ״ז מהלכות יו״ט והרא״ש בריש מס׳ מ״ק ותוספות בחגיגה דף י״ח ד״ה חולו:

19: De-oraita (דאורייתא) – We find that this language is used to describe matters that are not min-hatorah, but only that the Gemara wants to say that it has a support in the Torah. This is what maran the Bet Yosef wrote in Yoreh Deah at the beginning of siman 184 (beginning with the words “And at the time…”) with respect to the rulings of the Tosafot, the Rosh, and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag) in regard to the mandatory sexual separation just prior to the expected onset of the menstrual cycle, as determined by a woman’s veset (וסת), being de-oraita (דאורייתא) – see there. Our blessed teacher, the Derishah, writes similarly in Yoreh Deah (at the beginning of siman 183) regarding the opinion of maran (the Tur) that such separation prior to menstruation is “a law of the Torah…” – see there. We also find that maran the Bet Yosef writes in Orah Hayim 418 – at the end of the section beginning with “And the individual…” – that what it says in the Gemara regarding rosh hodesh, i.e. that it is de-oraita (דאורייתא), is only the Gemara wanting to say that its asmakhta is only hinted at in the Torah – see there. And look at the Shakh in Hoshen Mishpat 28:14 where according to both the author of the commentary known as Megillat Ester and the Shakh himself, there is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that when it says that something is “de-oraita (דאורייתא),” and is not saying so while asking a question, then it is possible to interpret it as indicating an asmakhta. Also the Afra De-Ara, in commenting the opinion of the Ara De-Rabbanan in 42:144, writes that what Rashi wrote on the Rif in tractate Beitzah (folio 37) that when it states that conducting business on Shabbat is “a Biblical prohibition” (isur de-oraita איסור דאורייתא) it is not necessarily so since it is clearly only rabbinic in origin and the Scriptural verse only comes to strengthen it. In Helek HaShitah 42b, it states in the name of the Mehazeh Avraham that he takes the position on the meaning of what Rabbenu Yonah writes in the third chapter of Berakhot when he says that it is min-hatorah (“from the Torah”) that he wanted to say that it is hinted at in the Torah, not that it is actually a law of the Torah. And he concludes by admitting that this is a strained interpretation of Rabbenu Yonah, but that it is reasonable to appeal to this idea that “the Scriptural passage only comes to strengthen it,” since, being that it is explicit in the words of the Rambam that it is rabbinic in origin, we are comfortable in our opinion that the words of Rabbenu Yonah are in agreement with the reasoning of the Rambam – see there. And there is a further support for this in the fact that we observe that the holy masters mentioned above are also comfortable with this interpretation. And see what I have written in the second volume of this work in sections 115 (beginning with the words “And thus…”) and 116. Regarding what is stated in the Gemara about melakhah on holo shel mo’ed (b.Mo’ed Katan 11b) where it says, “The laws of avelut (‘mourning’) are rabbinic, melakhah on holo shel mo’ed is Biblical (de-oraita דאורייתא).” There are those among the rishonim that maintain that the intention of saying that it is de-oraita (דאורייתא) is to indicate that it has an asmakhta from what is written in the Torah, not that it is necessarily a Biblical law. See Rabbi Eli’ezer of Metz in the Sefer Yere’im #113, the Hagahot Maimoniyot on Hilkhot Yom Tov chapter 7, the Rosh at the beginning of tractate Mo’ed Katan, and the Tosafot on b.Hagigah 18, beginning with the words “The intermediate days…”

It is abundantly clear from the exposition of the Sedei Hemed that the term de-oraita (דאורייתא) does not always indicate a Biblical law, but often refers to a rabbinic law that has an allusion within the Biblical text. In my humble opinion, I believe that this is exactly how de-oraita (דאורייתא) in the b.Ketubot 72a-b is properly understood. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to coherently read it in any other fashion, given the explicit wording of the Mishnah. Apparently, I am not alone in this contention, as Rashi there writes in response to the opening assertion that “An uncovered head is de-oraita (דאורייתא)” that “…if this is so then why did the Mishnah not call it dat Mosheh?!?” (72a). In other words, if going out with an “uncovered head” is a prohibition that is Biblical in nature, then why didn’t the Mishnah list it under dat Mosheh instead of dat yehudit? Note this well, as it is very important.

We should hereby take notice of two things:

  1. The phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא) is equated to dat Mosheh (at least possibly) by Rashi (the Rambam and other rishonim incorrectly make this leap as well, as we will see).
  2. With the language of the Mishnah immediately available, it seems incredibly unlikely that the Gemara, if it desired to argue that covering the head was not dat yehudit, would not just simply say something like, “The Mishnah is incorrect. It is dat Mosheh”? Instead the Gemara uses the somewhat generic term “de-oraita (דאורייתא)” and makes not mention whatsoever of a supposed recategorization of what is stated in the Mishnah with regard to haircovering in public. Not only this, but as noted above, the Gemara readily uses the cognate term dat yehudit not once, but twice.

The Mysterious Kalatah

Much of the discussion around this passage of the Gemara hinges on the definition and identification of the word kalatah (קלתה), referred to three times. Rashi (72b) identifies it as a small basket used by women for carrying goods – mostly likely the Grecian work basket known as a callathus. The Rambam identifies it as a mitpahat (“kerchief” – cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:9), and other rishonim similarly identify it with some sort of cloth. This is most probably due to the reference of a “scarf” in the Tosefta being removed from the head of the sotah (see below), but this doesn’t necessarily make sense since the Gemara in Ketubot since it is not discussing the sotah ritual at all. What is the common thread driving these various identifications? It seems to be their relation of the Aramaic word kalatah to a Semitic root meaning “woven.”

There are several difficulties with these identifications, however, that occur to me:

  1. If it is a basket, then what does that have to do with the shaming of the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18? Does the kohen remove a basket from her head? Certainly not. Additionally, the Tosefta in t.Sotah 3:1 specificies that in those days the kohen removed a tza’ifah (צעיפה – a “scarf”) from the head of the sotah, not a kalatah.
  2. What are the descriptive parameters of such a basket, scarf (צעיפה), or kerchief (מטפחת)? If kalatah was meant to refer to any of them, then why did the Gemara not simply use those terms?
  3. Assuming the presence of a cloth or kerchief on the head in b.Ketubot 72a-b due to an implication drawn from the use of para’ during the sotah ritual, inevitably leads to the further assumption of other headgear (and perhaps even a series of garments, as will be shown) by logical extension. Other headgear is not mentioned by the Gemara, and adopting such a line of reasoning seems to be an overly-complicated solution to enlist in simply defining a single word.

Rabbi Ya’akov Reischer (1661-1733), in his responsa collection entitled Shevut Ya’akov (1:103), suggested the unique position, accepted by several major halakhists (including Rav Yosef Messas z”l), that kalatah (קלתה) means “braids” or “braiding.” He relates the Aramaic word kalatah (קלתה) to the Hebrew word keli’ot         (קליעות). This identification makes natural sense in the context of the sotah, since the Mishnah says in b.Sotah 7a that “ufara’ – and the kohen uncovers” means that “he undoes her hair” and Rashi explains that “undoing the hair” means “from its braids (מקליעתו) – as the Gemara will explain below” (see 8a).

It seems clear, then, that kalatah here is a reference to the woman’s hair while braided and/or tied upon her head, apparently even without a covering over the top of them (e.g. a scarf, hat, etc.). This understanding of the word kalatah is also maintained by the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, ca. 1635-1682), as is referenced in the teshuvah of Rav Messas z”l on this topic, referenced above in the introduction.


The Meaning of “An Uncovered Head”

It is seemingly taken for granted by many commentators that the meaning of word para’ (פרע) is “uncovered.” This, however, is not true – or, at least, not completely. What para’ clearly means – both in Biblical and Rabbinic usage – is “loose” or “unrestrained,” and has the connotation of hair that is uncovered and unkempt.

Here are examples of Biblical usage with regard to hair:

  1. Vayikra 21:10 – The kohen gadol is not allowed to grow his hair “long” (and unkempt).
  2. Bamidbar 6:5 – The hair of the nazir is supposed to “grow wild” throughout the nazarite vow.
  3. Devarim 32:42 – Enemies described as having “long/wild hair.”
  4. Yehezkel 44:20 – The kohanim not allowed to either shave or let their hair grow “long/wild” (i.e. unkempt).

Examples of para’ not in reference to hair:

  1. Shemot 32:25 – Mosheh saw that the people had “gone wild” or “become unrestrained” during the worship of the golden calf.
  2. Mishlei 29:18 – Without prophecy, the nation is “unrestrained,” “loose,” or “disorganized.”

In rabbinic usage, the meaning of “loose,” “unrestrained,” “unkempt” is also maintained. Tractate Ketubot (15b, in the Mishnah there) discusses a virgin bride on her wedding day leaving her special canopy on the way to the huppah while “her head is ‘uncovered’” (roshah parua’ – ראשה פרוע), signifying that this is her first marriage. Both Rashi and the Tosafot HaRid explain that this means that her hair is loose and “upon her shoulders.” They further explain that this is the custom of how a virgin bride wears her hair when she is escorted from the house of her father to the house of her new husband.

Rashi makes a blanket statement in b.Sotah 8a regarding the word para’ (פרע), which would seem to contradict a simple reading of “loose.” He says:

ופרע: בכל מקום לשון גילוי הוא

And he loosens: In every place it is the language of revealing.”

This is somewhat of an odd statement by Rashi, especially in light of his other explicit statements about the meaning of Bamidbar 5:18 to the effect that para’ means “to loosen hair from its braids.” It seems clear, however, that para’ in the context of the sotah ritual implies the entire act of removing the covering from the head, revealing the hair underneath, and then proceeding to dishevel it so it rests loosely across the shoulders.

Putting It All Together

With the language of the Torah and the Gemara clarified, it is now possible to suggest a more cohesive reading of the Talmudic text. What I suggest is as follows:

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי״ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר׳ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי


“What is considered a violation of dat yehudit? If she goes out in public and her hair is loose and upon her shoulders: The idea that it is shameful for a woman to have her hair loose and on her shoulders is alluded to by the Torah, as it is written, ‘and the kohen shall loosen the woman’s hair from its braids and let it rest upon her shoulders.’ And the School of Rebbi Yishmael taught that this passage is a warning to the daughters of Israel (i.e. Jewish women) not to go out in public with their hair loosened and unkempt. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el, ‘From the simple implication of the Torah, having her hair up and braided while in public is permissible, but according to the custom of Jewish women even hair while braided is forbidden to be worn in public (i.e. the braids need to be covered as well with some sort of hat or kerchief).’ Rav Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘While her hair is braided, we do not consider a woman to have infringed on the prohibition of having her hair loose (i.e. she cannot be divorced without her ketubah as described in the Mishnah).’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty with this statement, ‘Where is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable? If we say that he meant in the open marketplace, then we already have a statement by Shemu’el that it is forbidden by the custom of Jewish women, and if he is referring to a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband (i.e. since there is hardly a woman who worries about her hair while in her private courtyard)! Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.’”

According to the Gemara, nothing – not a covering and not braids – is required either within a house or a private courtyard. Braided hair – as opposed to it being down and loose upon the shoulders – is acceptable when briefly going between private spaces via a semi-public thoroughfare. Another covering, presumably a scarf or a hat, is required by standards of modesty practiced by Jewish women in the times of the Gemara. Although no such garment is specifically mentioned by the Gemara, it seems reasonable that Hazal assumed that the hair coverings used in each community by women – a practice that was nearly universal in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa – would suffice to fulfill dat yehudit and thus did not require any sort of explicit mention or description.

This interpretation makes much more sense and requires the least amount of innovation an assumption on the part of the reader. It also leaves the entire concern of kisui rosh le-nashim under the rubric of dat yehudit, which is exactly where it is placed by the Mishnah.

I will now examine the parallel section of the Talmud Yerushalmi and consider the opinion of the Rambam, as codified in the Mishneh Torah.


The Talmud Yerushalmi

The text of the Talmud Yerushalmi is often terse, using language and terminology which is largely unfamiliar to the student of the Bavli – and this case is no exception. This is not to say, as is unfortunately commonly the case among halakhists, that it should be disregarded or that it is somehow not useful as a halakhic source (halilah). To the contrary, the Talmud Yerushalmi is extremely valuable source and very important for many reasons. However, due to it being less-developed and less-studied throughout the centuries following its redaction, it often offers us less in the way of explanation than does the Bavli (and in some cases no explanation at all) – but this is certainly not always the case. So, for the sake of being thorough and in order to properly honor the hakhamim of Eretz Yisra’el, what follows is a brief examination of y.Ketuvot 7:6, which contains the following passage:

וראשה פרוע לחצר אמרו ק”ו למבוי רבי חייה בשם רבי יוחנן היוצאה בקפלטין שלה אין בה משום ראשה פרוע הדא דתימא לחצר אבל למבוי יש בה משום יוצאה וראשה פרוע יש חצר שהוא כמבוי ויש מבוי שהוא כחצר חצר שהרבים בוקעין בתוכה הרי הוא כמבוי ומבוי שאין הרבים בוקעין בתוכו הרי הוא כחצר:

“…and her hair is loose – This was spoken in reference to a woman being within a private courtyard, so all the more so (קל וחומר) should this be the case in an alleyway. Rebbi Hiyyah said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘The woman who goes out with her kaflatin (קפלטין), we do not considered to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public (i.e. she cannot be divorced without her ketubah payment because of this).’ This is what you say with regard to a private courtyard, but in an alleyway we do consider a woman to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public (i.e. even while wearing her kaflatin). There is a courtyard that is analogous to an alleyway – a courtyard into which the public traffic breaks. And behold there is an alleyway into which the traffic of the public does not break and it is analogous to a courtyard.”

Some differences – and possible similarities – with the corresponding section of the Talmud Bavli are as follows:

  1. Whereas the Bavli uses the word kalatah, the Yerushalmi uses another word altogether: kaflatin, a word that may possibly be in the plural. Both the Penei Mosheh and the Korban Eidah explain kaflatin (קפלטין) using the word mitpahat (מטפחת) and the Arukh brings an opinion that it is Latin for hanging curls of hair and a pe’ah nokhrit (פאה נכרית) which, according to some opinions, refers to a wig. The Me’iri, in his Bet HaBehirah on b.Ketubot 72a equates kaflatin (קפלטין) with the kalatah of the Bavli, which he views as being a kerchief (mitpahat מטפחת).
  2. Rebbi Yohanan, if we assume that this is the same statement as the one attributed to him in the Bavli, is understood here as explaining the law for a courtyard, whereas in b.Ketubot 72a-b it is determined that he is giving the law for briefly passing between courtyards via a semi-private alley.
  3. Perhaps the most obvious difference from the Bavli is that the Yerushalmi does not build its case from the parashah involving the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18. In fact, it makes no reference to it at all.
  4. The passage in the Yerushalmi ends by stipulating that the status of either a courtyard or an alleyway is subject to change on a case-by-case basis, depending of the amount of public traffic each receives. The Bavli makes no such stipulations.

Tzarikh Iyyun. (The matter needs further investigation.)

The View of the Rambam

Due to the historical centrality of the Mishneh Torah to halakhah, and due to the fact that many later halakhists and posekim have been influenced by the Rambam in their understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim, I will now examine his view.

Completely elucidating the opinion of the Rambam with regard to the issue of kisui rosh le-nashim, dat Mosheh, and dat yehudit is not the most difficult task at hand, however, as he clearly states his understanding of the halakhah in plain language. The most difficult task in regard to the Rambam is ascertaining how he arrives at his particular position from the text of the Talmud.

There is neither need nor space here to go through every detail that inherent in the view of the Rambam – which would be a major undertaking all by itself – but there are two main points I would like to address here which are directly relevant to this investigation:

  1. First, but not entirely relevant to the main point of our discussion here, is that in the Mishneh Torah, “dat Mosheh” does not only refer to things which are necessarily min-hatorah, but also includes things which are rabbinic in nature (as the Rambam highlights in Hilkhot Ishut 24), yet they are nevertheless thought by the Rambam to be based on actual directives of the Torah itself. This ambiguity as to the definition of dat Mosheh – i.e. that is not an exclusive reference to either Biblical or Rabbinic laws, but is used by the Rambam to designate both – is perhaps the central reason for the difficulties present in the Rambam’s expressed perspective vis-à-vis the text of the Gemara in b.Ketubot 72a-b.
  2. Second, and most important to our discussion, is that while the Mishnah clearly lists “going out with an uncovered head” in the category of dat yehudit, the Rambam lists it under dat Mosheh (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9), creating an entirely different category for what constitutes a violation of dat yehudit, namely going out without a full-body cloak, known as a radid (רדיד) which is analogous to the khimaar (خمار) or abaayah (عباية) worn by Muslim women (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:13; 24:11 and Shir HaShirim 5:7). The Rambam’s understanding of dat Mosheh is based on his own perception of a requirement in the Torah for women to wear a headscarf called a mitpahat (מטפחת – cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). From this, it becomes clear that the Rambam relates dat Mosheh and dath yehudit to two different garments, each increasing in their level of coverage, respectively. But his derivation does not stop there since, as we will see shortly, the Rambam assumes the presence of yet a third garment.

It is my firm contention, and I am not alone in this reading of the Rambam, that he reads articles of women’s clothing into the text of the Gemara, garments commonly worn by women in the Arab-Muslim world in which he resided. The section of the Mishneh Torah that bears this out most clearly is in Hilkhot Sotah 3:5, where he describes the shaming of the suspected adulteress as follows:

וכל איש שיחפוץ לבוא ולראותה יבוא ויראה והיא עומדת ביניהן בלא רדיד ולא מטפחת אלא בבגדיה וכופח שעל ראשה כמו שהאישה בתוך ביתה

“…and any man who so desires to come and see her comes and sees her, and she stands among them without a full-body cloak, without a headscarf – nothing except for her clothes and the cap which is upon her head, just as a woman is dressed while within her house.”

Neither the full-body cloak nor the cap are legislated anywhere in the Gemara as necessary attire for Jewish women. These garments do, however, directly correspond to Islamic attire in the 12th century. Only the headscarf mentioned by the Rambam has any basis in the Talmud, and this is only the case when one equates the kalatah or kaflatin of Hazal to a mitpahat.

The following two tables show the series of Islamic garments assumed by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, and their relationship to the text of the Gemara:

Table 1.1

Headcoverings in the Mishneh Torah as Postulated by the Rambam


(dat yehudit)

Courtyard/Semi-Public Alleyway

(dat Mosheh)


(inside the house)

Full-body Cloak (רדיד)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Cap (כופח) Cap (כופח)

Cap (כופח)


Full-body Cloak (רדיד) – Hilkhot Ishut 13:13, 24:11

Headscarf (מטפחת) – Hilkhot Ishut 24:9

Cap (כופח) – Hilkhot Ishut 13:1; Hilkhot Sotah 3:5

Table 1.2

Headcoverings – Rambam vis-à-vis Gemara

Full-body Cloak (רדיד) Not mentioned
Headscarf (מטפחת) = kalatah (קלתה)?
Cap (כופח) Not mentioned

The assertion that the Rambam assumed Arab norms of dress and modesty, reading it back into his understanding of the Gemara, is incontrovertible. The kupah (כופח), a small “cap” similar to what many Arab-Muslim women wear under their hijaab (حجاب), is mentioned by the Rambam as part of the kesut (“clothing”) that a husband owes his wife according to halakhah (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:1), yet, as was mentioned previously, no reference to this garment or the full-body cloak (radid רדיד), however, exists in the words of Hazal.

As an aside, it would seem that is incumbent on ardent “Rambamists” to deal with this reality. To be intellectually honest, they must admit that the construct – as presented in the Mishneh Torah and displayed in the tables above – is derived independently of Talmudic law and only alludes to it in a cursory manner, if at all. All of this is said, of course, with only the greatest respect and honor for the Nesher HaGadol, Rav Mosheh ben Maimon z”l.

Practical Summary

In response to the questions posed in the introduction:

Where were Jewish women required to cover their hair in the times of the Gemara?

In the times of the Gemara, when it was the standard “custom of Jewish women,” they were only required to cover their hair in the public sphere (“the marketplace”) and partially – or perhaps just braided and not covered – in a semi-public place (“an alleyway”). And these places, if frequented by the public may also be places where it is required for a woman to cover their hair (Yerushalmi).

What type of covering is required?

A type of covering required to be worn on a woman’s head is never specified by Hazal. Apparently there is a partial type of covering (or, again, more likely not a covering but a woman’s hair being braided), a mysterious object referred to as a kalatah. The required size, material, shape, etc., however, is never mentioned for the kalatah.

How much hair needs to be covered – every single hair, most of it, part of it?

The amount of hair required to be covered is never explicitly discussed in either the Mishnah and the Talmud.

What is the purpose for covering the hair according to the halakhah?

The purpose for covering the hair was for modesty and propriety because it was “the practice of Jewish women.” Rabbi Yishma’el only says that the pasuk in the Torah referring to the hair of the sotah is only a “warning” (אזהרה – azharah), not an actual law. Neither the Sanhedrin nor any other bet din ever ruled on this. The courts only upheld the common practice of women, just as they upheld common practices when it came to hiring day-laborers and other halakhic matters tied to the cultural context of a particular place and time.

The reason that Jewish women covered their hair in the ancient world was because it was the custom of women in nearly every culture in those times to do so. This is the reason why it was not necessary to make it a law in the Torah or for Hazal to make it a formal ruling. Since the Torah only mentioned it without making it a law, Hazal did not feel it was necessary to legislate every detail of feminine modesty, but only to enforce the sentiments of propriety for married women in that time. Since the cultural sentiment of modesty at that time included women covering their hair while in public, and that not doing so was considered shameful and lewd, Hazal entitled a husband at that time to divorce his wife, should she carry herself that way in public, because it was socially embarrassing. This would also have also been the case, according to the Mishnah, for women who carried on conversations with men who were not their relatives, but today since women and men talk normally in public, no bet din would grant a divorce without a ketubah payment for this reason.

Other things we know:

  1. The covering of hair by women is specifically listed by Hazal under the category of “custom” and not “law,” the Mishnah explicitly calling it dat yehudit and not dat Mosheh. Placing it under “dat Mosheh” is a misreading of the Gemara by the Rambam (and those who followed him in his error) which was apparently motivated by Islamic cultural norms.
  2. We also know that covering the hair can no longer be considered “the custom of Jewish women” today. Nothing proves this more than the widespread custom of Haredi women to wear wigs in order to “cover” their hair. There is no difference, in either reality or halakhah, between a woman’s hair and a wig. (Important note: a pe’ah nokhrit is not a sheitel, and notice that the Gemara in doesn’t mention one either – cf. Gra, Shenot Eliyahu on Shabbat 6:5). The only fact that the widespread use of sheitels has proven is that even the most stringent sectors of orthodox Jewry have no social objection to women wearing a fashionable yet modest hairstyle in public.

Who is required to cover their hair today?

In reality, no one. As mentioned in the introduction, Rav Yosef Messas z”l has written an unassailable defense of women no longer being required to cover their hair in modern times. A full English translation of his teshuvah is appended to this essay. In it he explains that since covering the hair was merely a custom of Jewish women which was tied to the broader context of feminine modesty in that time and place, and since the societal norms have changed, the halakhah has also changed in this matter – uprooting and nullifying the previous practice.

Final Thoughts

A great deal more could be written on this subject from the standpoint of halakhah, but perhaps more important is the overarching religious philosophy connected to it. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and what is the reality before us? These are central questions that demand a cogent and coherent answer.

When women today are asked why they cover their hair, they usually respond that it has little or nothing to do with actual “tznius” (modesty). When asked how wearing a wig – or even covering their hair in the first place – makes them more modest than the next woman who doesn’t, many women will respond that they don’t think that a woman with uncovered hair is acting less modestly at all. Instead,  out of a human need to have one’s deeds be meaningful, they propose new definitions of modesty, such as “modesty does not mean being unattractive or hiding beauty” which of course cannot be true as this is exactly what the concept of modesty was in the ancient world, and to a certain extent it still is. In fact, the word for “modesty” (צניעות) comes from a root meaning “hidden” or “to hide.” Other times, women will express how covering their hair is a personal choice that helps remind them of their “submission to God.” This certainly a nice and meaningful idea, but really has no source in Hazal. Lastly, and this is especially true when discussing wigs, women often give kabbalistic reasons why they cover their hair such that it guards their husband and children from calamity or poverty. All of this serves to highlight the astuteness of Rav Messas’ observation that the status of women’s hair in our modern world has completely changed from how it was viewed socially in previous eras and in ancient times. Because it is not seen as anything other than a personal religious choice, and one which no longer contains any real moral value (only social implications), new reasons for continuing the practice of covering the hair in public were to be sought out.

The next question should be: What is the goal given that this is the reality before us? Is the ultimate goal a recreation of the past? Is it to re-invent the original rationale behind Jewish practices? Is it to somehow pretend that cultural norms in this area haven’t changed? As I have said before, other than examining the halakhah honestly, which is the duty of Jews for any given topic of Jewish law and tradition, I do not believe that women’s modesty really even needs to be on the halakhic docket. The reason I say this is that never in my life have I met an honestly religious woman who was not generally modest in either deportment or attire. Women already have an innate sense of propriety within moral cultures and so there seems to be little need for Jewish men to worry about it. Perhaps this is why the Sanhedrin never formally ruled on this matter, but simply chose to uphold “the custom of Jewish women.”

With sincerity of heart according to what my eyes have seen,

Yehudah Barukh Ilan

To Kippah or Not to Kippah – A Meqori Question

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

While learning with my son through the Qissur Shulhan Arukh – Hazon Ovadyah, we came upon a curious passage regarding the [supposed] modern meaning of kippoth. Now, to be sure, we do not learn the Qissur Shulhan Arukh as halakhah le-ma’aseh, but primarily as a guide for discussing halakhah, as some of the time what it puts forth as law is actually latter-day custom and ritual which one may either take or leave. However, since Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l was overwhelmingly driven by the sources and by iqqar diyn in his halakhic approach, this particular edition usually does a fine job of spelling out the basics.

In the section of Orah Hayyim, Hilkhoth Hanhaghath Adham Ba-Boqer (siman alef – siman zaan), I encountered the following statement:


גילוי הראש לאנשים אינו אסור מן הדין ואין בזה משום בחוקותיהם לא תלכו אלא מידת חסידות היא לכסות את ראשו אולם בזמנינו שהחופשיים הולכים ברשות הרבים בגילוי הראש אדם שהוא דתי עליו להזהר במשנה זהירות לכסות ראשו תמיד שיש בזה יותר ממידת חסידות כי הכיפה שעל ראשו היא לסמל ולמופת שמעידה עליו שהוא דתי


“Bareheadedness (giluy ha-rosh) for men is not halakhically prohibited, and there is no relationship between not covering one’s head and the Torah prohibition of ‘you shall not walk in their statutes’ (cf. Wayyiqra 18:3). Rather, it is noted [in the sources] as a practice of the exceptionally pious (middath hasiydhuth). However, in our times where secular people walk around in public bareheaded, it is incumbent upon a religious man to be careful in following the advice of the Mishnah that advises one to cover their head always because there is something more in covering the head than just an exceptionally pious practice, for the kippah upon his head is a symbol and a sign that testifies concerning him that he is [properly] religious…”

Upon reading this, my son and I were both struck with the vast assumption that the final line was making and how, for the most part, it was simply untrue. The kippoth on many people we have encountered in the religious Jewish world are simply not a “symbol and a sign” that they were religious. It seems that in many cases the kippah on the heads of “frum” Jews “testifies” about them, but this testimony is nothing more than `eduth sheqer. With so much blatant dissonance between perceived values and the significance attached to kippoth, I think it is an important question to ask what actual purpose they serve.

In our times, far from being an assurance of actual piety, the kippah has become little more than a sectarian I.D. badge. And I would further contend that, because the Haredi-Hasidic world has decided to focus so much on external modes of dress while allowing spiritual and moral bankruptcy among many of their members, the kippah has essentially become meaningless as an indication of yirath shamayim and instead serves in most cases to project false piety. So it behooves us, in my opinion, to ask the fundamental questions of who, when, where, why, and how Jewish men are supposed to cover their heads after it has been clarified whether Jewish men are even required to cover their heads at all. And, as with most halakhic discussions on this site, we will begin with the statements of Hazal.

Passages from the Gemara


A Jordanian Arab wearing a keffiyeh, a garment essentially identical to the sudra/sudar mentioned in the Gemara.

Masekheth Berakhoth 60b – Gives the nosah for the berakhah of “spreading one’s sudar upon his head” as “oter yisra’el be-thif’arah – who crowns each Jew with beauty.” The nosah found in the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon, however, is “‘otef yisra’el be-thif’arah – who wraps each Jew with beauty” and he instructs that the berakhah should be said upon donning a [main; outer] garment that is exempt from ssissiyoth (Siddur Rasag, p.89). A sudar that is not too large may be such a garment (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Ssiyssiyth 3:1). Giving the text of a blessing without an explicit directive to wear a particular garment carries with it the strong implication of “if” a person chooses to wear such a garment, then they must pronounce the appropriate blessing, but if they choose not to, then they [obviously] do not need to do so. However, there is nothing in this Gemara that would suggest that it is required for Jewish men to wear a head covering.

Masekheth Shabbath 118b – Among various hakhamiym stating why they felt that they merited to greater spiritual reward(s), Rav Huna is recorded as saying that his reward will be due to the fact that in his life he never walked even the distance of four cubits with a bare head (giluy ha-rosh). This, too, does not mandate that Jewish men cover their head, and it shows that Rav Huna’s practice was a matter of personal piety, not a universal law.

Masekheth Shabbath 156b – Perhaps the central reference to covering the head within the talmudhiym, in this passage astrologers are said to have informed the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yisshaq that he is destined to become a thief. Because of this his mother famously told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and request [Divine] mercy.” The Gemara says that Rav Nahman was unaware of the reason for her instructions (apparently she did not tell him about the astrologers) and that one day while sitting bareheaded under a fig tree belonging to someone else he was so overcome by temptation that he climbed the tree and began eating a cluster of figs using just his mouth. This passage does not address the covering of the head being required, in fact it indicates again that most Jewish men did not cover their heads. However, doing so – when coupled with prayer – can be a tool for personal development and mussar.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 29b – Rav Hisda is praising the person of Rav Hamnuna, his friend, to Rav Huna. Rav Huna says that when Rav Hamnuna visits he would like to meet him. Upon his arrival, Rav Huna noticed that Rav Hamnuna did not wear a sudar and when he asked him why he didn’t cover his head, Rav Hamnuna responded that the reason was because he was not yet married. Rav Huna is then said to have turned away from him, telling him not to appear before him again until he was married. This Gemara indicates two things: [1] that in some parts of the Jewish world in the times of the Amora’iym men did not cover their heads at all until they were married and [2] that appearing before hakhamiym with an uncovered head was considered disrespectful in the opinion of some, but not all.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 31a – As mentioned in Masekheth Shabbath, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, is said to have not walked even the distance of four cubits because he stated that he believed that the Shekhinah (the “presence” of God; a created light sometimes accompanied by other physical phenomena to indicate holiness and/or blessing – NOT a manifestation of the Divine itself) resided just above his head and he wanted to be reverent. Again, no directive for all Jewish men to cover their heads.

There are other instances in the talmudh where kisuy ha-rosh (“covering of the head”) is mentioned in passing, but these are the main ones that are generally referenced by the literature. And, as is clearly seen, no universal directive for Jewish men to cover their heads exists as a matter of law.

The Opinion of the Rambam

The Rambam essentially codifies the sentiments expressed in the above sections of Gemara and relates them to the practices of the talmidhey ha-hakhamiym in which they engage due to their exalted status in Jewish society (cf. Hilkhoth De’oth 5:10[6]). In the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:52), he relates similarly to covering the head, again calling it the practice of Torah scholars, but also noting that – metaphysically – it is a recognition that the Shekhinah hovers just above the head of a person. His reference there is specifically to the spiritually elite who are on a high level of personal piety.

There is one place in the Mishneh Torah where the Rambam requires that the head be covered – during tefiyllah and especially as shaliyah ssibbur (cf. Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 5:5). This requirement is based on the explicit directive in this regard in the minor tractate Masekheth Soferiym (14:15). However, the Rambam is not referring to a kippah, but rather the covering of one’s head with a talliyth gadhol.

The opinion expressed by the Rambam is generally considered as normative across the board, encompassing the views of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi rishoniym.

The Opinion of the Taz

The Turey Zahav (pop. “Taz” – Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, c. 1586-1667) was a Polish rabbi whose commentary on the Shulhan `Arukh by the same name is one of the central works reprinted since the 17th Century. Segal was likely an admirer and believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo wa-zikhro), although he passed away before the entirety of his pseudo-messianic charade came to light.

In his comments on Orah Hayyim 8:3, the Taz states that it is forbidden halakhically to uncover one’s head – even for a moment. His reasoning is that being bareheaded is, in his view, an explicit practice of the non-Jewish nations and their cultures, being therefore a violation of Wayyiqra 18:3, which says, “be-huqqotheyhem lo telekhu – in their statues you shall not walk.” Although Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l rules based on the strict opinion of the Taz that one should do their best to keep their head covered whenever possible (cf. Iggeroth Mosheh, Orah Hayyim 1:1), most authorities – including Rav Feinstein himself – reject the position of the Taz and instead maintain that wearing a kippah is a matter of custom, not law, and that covering the head in general is a middath hasiydhuth for men and is not a halakhic requirement.

The Coup de Gr”a

Perhaps the most famous opinion on the matter is that expressed by the Gaon of Vilna (pop. “Gra” – Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797). After examining all of the aforementioned passages and opinions, the Gr”a states emphatically that there is never a halakhic requirement for any Jewish man to cover his head, even while praying. His conclusion (as found in Biur HaGr”a, Orah Hayyim 8:6) is as follows:


Biur HaGra OH 8-6 A

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 B


“The fundamental principle of the matter is that there is not a prohibition at all to have an uncovered at any time. Only in front of great Torah scholars and also during prayer is it the astute thing to do from the standpoint of proper character development (mussar). And the rest of the day [i.e. outside of prayer and standing before Torah scholars] is only for those holy ones who stand continually before HaShem.”

The last line is meant as a reference to those who, of their own personal piety, decide to cover their heads continually in imitation of those hakhamiym of the Gemara who were said to have done likewise. But the reiteration of the sources by the Gr”a, and his exposition of them, is generally taken as iqqar ha-diyn, as was initially stated above by Qissur Shulhan Arukh of Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l.

What to do?

Let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting that anyone change their current practice. I am not on a campaign to have anyone remove their kippah. However, what I am certainly suggesting is that we see kippoth for what they are – a Jewish custom that is both expedient and astute in certain religious and social contexts, but also possessing the potential (under the current general mindset) to deceive. Therefore, kippoth are not “meaningless” as a symbol of Jewish identity in and of themselves, but they are “meaningless” as a tool for one Jew judging another.

I was once learning with a close friend of mine – who softly identifies as “Haredi” – and in the course of our discussion, the subject of wearing a kippah came up. My friend related that his rav, a prominent Haredi-Hasidic rabbi under whom he learned in yeshivah for years, once stated emphatically that if a Jew does not wear a kippah in public, then he may be assumed to be a qal (“a lightweight,” i.e. someone who is lax in their observance of the Torah and halakhah; in other words, such a person cannot be trusted with kashruth or other religious duties). I was taken aback. “Just like that?” I said, “Without any halakhic basis or personal knowledge of the individual?!” My friend almost immediately realized how harsh and potentially damaging a statement that was and started to try and find a justification for it. I told him that his rav had no right to classify good Jews as sinners without sound halakhic basis for doing so. I further told him that if his rav truly upheld such a position, then ironically it was he himself that was the “qal.” To treat someone as a sinner when they are not – or for a contrived reason not based in halakhah – is the classic definition of siynath hiynam, or “baseless hatred.”

There is a fear, I think, that if rabbis assert the actual laws regarding kippoth and headcovering in general that people will become even more assimilated into non-Jewish culture and eventually leave Judaism as a result. I have seen many great rabbaniym, including Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a, assert that today “it is different” and that we are now obligated by popular [Haredi-Hasidic] custom to cover our heads, especially when making a berakhah or mention a Divine Name, even though no such halakhic obligation exists. But this begs the question that if not wearing a kippah was somehow some sort of a fast track into apostasy, why didn’t either Hazal, the Geoniym, or the Rishoniym address it? With all of the persecutions and the outright practices of idolatry by the non-Jewish nations around them which historically led to assimilation and apostasy among Jews, yet never was there a decree by Hazal made that Jewish men need to cover their heads in order to solve the problem. And if they did not see it as a solution, then why should we?

The fear is that as secularism encroaches daily upon our faith and our morality, we need every bit of sanctity and personal piety that we can get as religious Jews. Ergo, so this line of thinking goes, giving orthodox Jews the room to choose whether they will wear a kippah or not puts us in danger of losing spiritual ground.  We must make a para-halakhic decree and force everyone to abide by it! In my humble view this is a mistaken philosophy. Not mistaken as in a misunderstanding of the sources, has wa-shalom, but rather a misunderstanding of social reality. As noted above, the orthodox world has unfortunately developed into a situation where dress, not (or, at least more than) deeds or manners, dictate one’s level of devotion to Judaism, and where the presence of a kippah – or lack thereof – can determine how someone will be treated and how their family will be treated. Even the mere color or style of a kippah leads others to make grotesque personal judgments – all completely divorced from an actual examination of moral character. Le-`aniyuth da’ati, it would serve the spirituality and moral atmosphere of Kelal Yisra’el if such empty, external, and ultimately baseless ways of relating to fellow Jews were discouraged, not reinforced. Not placing so much ill-founded emphasis on the wearing of a kippah would eventually force orthodox Jews to relate to actually relate to the person and not their choice of hat.

A Possible Way Forward?

I think that if a significant number of orthodox Jews returned to the practice of carrying a kippah with them to wear at times of prayer, religious ceremonies, or for showing respect to prominent Torah scholars – while all other times being without one – it would eventually cause the Jewish world to be forced to redefine their values. A person who is meticulously shomer shabbath, is careful with kashruth, and in all other ways follows halakhah, yet does not usually wear a kippah while in public might be a moral force to be reckoned with. Perhaps.

So, “to kippah or not to kippah?” is a meqori question – with an answer that definitely comes out on the side of not needing to wear one, but the social impact such a decision makes is potentially complicated and someone who chooses to take that option should think carefully about this.

More later,

Kol tuv,


Becoming Mekori – What It Isn’t

Being mekori does not mean joining a new Jewish sect. There is no such thing as “Mekori Judaism” or “Mekori Halakhah” per se. Mekoriut is not a sect or an “ism” and there are no charters, manifestos, or statements of faith attached to it. In fact, it is not a list of beliefs that one ascribes to, nor is it really a label at all. However, the terms mekori and mekoriut definitely do describe something. So, what is it?

The terms “mekori” and “mekoriut” are collective terms used to describe a social and religious phenomenon within the Jewish world. Perhaps it could also be described as a trend – a trend of returning to the texts of Hazal and their direct expositors in a search for simplicity, truth, and authenticity in halakhah and hashkafah. This phenomenon is most often a reaction to the overwhelming Euro-centrism that has come to stereotype orthodox Judaism along with the superstitious, dogmatic, and authoritarian approach that comes with it.

This return is largely taking the form of baalei teshuvah and gerim accepting upon themselves the ways of Sefardic and Yemenite Jewry – both of which tend to be more reasonable and markedly authentic [read, closer to the plain meaning of the Talmudic texts] in their determinations of halakhah. However, I am also aware of Ashkenazi/Haredi families that, being burned-out with excessive humrot and halakhic additions (many of which cause not only emotional strife, but financial strain), have begun to privately practice the simple halakhot of Hazal and the Rishonim in areas of shemirut shabbat, taharat ha-mishpahah, and kashrut. The Jewish populace is beginning to demand that their leadership be reasonable, and due to the fact that the Haredi/Hasidic world demands years of constant exposure to learning Jewish sources, they are unable to keep their adherents from accessing the information directly in the event that they desire to examine things for themselves. This dynamic often upsets their division of clergy versus laity, so they engage in shaming and scare tactics in effort to elicit obedience, but many are starting to see through the insecurity inherent in this approach.

There is also less and less tolerance for the [near obsessive] force of “minhag” in the orthodox world, especially when it is used by Haredi/Hasidic leaders to simply blot out, brush aside, or overturn clear halakhot that are recorded in the sources and were handed down to us by Hazal and their expositors. Religious Jews are beginning to tire of re-enacting the less-than-ideal conditions of Poland and the Ukraine when the actual observance of the halakhah as formulated in the Mishnah and Gemara is entirely within their grasp. Attendant to this is that a growing number of Jews want their religion to make sense and to be in step with reality, rather than the superstitious dissonance that the Haredi/Hasidic world often demands of its adherents.

Mekori” and “mekoriut” are not particularlistic terms meant to further divide, instead they are broad terms intended to unite. Just as “martial arts” collectively refers to any and every fighting style irrespective of national origin, or “Arabic” collectively refers to a variety of standard and dialectal forms of the language, or “phone” collectively refers to everything from a rotary to a smartphone, so also do “mekori” and “mekoriut” collectively refer to the scholars, halakhic decisions, modes of Jewish practice, and methodologies that share these trends in common. The inclusion of all mekori streams of halakhic Judaism under one umbrella is also not intended to create something distinct from the rest of Jewry, rather it is meant to engender teamwork and community around something unique that we desire to share with the Jewish world.

I believe that mekoriut is a major key to positive change within Judaism – only good can come from trying to be more faithful to Hazal and their wise direction – but it will be a tool for destruction if it becomes just another way to break off from the rest of the Jewish world and condemn them (has ve-shalom). This is also true of each movement or stream of mekori Judaism that decides that they alone have something to offer to the Jewish future – a “messiah” complex, so to speak. Throughout our history such sectarian neuroses have only led to Jewish deaths. This potential for destruction is even true of the Torah itself, as it says in the name of Rava, “…if you are a workman for [the Torah] then it is an elixir of life, but if you are not a workman with [the Torah] then it is an elixir of death” (cf. b.Yoma 72b – see also Rabbenu Hananel there). We have to be workmen on behalf of Torah values, not workmen on behalf of ourselves.

So, no sects, no groups, no “isms” – just Torah and authentic halakhah for all Jews. That is the vision and that is the phenomenon we see gaining momentum in orthodox Judaism today.

“Let’s Talk About It!” – The Baseless Hatred of Clothing – Part III

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

Now that we have discussed the legal and historical background of “Jewish” clothing in general, and Haredi-Hasidic garb in particular, I would like to give my proposals for possible change. But what is it exactly that we want to change? What about this needs to change?

This series of posts has been entitled “The Baseless Hatred of Clothing” and the baseless hatred or sinat hinam that arises due to clothing is found most often in people who judge others as either avaryanim (“sinners”), kalim (“lightweights” – i.e. those who are not careful with the performance of the mitzvot), ammei ha-aretz (those ignorant of halakhah), etc. due to clothing style(s) or color(s) – even when it otherwise conforms to the four basic parameters of the halakhah for clothing (see Part I for a list).

“Hatred” in the halakhic sense, does not necessarily imply a visceral, emotional repulsion. Rather, in it’s most basic [and thoroughly Semitic] sense it implies “rejection” or, as in the case of the halakhah, to deny the rights of a fellow under the social berit of the Torah. A public sinner is denied the privilege to be trusted in religious matters as a Jew; his edut (testimony) is not valid in court, his shehitah is nevelah, his wine is considered nesekh, etc. Halakhically, such a one is supposed to be related to by the rest of the community in good standing as “ke-goy le-khol devarav – [considered] like a non-Jew in all matters” (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 30:15, et al). Such types of sinners are denied everything, whereas lesser types of sinners (referred to as “resha`ei yisra’el – the wicked of Israel” – Ibid.) are denied other privileges, such as the ability to have others eat in their homes, having aliyot to the Torah in shul, being trusted in business, etc. By extrapolation then, baseless hatred is denial of such rights and privileges to soundly religious Jews without having a valid halakhic justification for doing so.

This type of thing happens all the time because of clothing (and other non-halakhic reasons). One’s style of kippah (or lack thereof – since it is not a halakhic requirement at all, but a middat hasidut), the color of a shirt, the presence or absence of a hat, the color of the hat, whether the wife covers her hair and with what (e.g. a sheitel, a scarf, a hat, or nothing at all), if she wears pants or only skirts, etc. – it all can determine whether one will be trusted by others with regard to kashrut, whether one’s daughters will be properly married, whether one’s children will be accepted into a school, or whether a business will be patronized by the community.

People who have a yeshivah education, are in regular contact with a rav ha-posek, are shomerei shabbat, shomerei kashrut, and abide by the rules of tzeniut, and observe taharat ha-mishpahah are treated as if they were incompetent outsiders by more Haredi-Hasidic types. And many times, in my own experience, the haredim who place people under suspicion are many times less educated and less adept in the halakhah than the people whom they suspect!

One of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had was being the beit midrash of a Dati Leumi yeshivah in Israel among tens of young men in tennis shoes, jeans, t-shirts, pullovers, and knitted kippot – all in the midst of serious learning. In other contexts, I saw these young men treated like irreverent and irreligious kids because of their more casual mode of dress. But each one of them whom I met showed themselves to be a budding talmid hakhamim, complete with refined middot tovot.

I remember years ago, while living in a Haredi-Hasidic community, when my daughters returned home on Shabbat from a program held for girls in the afternoon at the shul. The focus of this program was “tznius” and I can tell you that they heard more fables on the subject than truths, but one thing in particular bothered me enough to approach the local rosh kollel about it. My daughters were told that their mother was “not tznius” because she wore long, denim skirts during the week (they also said that she was “not tznius” because she did not wear a sheitel, but that is a discussion for another post). I approached the rosh kollel and asked why, if the skirt adequately covered the body and wasn’t especially tight and/or revealing was it problem just because it was made of denim material. His response was inane. “Has denim been permitted to the b’nei yeshivah?” he replied. In other words, his mentality was one of mob rule. The kind of mob rule that contributes significantly to the problem, as people are routinely told that since the “majority” of the (Haredi-Hasidic) world do or don’t do something, then abiding by what the “mob” does becomes the standard of halakhic practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This matzav – one of baseless hatred, rejection, and judgment of others based on clothing choice – is what we want to see changed. And, le-aniyut da`ati, it needs to change if we are going to move forward as a people.

In formulating my proposals for change, I was essentially guided by the Rambam’s idea of changing middoth as expressed in Hilkhot De`ot 2:4 where he advises that someone who is on one extreme of a character trait should press himself toward the opposite extreme of that character trait until he eventually recedes to the middle path. This is much like straightening something that is bent by bending it almost in the entirely opposite direction before it will return to being straight. In other words, I think that in order to begin solving this issue (and many others facing the religious Jewish community today) we need to press toward the opposite extreme, which I believe means actively trying NOT to dress in any particular way at all.

One last thing: These proposals are merely suggestions that occur to me as a concerned religious Jew. They only carry the weight that you, the reader, give them. I am not a posek and I claim no such authority for myself. I am not necessarily instructing anyone to do anything. I submit these as food for thought, a starting point for discussion, and to perhaps express what others may also be thinking. And, if adopted willingly by a significant contingent of religious Jews, a possible path to move beyond the current atmosphere in this regard.


[1] No more Polish/Lithuanian clothing styles or hats. This means abandoning the Haredi-Hasidic modes of dress completely. We are a Middle-Eastern people with an Ancient Near-Eastern religion – we should not be sporting the clothing of Polish nobles or Englishmen while claiming that such styles are “traditional” or authentic. I know that this will seem unnecessary to some, but in my mind if we do not actively seek to rid ourselves completely of these things, then they will remain, as will the problem itself.

[2] Kippot only in shul and at religious functions. This one may or may not be a good suggestion, I don’t know. But it seems to me that a kippah is nothing more than a comfort for our religious sensibilities based on externals. When we place them on everyone that comes into a shul – even non-Jews – and put them on secular Jews who work in kosher restaurants, etc. they become functionally meaningless. I know people who wear kippot who are nasty, ignorant, cheats, and I know people who wear a kippah only while davening who are learned, kind, honest, and religious Jews in every way. Perhaps taking them off for the majority of the time would force us to base our opinion of people on substance rather than by which style of beanie they choose to use in covering their bald spot. I must admit that I would have a tough time relinquishing mine, but I do honestly think that a critical mass of religious people taking them off could positively affect the status quo.

[3] No special clothes or hats for Shabbat, Yom TovHolo Shela-Mo`ed, or davening. Now, I know what you’re thinking, that this proposal contradicts the halakhah, but I don’t think that it actually does. I am not saying that one should not wear clean clothes in a proper way to honor Shabbat/YT. Hoever, all that is actually required by halakhah is some minor change in clothing from the weekday, such as a different color shirt or even just tucking in your shirt if you are not accustomed to doing that. A jacket and hat are simply not required for davening in our times since we go out in public without them all the time without it being viewed as disrespectful or disheveled. Special kaftans, kapotes, jackets, hats, gartels, etc. are all unnecessary me-ikkar ha-din. Again, showing respect for the Shabbat could be like showing up for a job interview, or a family gathering, or a place of employment. It does not have to be shown by dressing in Haredi-Hasidic garb, which are nothing more than a borrowed style from a bygone aristocracy. In fact, the Ben Ish Hai makes it clear that wearing comfortable old/worn clothing on Shabbat is preferable to wearing new/fancy clothing that is uncomfortable. Since Shabbat and holidays are when Jews most regularly congregate, perhaps wearing dress-casual clothing would break down barriers between Jews? A common custom in Yemen was to launder your regular clothing, but to wear a special tallit gadol in honor of Shabbat. Maybe we can all learn from this simple custom?

[4] Education. Education. Education. Beyond changing our externals, we need to change our internals. Education is the way to do this. We need to educate our children to be sensitive to these issues and teach them to all but ignore clothing styles and choices and instead evaluate a person’s character. We who understand the damage that is being done need to be vocal with those around us and work for change with the Jews in our communities and shuls. Most of all, we need to educate ourselves and others in what the halakhah actually demands as regards clothing and pay no mind to any other construct.

Well, there you have it. I hope that this has been interesting and informative. May HaShem grant us all the insight we need to draw ourselves and our fellow Jews closer to the Torah as lovers of peace and pursuers of peace.

“Let’s Talk About It!” – The Baseless Hatred of Clothing – Part I

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The Stereotypes of “Orthodox” Dress

Let’s face it, the image of a stereotypical “orthodox” Jew in the minds of people today is a Haredi-Hasidic one – a black hat, long sidelocks, an untrimmed beard, and dressed in black Polish-style clothing. This image is so entrenched that many often do not believe religious non-Haredi Jews when they say that they are “orthodox” (myself included). Wearing a trimmed beard (or shaving it completely), sporting a leather or knitted kippah – even the wearing of khaki slacks and sweatshirts – all of this very often evokes an assumption of irreligiosity by both Jews and non-Jews on the part of the person wearing them.

Among religious Jews today the matter of dress is – in my opinion – perhaps the greatest factor of division among us. There are shuls where one is not allowed to be shaliah tzibbur unless he is wearing a black hat and a suit jacket. Beside a general mistrust of anyone not hasidic with regard to religious matters, there are Hasidic Jews who won’t eat meat slaughtered by shokhtim whose wives don’t wear a sheitel or wear a sheitel but do not have a shaven head underneath. Black suits and white button-up shirts are the standard and those who wear colored shirts, socks, or pants are viewed as being somehow less serious in their devotion to God. And let’s not forget the veritable insanity surrounding the various styles of kippot. Haredi-Hasidic children are often disallowed from playing with other orthodox children because they are not “frum” in their mode of dress, and children of Dati Leumi families are disallowed from attending certain schools in Israel due to the lack of black-and-white clothing in their parents’ wardrobe. In today’s orthodox world, the clothes not only make the man (or woman), but define his (or her) devotion to God, the Torah, and Judaism in general.

But is this how it’s supposed to be? And where did all of these ideas related to clothing come from? Is it permitted to treat people differently or make negative assumptions about them because of their style of dress according to halakhah? What does the halakhah say about clothing styles/colors, etc.? The correct answers to these questions are invaluable today as Jews work toward unity

Distinctive Clothing in the Prophets

As for the first question, no, this is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, the prophet Tzefanyah (“Zephaniah”) brings apparent criticism against those who use clothing in this way:

[1:8] And it shall come to pass… that I will take note [to punish] the princes and the sons of the king and all those who wear strange/foreign clothing (מלבוש נכרי).

The Radak, in commenting on this passage, cites several views.

Although he brings one view that [simplistically] understands nokhri as being the equivalent of akum (עכו”ם – an acronym for ovdei kokhavim u-mazalot, a late term invented by Christian censors as a replacement for goy), he brings another two views, the latter one being presented in two different forms. These other interpretations understand the word nokhriy here, in the context of Sefer Tzefanyah, as not denoting “foreign” (i.e. non-Jewish) clothing necessarily, but rather “strange” clothes – being either stolen or for purposes of arrogance (see there).

He begins by quoting the view of his late father (אבי ומורי ז”ל):

…and all those who wear strange clothing – [That is] when they saw that any person over whom they had power was wearing beautiful clothing, they would rob it from him and wear it themselves.”

He then quotes the commentary of Ibn Ezra:

…strange clothing – different from all the people as an expression of arrogance that no one else should dress as they do.” (1st form = distinct clothing that no one else is allowed to wear)

Further down he states “And there are those who explain [thusly]”:

…strange clothing – [That is] people who present themselves as ascetics (parushim) and pietists (hasidim) who wear strange clothing that is unlike the rest of the people in order that [the people] will recognize them by their clothing as being ascetics (parushim) – And [those who do this] their ways are evil.” (2nd form = distinct clothing that marks their false piety)

Le-aniyut da`ati, the current situation within the Haredi-Hasidic fulfills both forms of the latter explanation: [A] “rebbes” and rabbinic types wear strange and fancy garb out of arrogance that others are not considered “worthy” to wear, and [B] the Haredi-Hasidic world dresses in strange and outdated European styles of clothing in order to mark themselves as somehow being on a higher level (madregah) of spirituality than all other Jews. They very publicly want to be seen as pietists, something which the prophet condemns as destructive.

All this being said, I think it is safe to say that strange or special garments for supposed reasons of piety is simply not a part of Torah values.

The Genesis of Wardrobe Politics

So where did this whole idea of a supposed standard Jewish uniform come from? Poland and Lithuania. Beginning in the 16th century, regional rabbinic leaders began instituting “decrees” about what Jews were allowed to wear and what they were not. Everything from particular colors, styles, types of material, hairstyles, the number of rings that could be worn on the fingers, where and when any embroidery could appear on any given article of clothing, etc. were scrutinized by the leaders and then legislated to the European Jewish masses. This trend grew and became more pervasive in the 17th century through the orders of the Council of the Four Lands and the Lithuanian Council. More and more para-halakhic rules were added and soon a culture of religiosity through clothing style was born.

These costume regulations and the resulting clothing “culture” were thereafter picked up almost wholesale by the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, through which they received their “canonization” into spiritual law. The Hasidic innovation was that they assigned mystical/kabbalistic significance to each garment worn by religious European Jews in their time. Not only this, but each “rebbe” made his own personal innovations, legislating to his followers further particulars regarding clothing – leading to the plethora of jacket styles, lengths, colors, and the assortment of fur and fox tail headgear we see today. Along the way, those who refused to conform to these regulations were ostracized, accused of apostasy, and put into herem.

In the 19th century, Russia began attempting to use governmental power to force Jews to abandon their “distinctive” dress, but to now avail. Jews in those lands resisted these advances and their resolve with regard to clothing and styles of dress became even more steely than ever before. Yet all of this would likely never have been an issue had the Jewish populace been allowed to simply do as they always had: dress in the general style of the cultural context in which they lived – something neither forbidden nor frowned upon by either the Torah or the halakhah.

This resistance continued through the rise of the heretical Reform movement and the haskalah, each time becoming more inflexible in an effort to display their devotion to their traditions. And now, due to this historical process which began in Poland and Lithuania, we have the defunct concept of religious Jewish dress still today – a defunct concept that is responsible for everything from cases of shunning, to disqualification of edim, to acts of violence every year.

The Mishnah – Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain

The Mishnah hints at the idea that Jews do not pay attention to clothing color or footwear in Masekhet Megillah [4:8], where it states:


האומר איני עובר לפני התיבה בצבועים אף בלבנים לא יעבור בסנדל איני עובר אף יחף לא יעבור


“The one who says, ‘I don’t pass before the teyvah [the ark where the Torah is kept – i.e. to be shaliah tzibbur] while wearing colored garments’ – even while wearing white we do not allow him [to act as shaliah tzibbur]. And if he says, ‘I do not pass [before the teyvah] while wearing sandals’ – we do not allow him to [act as shaliah tzibbur] even while barefoot [since anyone who espouses such ideas is a sectarian/heretic – see the Gemara in b.Megillah 24b].”

In other words, the Mishnah maintains that since there are no halakhot that dictate that a person must wear a certain type of shoe or color [or presumably style] of clothing in order to lead public prayers in the shul, one who espouses such contrivances is acting in the way of minut (sectarianism/heresy). By making baseless distinctions regarding clothing, such a person is disqualified from acting on behalf of the community since he is suspected of being a sectarian and perhaps by letting such ideas stand his sectarianism will spread and lead to divisions among the Jewish people, has va-halilah.

Even though the strict context of this mishnah is likely in regard to specific heretical sects extant during the time of its writing, it still indicates that silly and para-halakhic/extra-halakhic ideas about clothing are not only unwarranted and discouraged, but can be very damaging to the unity of Kelal Yisra’el. In the words of Hazal: “Af al pi she-ein ra’ayah le-davar zeikher le-davar – Although there is not formal proof [here in m.Megillah 4:8] of the matter, there is still an indication of it.”

Jewish Garb – Four Basic Principles

So what does the halakhah require with regard to clothing styles and colors? Not much. Lets first be clear that nowhere have there ever been intricate and/or detailed regulations about the color, style, material, embroidery, etc. of clothing in the halakhah.  From the standpoint of Torah and halakhah, all clothing choices made my religious Jews must conform to the following basic principles:

[1] Sha`atnez (mixtures of wool and linen) are prohibited – (Vayikra 19:19; Devarim 22:1 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Kilayim 10:1)

[2] Beged Ishah (cross-dressing) is prohibited, whether males dressing like females or vice-versa – (Devarim 22:5 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 12:10-13)

[3] Tzeniut (modesty) is required – (related to Vayikra 19:1ff and others – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot De`ot 5:10). Although related to passages in the Torah and Nakh, the Jewish concept of modesty is generally fixed according to time and place, based on the modest members of the non-Jewish society at large in conjunction with principles of personal decorum handed down to us by Hazal.

[4] Avodah Zarah (idolatry) is prohibited – (Vayikra 18:3, 20:23; Devarim 12:30 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:1-2). The prohibition as regards idolatry related to mode of dress is ONLY in regard to a garment that is specific to non-Jews in expressing either idolatrous religious notions or impropriety/immodesty. Otherwise, as Rav Yosef Karo z”l in the Kesef Mishneh (commenting there) states: “…but when the clothing is not specific to them in any of these ways, a Jew is not required to dress differently than idolaters at all or in any way (כלל ועיקר).”

This means that as long as the above directives of the Torah are not violated, a religious Jew is allowed to wear what he or she so desires. Denim, plaid, blue jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes, polo shirts, etc. – all is permitted under the halakhah and any negative treatment of good Jews due to their choice of clothing style is absolutely unfounded.

More on this in PART II

Being Mekori – “Is there a halakhic imperative for one to make a living?”

One of my goals in this series – and indeed one of the goals that inspires many who end up on the path of mekoriut – is to demonstrate that an honest and simple return to the sources (particularly in a way that is unaffected by the Zohar, Kabbalah, and later Hasidic theology) will ultimately solve many of the social and religious ills that have cropped up during the current exile. Poverty, entitlement, sectarianism, ethnocentrism, sexual abuse, women’s issues, the divorce rate, etc. – I firmly believe that all, or nearly all, could be largely avoided or overturned through a return to the sources and a submission to the unique authority of Hazal. Such a return is in opposition to the widespread hashkafah that the rabbis of our time (other than being effected by a supposed “yeridas ha-doros” common to all Jews) are essentially an extension and continuation of Hazal. I do not intend by this statement to assert that mekoriut can or will bring about a Utopian Jewish ideal – it will not. There are no utopias, not even during the yemot mashiah, but we can discuss that another time. All I mean to say is that a return to our original texts is a return to original Jewish values.

One such social problem in the Jewish community is the development of a mass reliance on public charity and state-sponsored welfare, such that it has become almost standard among Haredi-Hasidic Jewry. The system of kollels, yeshivoth, and other institutions today within [mainly] Haredi-Hasidic circles utilize certain latter-day “heterim” that supposedly allow one to make his living from the full-time study of Torah, a notion that was roundly condemned by Hazal during much more difficult times than our own. In fact, even when the Torah was almost lost, Hazal – in their great wisdom – never, ever, resorted to supporting full-time learners and their families with public charity as a “solution” (instead, they viewed the committal of Torah she-be`al Peh to writing as solution enough). They never considered such a course of action because they knew exactly where such a course would lead and what kind of Jew this type of “solution” produces, as will be seen in the passages cited below.

The news of this phenomenon – the phenomenon of a refusal to be productive citizens by an overwhelming number of religious Jews – has spread to nearly all parts of the Jewish world, including the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel. And the non-Jewish world has naturally sat up and taken notice, making [understandably] negative comments that have made their way even into the mainstream news media. This should concern us and, in my opinion, we as Jews should take responsibility for such aspects that contribute to the irrational fire of anti-Semitism.

There is a (seemingly) little-known halakhah in the Mishneh Torah which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination of whether or not it is either desirable or permitted to make a living from learning Torah.

The Rambam writes the following in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10 –

“Everyone who determines in his heart that he will be occupied with learning Torah and will not engage in labor, and therefore sustain himself from public charity – behold, such a one profanes the Divine Name, denigrates the Torah, extinguishes the lamp of the Jewish religion, brings evil upon himself, and removes his life from `olam haba because it is forbidden to benefit [monetarily] from the words of the Torah in this world. The Sages said, “Everyone who derives [monetary] benefit from the words of the Torah removes his life from the world [to come].” They further commanded and said, “Don’t make them [the words of the Torah] into a crown to make yourself great with them, nor a spade with which to till the ground.” They further commanded and said, “Love engaging in labor and hate the service of being a public rav. And all study of Torah that is not accompanied by engaging in labor, in the end it is worthless and the one who engages in such [exclusive Torah study] will in the end become one who steals from his fellow creatures.”

Now, to be sure, nearly everyone needs financial help (i.e. hesedh and ssedaqah) at certain times throughout their life, and to varying degrees – and this is why the Torah commands us to be open-handed toward our brothers and to care for the poorer segments in Jewish society (e.g. orphans, widows, and converts). To do so is certainly a misswah. However, the Rambam writes in the next halakhah (3:11) that

It is a great virtue for one to be sustained through the work of his own hands, and to do so was a character trait of the ancient devoted ones (the “hasidim rishonim“, a group often mentioned in the Mishnah for their particular piety and devotion to God). And in doing so, one will merit all of the honor and goodness that is available in this world and in olam haba. As it says, ‘When you eat from the labor of your hands, you will be contented and it will be good for you’ (Tehillim 128:2) – ‘contented’ in this world, ‘good for you’ stored for olam haba which is entirely good.”

Hilkhot Edut 10:14 further explains that making a living from playing dice – or apparently from any other form of non-labor – is called avak gezel (“dust/trace of theft,” a phrase meaning, “not technically theft, but it might as well be”). In addition, it invalidates someone as being a reliable witness in a beit din.

Hilkhot Aniyim 10:18 further says:

“A person should always push himself and exist in painful difficulty rather than cast himself on the mercy of the community. Thus the Sages commanded and said, “Make your Shabbath like a weekday and do not demand your needs from your fellow creatures. Even if a poor person is a greatly honored hakham, he should sustain himself through a trade, even if it is a miserable one, and not demand his needs from his fellow creatures. It is better for a person to spread out the tanned skins of neveloth in the shuq rather than saying to the people, ‘I am a hakham, I am a great person, I am a kohen, so support me.’ And in this matter the Sages commanded us to do thus. Even the greatest of the hakhamiym were woodchoppers, carriers of building materials, water drawers for use in vegetable gardens, smelters of iron and producers of charcoal, and they did not ask for charity from the community, nor would they accept gifts from the community even while serving the community.”

There can be no doubt that there is certainly a halakhic directive for a person to make a living to support himself.

It should be noted, however, that these injunctions do not necessarily apply to a modern community rabbi. Community rabbis are paid for their time spent functioning in a pastoral capacity. He is not paid to learn Torah, but rather for his visits, availability, organization, etc. This is a newer community structure of more recent invention. However, le-aniyut da`ati, I think that it is always better for even a community rav to have a worldly occupation, as it lends itself to a higher level of integrity since he may speak his mind freely within his community without fear of economic reprisal by community members. This was the model of Yemen and other non-European communities, where rabbanim were engaged in artisanship, agriculture, commerce, et al while serving as leaders. However, due to the circumstances involved in the modern pace of life and the commensurate needs of religious Jews, a community rabbi supporting themselves is often not possible.

So, what would a practical return to the sources entail? First and foremost it would mean a public teshuvah by those leaders that currently support the welfare-based system of “learners.” I personally think that such a prospect is unlikely to happen, as this entitled way of thinking is ingrained so deeply within the minds of many, being further validated by their leadership and a plethora or “gedolim.” However, on a grass-roots level, it would mean that people begin to encourage religious Jewish youth to learn Torah seriously in a yeshivah, but then to prepare for marriage and family by acquiring higher education or a trade of some sort. Jewish youth should be encouraged to do well in their chosen profession(s) – all the while being told that working to provide for one’s own needs and those of his family is a great mitzvah that has no shame attached to it. Shame should instead be attached to willingly living off of public welfare or the largess of others.

I have seen advertisements for yeshivot that teach trades, but they are largely seen as options for those young men who are in danger of “going off.” Many young men from these groundbreaking institutions end up apprenticing within the trades or starting their own businesses. If we want true change, then places like these need to be seen as le-khatehilah and not bedi`avad.

The effects of such changes over time would arguably be transforming, and could eventually bring about an almost complete metamorphosis in the Torah world. The depression and alienation that arises due to a culture of elite “learners” would be all but undone, an emphasis on middot and respect for the Torah would return, financial crises would be ameliorated, marriages would be strengthened, broken marriages could be healed, and a general simhat ha-hayim would return. As it says in Kohelet 2:24-26

There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and cause his soul to have goodness from his labor. This, too, I have seen, that it is from the hand of God. For who will eat and who will enjoy, if not I? For to a man that is good before Him, [God] has given wisdom and understanding and joy, but to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting in order to give it to the one who is good before God. This is also vanity and striving after the wind.”

May HaShem help us to return to the simple truths of Jewish faith, once safeguarded to His people by Hazal.

Becoming Mekori – Stones in the Path – Part I: The Illiterate Law Student

One of the many problems that often arises among those who decide to join the Mekori movement, is that of Jewish illiteracy. People who can neither read nor understand Hebrew – who are many times unable to even recognize words without them being transliterated into English characters – decide to brazenly throw off all rabbinic guidance, and become determined instead to pursue a path where they interpret Jewish law as they see fit. Armed with Artscroll translations of the Gemara, the Touger English edition of the Mishneh Torah, and a Stone Chumash they decide to take on the entire world of orthodox Judaism.

Now, to be sure – as I explained in my initial post on mekoriut – the majority of people who join the movement do so because of personal trauma they have suffered while in the Haredi or Hasidic community. Thus, many of those who make this poor decision are doing so out of a feeling of desperation and an understandably diminished trust in the rabbinic establishment. But many of them struggle with a different problem: arrogance coupled with a refusal to rely on or take direction from anyone. Hazal tell us that one who is arrogant cannot learn Torah. They also tell us that an ignorant person cannot be properly religious – making this dreadful combination an almost certain recipe for failure. The reality is, however, that many people are simply afraid to admit how little they can actually read/interact with the sources, if at all.

Now, please understand that in this post I am attempting to point out a commonly observed pitfall with being/becoming Mekori. I truly do have compassion for such individuals, but I feel it is necessary to honestly and openly address the issue.

Most often, those who choose to act this way simply have a basic misunderstanding of what being Mekori means. Mekoriut is not akin to Karaism. Being Mekori is not opting for a “do-it-yourself” Judaism where the individual becomes the rabbinic authority. It is a submission to HaShem, His Torah, and to those whom possessed Biblical halakhic authority (cf. Devarim 17:11) – Hazal. In fact, the Mekori movement exists precisely because we do not believe that any one individual can simply change or alter the law at will – and this certainly includes those who are religiously illiterate.

Many of these types of individuals learn just enough to be dangerous. I once knew someone who learned what a qal wa-homer argument was and proceeded to just simply apply it independently across Jewish law in accordance with what made sense to his limited understanding. By misapplying this singular piece of halakhic reasoning, he proceeding to redefine many fundamental elements of halakhah and committed serious violations of Shabbath, etc. Ultimately, this exercise ended in failure and was a disaster for his family. His situation, however, was not due to the Mekori movement. It was due directly to his inability to admit his own level of learning coupled with a refusal to fulfill the directive: aseh lekha rav va-histalek min ha-safek – appoint for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt” (Avot 1:16).

Respecting and accepting competent rabbinic guidance is not only correct halakhically, but is smart as well. If a person truly desires to carry out the will of HaShem, then he or she will seek out a qualified person to help them do so. But if a person is really just seeking to do his or her own will, then any answer – even a bad one – will be acceptable to them as long as it allows the person to do what they desire without inhibition. This is something that every religious Jew must guard against.

Lastly, this kind of attitude defies the very nature of education. In order for someone to enter a profession or be considered capable of something, they must first submit themselves to proper education and training. A person cannot become a doctor without medical school, and certainly not if he has not familiarized himself with anatomy and the functions of the body’s various systems. The pursuit of halakhic knowledge is no different. Learning Hebrew is a must, as is familiarity with basic halakhic principles, and the ability to independently access the general breadth of halakhic texts – all the while conferring with and relying on a competent rabbinic expert or group of experts. There is simply no other way to succeed.

But doing this takes work. There are no shortcuts to the goal. And if someone is beginning with little prior knowledge, then he must humble himself and learn from those more experienced than him. As Hazal teach us “Im ein derekh eretz ein torah.”

In conclusion, I would like to share a personal story. One of my rabbinic guides is Rav Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, Israel and head of Makhon Mosheh ( He is the chief student and practical successor of the late Mori Yusef Qafih z”l. When I lived in Israel, I had the pleasure of meeting privately with him on several occasions at his office in Kiryat Ono, during which times I was granted the privilege of asking his personal advice on several matters related to my family and Jewish life in general.

On one occasion, I arranged a meeting with him about registering my children in a particular school, among other things. On the application form I was asked to list our family’s “rav ha-posek” and, having not yet formally asked Rav Arussi if he could function that way for our family, I decided to ask him in person out of respect. The conversation began as follows:

Rav Arussi: How can I help you?

Me: I listed the rabbi’s name on the enrollment form for our children as our “rav ha-posek” and I would like to know if it is possible to be the rabbi’s student in a formal sense.

Rav Arussi: My student? You and I are the same. We are both students of the Rambam. But if you need something, I am here for you.

The conversation continued in a similar vein, but this was the main point that I wanted to share.

Out of his great humility, Rav Arussi (may he live and be well) expressed to me that both him and I are ultimately in the same position – we are both students of halakhah. The difference between us consists of education and experience, both of which he made fully available to me as a fellow Jew in search of the service of the Creator. No hasidic “deveikus,” no viewing himself as a “gadol,” and no conditions of obedience or allegiance to him. Only the open humility and willingness to share with me the Torah that he had learned. It was so beautiful, I was stunned.

If only more rabbinic personalities viewed themselves with such humility! Then perhaps people would feel more comfortable submitting themselves to their learning and guidance! I say this with a heavy heart.

I was told something similar by another one of my friends and rabbinic guides, Rabbi David Bar Hayim of Machon Shilo at the outset of our relationship. Having had this very inspiring and humble conversation with Rav Arussi, I decided to see what his response would be – and he did not disappoint. His response to me was:

“Learning Torah is not a fan club or a popularity contest. Whether or not you, or anyone else, seeks halakhic guidance from me is completely up to them. After all, it says ‘appoint for yourself a rav.’ From my perspective, if I can use my learning to help a fellow Jew, then it is my duty before HaShem to do so.”

Again, such humility! I do not take it as a coincidence that both Rav Bar Hayim and Rav Arussi are students and musmakhim of Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, who himself was known for being exceedingly humble and unimposing.

I will write more about the necessary elements of navigating life in mekoriut, but for now I would like to conclude by re-emphasizing that the movement should not promote a self-made, ruggedly-individualistic Judaism. Mekoriut is the pursuit of halakhic truths from Hazal and submitting one’s life to what that search yields. May HaShem help all of us to submit to His Torah.

בֹּאוּ, נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה נִבְרְכָה, לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה עֹשֵׂנוּ.

“Come, let us prostrate and bow, let us kneel before HaShem, our Maker.” (Tehillim 95:6)