Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.

A: Thank you for your questions.

I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. They were, however, very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

 בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים

“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”

This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:

אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני

“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”

The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.

Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”

From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”

This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.

As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)

(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)

True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.

The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.

Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).

The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.

Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.

Kol tuv,

YB

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.]

Introduction

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

TRANSLATION (INITIAL):

“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

TRANSLATION (RESEARCHED):

“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

Public

(dat yehudit)

Courtyard/Semi-Public Alleyway

(dat Mosheh)

Private

(inside the house)

Full-body Cloak (רדיד)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Cap (כופח) Cap (כופח)

Cap (כופח)

Sources:

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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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

keffiyeh-sudar

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:

TEXT

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 A

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 B

TRANSLATION

“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,

YB

Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

The thirty-third day of sefirat ha-omer is widely referred to as “Lag Ba-Omer” (lag being the acronym for 33 in Hebrew – ל”ג) and is usually accompanied with celebrations featuring massive bonfires and singing the praises of a certain Mishnaic sage, among other things. The day is also colored by intensive study of the Zohar and special trips, parties, and dancing – all leading to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai in Meron, Israel.

As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it was at one time meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to have affected the students of Rebbi Akiva in b.Yevamot 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mystics and their celebration of the Zohar – along with Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai as its patron saint.

More than simply being of dubious and unknown origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in the name of Lag Ba-Omer are completely without basis in Hazal. In fact, Lag Ba-Omer is not mentioned in any rabbinic text prior to the 14th century. And when it is first designated as a distinctive day during the weeks of the omer, it is referred to in the context of a Geonic tradition that it on this particular day the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beit HaBehirah to b.Yevamot 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some sort of celebration, or at least a relaxing of the traditional mourning rites, such as taking a haircut or getting married.

It was not until the early part of the 17th century that the spuriously honored day of Lag Ba-Omer was co-opted by Lurian kabbalists, specifically by Luria’s well-known publicist (and likely producer of pseudepigraphic sayings and ideas in his name) Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, “Etz Chaim” (cf. Sha’ar Sefirat Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hilula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shimon’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashat Ha’azinu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai was actually authored the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbat 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai emerged from the cave.

Based on the reports of the personal practice of Luria, and those seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai (e.g. “Bar Yohai nimshakhta ashrekha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons and evil spirits. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhei emori (the “ways of the Amorite”). A great many celebrants and would-be pilgrims to Meron end up turning to Rebbi Shimon in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodah zarah, namely, placing intermediaries between themselves and God (Rambam, Mishneh TorahHilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1-2:1).

I have written before on this site about the dubious origins of the Zohar literature and of it being a forgery. And now there has developed around it an equally dubious day – a baseless holiday for a baseless book.

The crafting of pseudo or para-halakhic regulations that have no basis in Hazal is actually discussed within the halakhah and is related as being the activity of the Tzaddukim (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhot Parah Adumah 1:14, where he says:

TEXT

הצדוקין היו אומרים שאין מעשה הפרה כשר אלא במעורבי שמש לפיכך היו בית דין בבית שני מטמאין את הכוהן השורף את הפרה בשרץ וכיוצא בו וטובל ואחר כך עוסק בה כדי לבטל דברי אלו הזדים שמורים מהעולה על רוחם לא מן הקבלה

TRANSLATION

“The Tzaddukim used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a mikveh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. tzet ha-kokhavim). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beit din (i.e. the Sanhedrin) during the Second Temple period would purposefully make the kohen who burned the parah impure through contact with a dead reptile, or something similarly impure, have him immerse [in a mikveh], and directly afterward complete his appointed task. All of this was to nullify the words of these [heretics] who willfully give legal instruction based on what whimsically arises in their mind and not based on the received halakhic tradition…”

Now, I am not saying that inventing religious practices and creating pseudo and/or para-halakhic days of celebration is necessarily equivalent to being a heretic, but judging from the above statement it must be close – or at the very least, viewed negatively by Hazal. And it is certainly considered dangerous enough to warrant the performance of details that directly defy such things in order to keep the halakhah clear in the minds of the people. This concern for halakhic clarity, I suspect, was the reason for the strong reaction from Rebbi Yosi in the following story related in b.Pesahim 100a.

TEXT

Pesahim 100a - selection

TRANSLATION

“Once Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rebbi Yehudah, and Rebbi Yosi were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbat. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Rebbi Yosi, ‘Would Be-Ribbi (the form of address for one eminent scholar addressing another) like to interrupt the meal now and follow the more stringent halakhic opinion of Yehudah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions over those of Rebbi Yehudah, and now [i.e. when he is here with us] you act as though you prefer his opinions in front of me? Will you also rape the queen with me in the house (quoting from Megillat Esther, 7:8)?’ He said back to him, ‘If so, then we shall not interrupt the meal now lest the students see us and determine the halakhah throughout the generations [incorrectly].’ The students who were there said, ‘They did not move from there until they established that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Yosi.”

There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a seudah that began after Minhah on a Friday afternoon, the sun completely set: [1] the opinion held by Rebbi Yehudah was that once the sun sets one must interrupt the seudah, re-wash, make kiddush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbat, and [2] the opinion held by Rebbi Yosi was that it was not necessary to interrupt one’s meal at sundown at all.

Between these two opinions, that held by Rebbi Yosi had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel decided to ask Rebbi Yosi if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudah was there with them – apparently as some gesture of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosi, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacted very harshly and made a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashvarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosi intends, le-aniyut da’ati, to indicate that setting a mistaken halakhic example for the students, and by extension the Jewish public, is akin to raping the legal process (i.e. forcing a halakhic position which is not halakhah). Now, in this case the position of Rebbi Yehudah was not heresy and he was not a Tzadduki, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and need not be followed.

When it comes to kabbalistic practices that were instituted by various latter-day mystics and “prophets” (although they did not always lay claim openly to the title of “prophet,” they nevertheless claimed – or their followers claimed on their behalf – to have possessed “ruach ha-kodesh,” a form of prophecy) we need to be diligent to resist them, in my opinion, through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the religious Jewish public is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars which have no basis in the received halakhic tradition, and an even greater number have helped to cement the general Jewish sentiment that such practices, once inaugurated, can never be annulled since they somehow magically became a part of the “mesorah.”

Once again, the Jewish people today lacks the legal authority of a lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retains solely the potential for an authority of expertise, comparable to that of a lawyer. All that any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beit din can do is apply the law as it stands to various circumstances and make very limited, low-level, regional rulings within the bounds of codified halakhah. While there still remains legal diversity within the bounds of such halakhah as it currently stands, any real changes to its determinations cannot take place until proper universal (i.e. Sanhedrinal) authority is restored.

The policies of “live and let live” and “go along to get along” with regard to the constant religious extremism and social pressure of the Haredi-Hasidic world is how we got to where we are in the first place. Years ago, when a more-or-less docile (passive) orthodox mainstream was faced with a pushy elitist (expansive) Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them into obedience.

As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of “orthodox” Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed error, idolatry, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic tradition. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they will continue to destroy peoples’ faith and to obscure the message of the Torah and the purpose of the Jewish people. If we want our sane, rational, reasonable, vibrant, compelling, and practically-useful Judaism back, then we need to take it back through a consistent call for authenticity and realism.

Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money.

  • Stop giving charity to Haredi-Hasidic organizations, stop sending our young men to their yeshivot to be ruined by the roshei yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda.
  • Stop sending our young women to their seminaries to be equally brainwashed into obsessive worry about their appearance and thinking that marital servitude is religiously noble.
  • Stop purchasing their books and materials, and stop supporting the members of any kollel. We do not need their system to spread Torah and uphold its values.

Basically, we need to stop seeking their approval. We have our own non-Haredi, non-Hasidic yeshivot, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and which produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to a life of Torah. Haredi-Hasidic groups are part of a system that subsists almost entirely on welfare and public charity – remove your support and you remove their ability to intimidate and perpetuate their ideology.

 What I am NOT calling for is violence, disrespect, or rudeness. Not at all. Instead, the most effective way to assert your resistance is to simply stop participating and to become educated enough to argue for a reasonable mekori position. The goal is not to offend, but to convince; not to hurt, but to help. Anyone who makes it their business to openly and loudly say confrontational and controversial things – especially within the communal setting of a shul – is not a part of the solution, but is a [truly embarrassing] part of the problem. Such people are usually only egotistically looking for a fight.

Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.

May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.

Happy 22nd day of the omer,

Kol tuv,

YB

Haircuts, Shaving, and Music During the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

No haircuts, no trimming, no shaving, no music, no engagements, no marriages – at least not until “Lag Ba-Omer.” Right? …Not exactly.

We have all heard the story about Rabbi Aqiva’s 12,000 (some say 24,000) students who, because they were not polite enough to one another, were wiped out in some sort of a plague. Because of these incredibly sad events – so the traditional story goes – we need to nationally mourn during these days. But when did this begin? Where is it written in Hazal that we need to abstain from such things? The fact is – it doesn’t.

The section of the Gemara that discusses this incident is found in b.Yevamoth 62b, which says:

TEXT

אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א”ר נחמן אסכרה

TRANSLATION

“They said, ‘Rebbi Aqiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Givath to Antifras and all of them died at once because they did not conduct themselves with honor one to another, and the world was desolate until Rebbi Aqiva came to our teachers in the South and taught them [Torah]. Those masters were Rebbi Me’iyr, Rebbi Yehudhah, Rebbi Yosiy, Rebbi Shim’on, and Rebbi Eli’ezer ben Shammua. And they upheld the Torah in that [difficult] hour. It was taught by a Tanna that all of them died between Pesah and Shavu’oth. Rav Hama bar Abba, or possibly Rav Hiyya bar Abiyn, All of them died an evil death. What was it? Rav Nahman says, Asphyxiation.”

Despite the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon (in his well-known Iggereth) describes the cause of death as being shemada (i.e. the Aramaic form of “shmad,” or government murder of Jews), and not askarah (“asphyxiation”) – which lends itself more plausibly, in the view of some scholars, that the original reference is to the death of Rebbi Aqiva’s students who fought during the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokhvah and perished at the hands of the Romans – this passage leaves us with several questions.

[1] Where does it say that Kelal Yisra’el needs to nationally enter a state of mourning due to this?

[2] Which students died between Pesah and Shavu’oth, the twelve thousand pairs or the rabbaniym from the South who arose after them?

[3] Is the story – as told in the Bavli (and the parallel passage in Bereshiyth Rabbah) – midrashic, and therefore metaphoric, in nature or are we to take it literally? It doesn’t seem likely that Rebbi Aqiva would have produced students who were so terrible that they deserved Divine destruction to the point of endangering the Torah.

[4] If it is obvious that the import of this passage is to cause Kelal Yisra’el to actively mourn during sefiyrath ha-omer, then why does the passage not just say so? And, further, why do neither Rashi nor Tosafoth discuss it there on the daf? In fact, the Mahzor Vitry does not mention this practice [i.e. to mourn] at all.

[5] The Rambam never mentions such a thing as national [quasi] mourning for any event during the omer. When he mentions other later customs, why doesn’t he mention this one?

As far as being meqori is concerned, a few of the Geonim mentioned in their writings that due to the tragedy of Rebbi Aqiva’s students some did not contract marriages during the omer. And this is probably a good idea, although it is not a halakhah that was ever mentioned, or even a suggested practice, in the Mishneh Torah. Refraining from the contracting of marriages during the omer likely falls under being respectful to Jewish communal traditions. But refraining from music, haircuts, or shaving – things which are private – are certainly mutar according to halakhah.

According to the Rambam, there is no directive to mourn in this way except for actual halakhic mourning (such as during shiva and sheloshiym – Hilkhoth Evel 6:1-3) and the week in which Tisha Be-Av falls (Hilkhoth Ta’aniyoth 5:6). And so, that which is permissible throughout the year is halakhically permissible during sefiyrath ha-omer.

The entire timbre of the omer period seems to have been turned on its head; from a time of joy and celebration to a time of sadness and mourning. Shavu’oth is referred to as Assereth (עצרת) and as “the” assereth to Pesah. This designation means that Shavu’oth is meant to be the official end (read, culmination) of the Pesah celebration in the same way that Sheminiy Assereth is the capstone to Sukkoth in the Fall. This should strongly indicate to us that the omer is supposed to be a time of quasi-celebration for Kelal Yisra’el, not mourning and sadness at all.

This is yet another example of asceticism and kabbalah obscuring the true meaning of the Torah and the halakhah. In fact, it is a misswah to trim your beard and cut your hair bikhvodh shabbath, which is why Rav Soloveitchik z”l and others took a “lenient” position with regard to the custom of not shaving or taking haircuts during the omer. For those who are interested in his position on the matter, it is easily located in sources written about Rav Soloveitchik and his teshuvoth on various halakhic questions.

In the next post, I will talk about the fake holiday of “Lag Ba-Omer” that has led to some idolatrous practices (halilah) and should, in my opinion, be avoided as much as possible.

Enjoy your haircut and your tunes,

YB

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

Did Anyone Question the Authenticity of the Zohar?

The Zohar literature, including the Zohar, Zohar Hadash, and the Tikkunei HaZohar – along with their respective books and sub-divisions – was published over the course of almost 300 years (approx. 1300-1587 CE) and straddles the periods of the late rishonim and early aharonim; with the era of the former generally held to have been during the 11th to 15th centuries, and that of the latter from the 16th century until the present time.

Although there was much written on the subject of the Zohar and the authenticity of its content, only a minority of what is extant was authored in the narrow window between the publication of the Zohar literature and the end of the period of the rishonim. Much of what exists in this genre was written in the period of the early aharonim and remains very valuable to anyone engaging in a historical study of the Zohar. The main reason for the lack of earlier literature is that the Zohar, even after its initial publication, was not a very widespread or well-known book.

What is available exists in two types:

[1] independent works authored specifically on the subject of the authenticity of the Zohar literature, and [2] quotes from Hazal, geonimand rishonim (e.g. Rasag, Rashi, Tosafot, Rambam, et al) whose explicit statements in times prior to the Zohar are directly contradicted by, and in many cases preclude, explicit statements made later by the Zohar and its commentaries.

Works in the period of the [later] rishonim which dispute the Zohar and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Behinat HaDat – Rav Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th Century CE)
  • Sefer HaYuhasin, account of Rabbi Yitzhak de-min Akko – Rav Avraham Zakuto (15th Century CE)

Works in the period of the aharonim which dispute the Zohar literature and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Ari Nohem – Rav Yehudah Aryeh DeModena (17th Century CE)
  • Mitpahat Sefarim – Rav Yaakov Emden (18th Century CE)
  • Shu”T Hatam Sofer (6:59), referring to the work of Rav Emden – Rav Mosheh Sofer (18th Century CE)
  • Teshuvah Me-Ahavah (1:14) – Rav Eli`ezer Fleckeles (19th Century CE)
  • Milhamot HaShem – Rav Yihya Shelomo Al-Qafih (19th Century CE)

These are by no means exhaustive lists, but they do comprise the majority of what is available.

The following are examples of literature prior to the publication of the Zohar which discuss similar topics:

  • HaNivhar Emunot ve-Deot by Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (10th Century CE) – This work is a comprehensive compendium of explanations that not only sets forth the hashkafah of Torah Judaism on many topics, but also includes the arguments of detractors and the basis for their being rejected. The interesting thing about this work is that it deals with almost every major theme which was to emerge under the later “Kabbalah” which became embodied in the Zohar literature – and it roundly rejects them as not being authentic or based in Hazal. These topics include the idea of multiplicity or aspects as relates to the One Transcendent God, Reincarnation, and Emanation (atzilut אצילות), among others.
  • Moreh HaNavokhim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). THis work details the necessity of intellectual and rational approaches to the Torah and the Prophets, as well as explaining the meaning of many mitzvot and the various reasons behind them. It also deals with concepts which were later embodied in the “Kabbalah,” such as “secret” mystical names of God and amulets, which are roundly rejected as superstitious, idolatrous, and foolish.
  • Ma’amar Tehiyat HaMetim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). In the first section, the Rambam accounts for the misunderstanding of his own teachings regarding the resurrection from the dead by bringing an example of a gross misunderstanding of God’s own words in the Shema (Devarim 6:4). He refers to the “belief of the dualists” who believe that the three mentions of the Divine Name in the Shema (i.e. HaShem, Elohenu, HaShem) are three separate forces/entities/modes of the Divine (halilah) that supposedly comprise some sort of composite unity. The Rambam flatly rejects this reading of the Shema in his statements there. However, the Zohar (2:53b) espouses just such a nonsensical interpretation. Ironically, this passage was used by later Christian Hebraists, and even the Catholic church, in justifying the supposed validity of their belief in a “Trinity” from “Jewish” teachings.
  • Rashi and Tosafot on b.Megillah 9a (11th, 12th-13th Centuries CE). In an interesting passage about the request of King Ptolemy (Talmai HaMelekh) that the hakhmei HaSanhedrin write for him a copy of the Torah in Greek, the Gemara explains that several deliberate changes to the text were unanimously made by them during their translation in order to avoid certain polytheistic errors by Greek readers. Two of the notable changes were made in Bereshit 1:1 and 1:26 – the former being that instead of the text reading “Bereshit bara Elohim” they wrote “Elohim bara bereshit,” and the latter being that in place of “Na’aseh adam” they wrote “E’aseh adam.” In the first instance – since syntax in the Greek language often puts the most important noun in the sentence first and sorts out the meaning and parts of speech via case endings – the hakhamim did not want the Greeks to think that “Bereshit” was the name of one deity which created a second deity named “Elohim” (halilah) and that there are thus multiple powers in Heaven (halilah), so says Rashi. The Tosafot add to this by saying that “Bereshit eino shem kelal ela ba-tehilah” meaning that the term “bereshit” is not a name at all, but is rather just the Torah’s way of saying “In the beginning.” The second change was made due to the presence of the plural form (i.e. “Let us make man”), lest again the Greeks think that the Torah promotes polytheism and that multiple gods created mankind (halilah – see Rashi there). However, the Zohar – in commenting on these very passages – adopts the mistaken and erroneous views which these changes were specifically intended to negate. On Bereshit 1:1 the Zohar says that “Reshit” is the name of a partzuf/sefirah and it creates/emanates another partzuf/sefirah named “Elohim” which it can then inhabit. On Bereshit 1:26, the Zohar depicts two of the partzufim (faces/personalities which supposedly make up the Divine), “Abba” and “Imma,” arguing whether or not they should make man – “Abba” is con while “Imma” is pro – and in the end “Imma” says that although mankind will sin against us “Let us make man” anyhow. The implications of these interpretations in light of the Gemara and its commentators are both shocking and wide-reaching.

There are many more things which could be listed here, but much of it is already written in the works mentioned above.

More on this later,

Kol tuv,

YB

Talking and Handwashing – A Meqori Perspective

Is it really forbidden to talk between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi?

And is it ever okay to speak between birkath ha-mossi and eating some bread?

These questions are explicit in the halakhah and it is only due to a personal custom of the Rosh brought down by the Tur (see OH 166 – where he re-interprets the Gemara to fit this practice of the Rosh – see Rabbeynu Yoel there) has there been any confusion on the issue. Rambam, Rashi, the Ba`alei Tosafoth, and many others agree that dibbur (talking) between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi does not constitute a hefseq (unless a heysah ha-da’ath is thereby created – see below).

The concept of hefseq (“interruption”) is only applicable between a berakhah and that which was the occasion of the berakhah (e.g. eating, drinking, performing a misswah, etc). In the case of netiylath yadhayim there is no hefseq through dibbur since one has already said the berakhah`al netiylath yadhayim” and has washed [and dried] their hands. The saying of birkath ha-mossi is a separate matter which does require clean [washed] hands, but may be said hours after netilath yadhayim is performed as long as one is mindful of his hands (presumably to guard them from filth). [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:18(17)]

In fact, heysah ha-da`ath [or coming into contact with filth – tenufah (e.g. feces) – which is the reason for guarding the hands in the first place] is the reason for the need to re-wash in every case. [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Avoth HaTum’oth 13:3 , Hilkhoth Bi’ath HaMiqdash 5:1-6, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 8:6, et al] In fact, it is explicit that when one touches either his head or a wall his hands remain tahoroth and he need not wash netiylath yadhayim again because of it. [cf. Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:5]

The Rambam writes in Hilkhoth Berakhoth 1:8 (in the midst of his list of general principles with regard to berakhoth – i.e. “kol ha-berakhoth kulan…”) the following:

TEXT:

 כל הברכות כולן לא יפסיק בין הברכה ובין דבר שמברכין עליו בדברים אחרים ואם הפסיק צריך לחזור ולברך שנייה ואם הפסיק בדברים שהן מעניין דבר שמברכין עליו, אינו צריך לברך שנייה כיצד כגון שבירך על הפת וקודם שיאכל אמר הביאו מלח הביאו תבשיל תנו לפלוני לאכול תנו מאכל לבהמה וכיוצא באלו אינו צריך לברך וכן כל כיוצא בזה

Kol ha-berakhoth kulan, lo yafsiyq beyn ha-berakhah uveyn ha-davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw bi-dhevariym aherim. Wa-im hifsiyq ssariykh la-hazor ulevarekh sheniyyah. Wa-im hifsiyq bi-dhevariym she-hen me-`inyan davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw eyno ssariykh levarekh sheniyyah. Kessadh? Keghon she-beyrekh `al ha-path wa-qodhem she-yokhal omer hevi’u melah, hevi’u tavshiyl, tenu lifloni le-ekhol, tenu ma’akhal livhemah, ukheyosse ba-ellu eyno ssariykh levarekh wa-khen kol ka-yosse ba-zeh

TRANSLATION:

“With regard to every berakhah, one should not interrupt between the berakhah and the matter which is the occasion of the berakhah with other matters. And if one does so interrupt, he must go back and bless a second time. But if he interrupted with matters that are related to the subject of that which is the occasion of the berakhah, he does not need to go back and bless a second time. How is this? Like when one blesses upon bread and before he eats he says, “bring salt,” “bring the dish,” “give to so-and-so to eat,” “give food to the animal,” and other things like these – he does not need to bless [a second time] and the halakhah is the same for all similar cases.”

It can be clearly seen from here that it is permissible to ask someone to pass the salt in between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi. In fact, bedi`avadh one can still ask for the salt even AFTER birkath ha-mossi before he has even taken a bite of bread! Additionally, if one speaks or makes a request directly related to eating or the laws of se`odhoth, it is not considered hefseq that would require a new berakhah.

The majority of the Rishonim and the Geonim interpret the phrase tekhef le-netiylath yadhayim berakhah – תכף לנטילת ידים ברכה (“Immediately following netiylath yadhayim is the berakhah“) as referring to mayim aharoniym (which is a full netiylah and is referred to as such – cf. Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:1, 21[20]) and not to mayim rishoniym at all. And even in the case of between mayim aharoniym and saying birkath ha-mazon it is not completely forbidden to speak, as long as such speech is relevant to the recitation of grace after meals.

It has been the custom of Yemenite Jews for millenia to speak at the table after washing netiylath yadhayim. Many have noted that it is actually a good time for singing songs or discussing divrey torah (as long as it is not in a heated manner since getting upset or angry can cause a heysah ha-da`ath). 

But, hey, if you enjoy the serenity before eating, and if you enjoy listening to adults comically trying to communicate in strings of “tisk” and “nu?!,” then perhaps continuing the popular practice modeled after the Rosh is for you. Just don’t stay silent because you think it’s forbidden, because it’s not.

Kol tuv,

YB