Ask the rabbi

Vol V: Why do the ultra-orthodox wear clothes from the 18th-19th Century Eastern European countries, i.e., black clothes, hats and side curls?

Rabbi Brovender (photo credit: Courtesy Yaakov S. Cohen)
Rabbi Brovender
(photo credit: Courtesy Yaakov S. Cohen) is happy to announce the launch of its newest Ask the Expert column -- Ask the Rabbi, in cooperation with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, president of the ATID Foundation ( and formerly head of Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaMivtar. To read more about Rabbi Brovender, click here for Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer's June 22, 2007 article titled, "The Human Spirit: Synthesizing past and present," in which she details the Rabbi's achievements. Or click here for the recent "In Jerusalem" profile. Send us your questions * * * For Vol I-III Click here Vol V Q: Why do ultra-orthodox wear clothes from the 18th/19th C Eastern European countries, i.e., black clothes, hats and side curls? The dress seems entirely unsuitable for the climate of Israel. If the reason is "faithfulness to the Torah", Moses, et al did not wear such clothes. To a non-Jew such dress appears arrogant exhibitionism and ego and generates hostility if not ridicule. Such dress may be physically modest but it certainly isn't spiritually modest! It says "I'm more spiritual than you". A: I suppose you mean fashioned after clothing that was worn in past centuries, and not that the clothes they wear is actually that old. We know that everyone likes to wear a uniform that indicates who he is and what team he belongs to. This has proven useful in war, in order to prevent me from killing people on my own side, and makes terror more difficult to deal with since the terrorists look like everyone else. This is true for all branches of orthodoxy. It is possible sometimes to distinguish the students from Merkaz Harav yeshiva from another Hesder Yeshiva. Everyone needs a uniform Halacha demands that we wear respectable clothes when we approach Hashem; when we daven for example, or when we perform mizvot. We have a certain notion of what to wear as bankers, or as lawyers or as construction workers. Rabbis have traditionally dressed up more than others. While the lawyers and the bankers relax and wear alternative clothes when they come home, the rabbis often do not. We see that clothing, and style is an issue that concerns all of us, no matter how modern we think that we are. Lawyers dress in funny clothes when they appear in court and the examples can be increased to no end. The advent of air conditioning in the office and in public buildings and in cars and buses have made it possible to wear any kind of clothing winter and summer, but the Jews have another issue. Fashion and style are determined by people whose values we may not respect. The very interest that we may have in style may derive from a lack of concern for the "real" issues of life. In avoiding the style of the day we may actually enable ourselves to focus on the greater issues. Bearing clothing that makes it more difficult to integrate ourselves in the general culture and having social contact with the differing social groups we can actually focus on a more lofty ideal, and try to understand what in fact are our obligations in this world. Perhaps funny clothing is off putting. Is that bad? I am not sure that we always should determine how we act by what the non-Jews expects. Physical modesty may be important. Don't the people who attend services in the synagogue say that they are more spiritual than those who don't? Perhaps we should encourage them to stop. Q: Have you come across the disorder 'oppositional defiant disorder'? My daughter has had it for years she is now 45 years old. She constantly falls out with her parents for years at a time is extremely disloyal and then expects at the drop of a hat to return as if nothing has happened she has 2 failed marriages behind her. It's such a waste of time. Thanks. She also is religious! What are your comments please? A: I imagine that you turned to me because of the last line in your question: "she is also religious". Since I am "religious" I may be that that is the connection, though I don't consider myself an expert on how to deal with problems that are psychological. The syndrome that you mentioned is recognized and appears in the DSM lll (where I checked it), and certainly sounds like it can lead to tremendous distress in the family. Since we all hope for "nachas" from our children I am sure that this causes you great distress. However, I might suggest the following. Since she is a religious person she might try to study Mussar, books that strengthen our ability to determine our own fate, and redirect spiritual energies. A book like shmiras halashon for the Chafetz Chayim might redirect those energies in a more positive way. Q:I would like to hear your opinion for the ruling that women are not acceptable as witnesses. A: Sometimes the ways of the Torah are mysterious. Everyone recognizes the fact that women are no less reliable than men, and yet the Torah restricts their ability to give witness. We have to remember that the Torah also restricts the witness that two brothers can give. In fact if Moshe and Aharon were the only witnesses to an event that came before the judges their witness would not be accepted. The same is true for two women. lt is true that in may cases the Rabbis have modified this rule, but in essence nothing has changed. Over the generations many have tried to understand this particular quirk in Torah law with no particular success. I prefer to remember that not everything in Hashem's Torah is given to our understanding. * * * Vol IV Q: I frequently read the Torah in our school. We have in the school a fine young man who has Down's syndrome. He was adopted by a very froom family who has brought him up to come to school regularly, put on tefillin, etc. He has been honored for community work for his helping at a large Jewish Senior Citizen's Home. But I notice that when he has been called up to the Torah, he cannot pronounce more than the one word "Borchu" accurately. Although our hearts go out to him for his efforts and his good nature, should he really be given an aliyah? A: There is no doubt that we are obliged to teach and help develop those affected by Down syndrome. At times there may be a conflict between our obligation to teach and our ability to pay extra teaching hours for special children. However, the principle is clear. Every child deserves the opportunity to study Torah and to be taught how to keep the mizvot. In order for a person to do a mizva on my behalf. In order that he blow the shofar and that I will have done the mizva, he must understand what the mizva is and understand that I am included in his performance. This is sometimes difficult but necessary in order that I am able to fill my obligation and perform the mizva by proxy. It is hard to imagine that a special needs child could be taught this intricacy. Reading the Torah in shul is curious. The one who gets the Aliya, actually represents the community and does the mizva on their behalf. However, the one who reads is usually considered to be the one who actually does the mizva for the assemblage. In fact in many shuls aliyot are given to people who don't know what the words say and certainly do not have the requisite intention. How the learning disabled child fits into this halachic problem should be solved by the rabbi on the spot; it is not simple. * * * Q: What is the source of the custom of a child's first hair-cut at age of three? Some sources attribute it to the "Richonim"... A: It must be said that there is not a source for this convention in the regular sense of "source". There is no verse that indicates that this is the preferred way and there is nothing in the gemara that might indicate that this was obligatory at any time. Sometimes history plays strange tricks and those customs that have no source become the ones that Jews become very careful with. After the fact there is an attempt to find "hints" for this custom in the verses of the Torah and in certain halachic references. There is reference to the fact that the Ar"i took his son to the grave of the Rashbi in Meron, and it seems that the son was three years old at the time. This certainly influences the Hasidim who are careful to maintain this custom. This minhag is explained in the responsa of "Arugat Habosem", Orach Chaim 210, who declared that this custom was followed by those who always tried to live up to the detailed obligations of the law, those called Hasidim, and explained it as follows: the verse in Vayyikra 19 23 states: "When you shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then you shall reckon their food as uncircumcised; three years it shall be as uncircumcised unto you, it shall not be eaten". The medrash says that the hidden reference is to a child less than three years of age and refers us to the verse in Dvarim (20 19) "....for is the tree of the field a man...." Whenever the use of the word "tree" appears in the Torah it might refer to a man as well. The child until age three cannot speak very well and we cannot expect him to learn Torah. When he reaches age three he begins to speak words of Torah and achieves a certain sanctity. When he receives his first haircut he is also doing the mizva of peot, and leaves his sideburns unshaven, or for hasidim make side curls as is their custom. It has also become customary to take the child to great Torah personalities who each participate by cutting off a snip of the child's hair. This becomes the child's first association with great Torah scholars, which we all hope will continue. * * * Q: How do you view the State of Israel -what role does it play in the history of the Jewish people? On what basis should we vote in the Israeli elections? How should we relate to Tzahal, especially after its role in expelling Jews from their homes in Gush Katif? I'd like to hear your Torah views, Rabbi. A: As you know shmitta is upon us, and we have to follow the rules of shmitta in our time (probably D'rabanan, but practically there is no difference). The laws differentiate different areas of Eretz Yisrael. The part conquered originally by Yehoshua, and the part reclaimed by Ezra when he returned from Persia, and the land of Syria, originally conquered by King David. In fact the place that shmitta is kept strictly is in those areas of Eretz Yisrael which were claimed by Ezra. However, at the same time we recognize the land of Israel also exits within the borders of "the promise" which stretch beyond any boundaries that actually functioned in our history. This remains the dream, and we assume that ultimately it will be full filled by Hashem in history. Halacha and torah recognize that not all of our dreams have been filled, but remember both and maintain our concern. Politics is the art of the possible. Naturally Torah Jews have to keep working to influence politics in the direction of Torah, but we recognize that sometimes you have to make pragmatic decisions, just as King David did in Erez Yisrael of his days, and which Ezra made when he accepted the fact that he could not reconquer the whole of Eretz Yisrael. Q: Why in a Jewish wedding ceremony is the bride's wedding ring placed on the index finger of the right hand? A: The custom is to give the Kallah a ring. In theory she can take it any way she wishes. She can hold it in her hand or clutch it in her bosom. However, we have accepted the custom of putting the ring on the kallah's right index finger.This began either because this was the finger that the ring was usually worn, or because it was noticable and easily seen by the witnesses. If by some mistake the chatan places the ring on the wrong finger there is no halachic issue, and she is surely married. Q: Hello Rabbi Chaim Brovender, I have a question for you about converting to Judaism in Israel. I am a son to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. This makes me a non-Jew. But I have always felt Jewish and I want to make an Aliyah to Israel. To become Jewish I would like to make a conversion to Judaism in Israel. But I have some question regarding the conversion. I have heard that it's very hard to convert in Israel because of all bureaucracy. How hard is it really to convert to Judaism in Israel? Becoming Jewish is my biggest dream! A: Conversion should be about something that you really want. If that is the case then there is no real difficulty. The Israeli rabbinate wants to make sure that you have studied, and are not being fooled into becoming a Jew. If your father was Jewish and you have always felt yourself Jewish, I don't imagine that there will be any problem if you are serious.