Ask the rabbi: Background on head-coverings

Vol XX: Can you please give some background concerning head coverings - when was this tradition started? Did this come from a reference in the Torah?

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 Rosh Yeshiva of Web Yeshiva. 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 For Vol IV-V Click here For Vol VI-IX Click here For Vol X-XII Click here For Vol XIII-XV Click here For Vol XVI-XVIII Click here Vol XX Q: What are the Halachic parameters of dina d'malchus dina (the laws of the government vs the laws that reflect our obligations to Torah)? Is it only monetary matters or all matters? For instance, if the EU bans all forms of corporal punishment in all schools, but Halacha accepts reasonable chastisement exercised in loco parentis, how does this affect Jewish schools. Locally the state schools send boys home for almost every minor infringement of school rules, but Halachically that would deprive boys of their 'right' to learn Torah. A: Your question is about a very special case of Dina Dmalcusa; What if the government bans punishment in the classroom, when we know that the halacha states that this is a method that can be used at times. First Dina Demalchusa. Shmuel, (gitin 10b) says that in matters connected to the king's taxes and special land taxes promulgated by the government, we are obliged to comply. This is true only in financial matters, and not in cases of law that reflects our obligations to the Torah and Hashem (especially in matters of issur vehetair, personal status, etc).. You might say that we have no obligation to follow the ruling of the government regarding physical punishment in our schools. However, it may also be true that we are interested in following that ruling. We are aware that not all teaches can shoulder the burden of punishing a child physically in a way that would increase his desire to learn and grow in Torah. We are also aware that sometimes the people who become teachers are not emotionally fit for the job, and may do things to the children that cause severe damage. In earlier days this may have been different, but today we cannot take a chance that the teacher will be able to punish the child and gain the positive result we are interested in. There is a story told about the Steipeler gaon who punished one of his children long after the child had misstepped. When asked why he did this he said that punishment cannot be mixed with anger. The anger is a distraction from the educational effect that we desire. And so he waited until he was sure that there was no anger connected to the punishment. How many teachers are there today that can match this standard? Q: Why should any woman embrace Judaism when she is taught to be a martyr and sacrifice everything for everybody else, and yet not be equal in the eyes of her religion; not be allowed to be a priestess or rabbi? What G-d would ordain such disrespect for women from whom all life issues forth and is nurtured? A: There may be feminist issues in Judaism as there are in larger general society, but I can't imagine that a woman would embrace Judaism only to bve a priestess or a rabbi. A muiniscule percentage of men are rabbis, and as for priests, they don't funtion much after the destruction of the Temple. What might attract a person to embrace Judaism is first the life style. Most prominently the mizva component which informs all of our actions. The concern for family, giving honor to parents and children, and the strong emphasis on Torah education. I would strongly suggest that you look into those features and place the feminist issue in proper perspective. If there are inequities and if they can be solved within the system, then they surely will be solved. Q: I have heard it mentioned from certain charedi Rabbis that there was no such thing as dinosaurs and that creatures like the T-Rex never roamed the earth. They say that at the creation Hashem placed the bones in the earth.  What is the official view of Judaism with regards to dinosaurs, and following on from this, how old is the Earth really? A: It is hard for me to relate to the dinosaur position of unnamed rabbis, but anyone who has been to the Museum of Natural history in New York (and others like it) has the impression that the dinosaurs were really real. I imagine that you are talking about the question of the age of the created earth and the fact that scientists attribute the bones to an age that seems to precede the creation of the world. This has caused some concern in recent times and has even led to embarrassing statements made by some rabbis Briefly, my position is that the Torah is not there to teach us science. It is true that there is information in the Torah which is important but often the information that relates to scientific matters is not of one cloth. There are things that science has been able to prove and they are accepted by knowledgeable Torah personalities. Ptolemy is gone and Galileo is in. As to the age of the earth if the scientists are able to prove that it is old or young perhaps that will ultimately be accepted by all. Our primary concern is to think about what Hashem wants from us, how to properly execute His will as found in the Torah. The scientists will deal with science. Q: Can you please give some background concerning head coverings - when was this tradition started? Did this come from a reference in the Torah? I've asked quite a few people, and no one seems to know where it came from or who started it, or even what it means today. Thank you for your continued insight. A: Most poskim think that for the woman to cover her hair is a Biblical demand. The Torah instructed women to cover their hair. This is not limited to going to the synagogue or to special religious events but is a constant obligation. Further details would complicate my answer and I would suggest you check a halacha manual that summarizes the particular halachot for women. Perhaps Rabbi Ellinson's book on the topic Q: The wonderful concept of the Sabbath has been hi-jacked by "the religious". Can we rescue it? It can be a day of peace and joy without all the restrictions which have accumulated over the years. The tragedy of the denigration of Jewish life brought about by the misuse of religious power for political reasons is at its worst in this view of the Sabbath. Can we rescue it for the rest of us? A: Why not give shabbos a chance? Remember that the restrictions were created over a long period of time when most of the Jews were willing to follow the directives of the Rabbinical authorities, and not as a ploy to make you unhappy. Personally I have always enjoyed shabbos and have never yearned for some alternative. I think that I am in the majority of the shabbos observers, and we would be happy if you joined up Q: I work in a frum boys school teaching the usual range of primary school subjects. According to the school's policy every reference in any form to any other religion must be removed from teaching materials, e.g. if I teach about ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome -- which I do-- I must remove any pictures with religious significance, which includes most pictures in most books when you consider that religion was part and parcel of everyday life in ancient society. I had always thought we didn't need to remove references to long defunct ancient religions, just 'current' idolatry such as Hindu statues. What is your view? A: I imagine that there was a time when if you didn't mention a particular subject it didn't exist. Today this luxury is denies us. Everyone seems to be exposed to everything and it is the obligation of education and the educator to give the student enough tools to withstand particular problems. When it comes to idolatry there are certainly positions in halacha that do not equate pictures of idolatry with the Biblical prohibition. The Rambam himself claimed that he "read all the books", meaning that he knew the subject (idolatry) very well. Idolatry represents for us the depravity to which man is able to sink, and the Torah's strong opposition to any form of idolatrous worship is understood. Today, too, depravity, dissolution of values, and certain types of hedonism are very common. Mention of idolatry with the proper explanation might contribute to strengthening the values of the students * * * Vol XIX Q: My mother is suffering from Alzheimer's and my father is her main carer. Sometimes she think my father is her father and sometimes doesn't seem to know who I am. When she thinks she quite young, she can't grasp that her son has grey hair and is about to turn 60, older than she thinks she is. From the point of view of honoring parents, how does one best respond to these situations? A: The miztvah to honor one's parent is considered very serious and obligatory even when demanding. The Yerusahalmi (beginning of Peah) says: Honoring the father and mother is a very serious obligation. In Massechet Kiddushin (31b) we are taught that "Honoring father and mother is compared to giving honor to Gd. It is well known that all three (father mother and Hashem ) are partners in the creation of the child. The Rambam adds (Mamrim 5:1): "Honoring father and mother is a great mizva". And in the Shulchan Aruch: (Yoreh Deah 240:1) "One has to be very careful in the fulfillment of the mizva of honoring father and mother. None of this changes and the obligation may even be increased when the parent needs special care. The fact that your mother has strange ideas of reality because of the Alzheimer's does not change that fact. To the contrary, the situation gives more opportunities to do the miztva than were available when the parent was well and healthy. The question becomes what are the exact parameters of the new obligation and if they interfere with other obligations that the Torah has imposed upon us. For example: I would like my mother to live in my home but my wife and or my children find this an impossible burden, what do I do? If a shiduch is about to be broken because the sick parent takes too much time and effort and disrupts the household, what am I to do? It is a great opportunity when a parent need ongoing care. The Torah wants us to accept the obligation happily. Q: I have heard different views on whether I have to keep two days Yom Tov when I am in Israel. The chap who sits next to me in Shul has a flat in Israel and tends to use it for yomim Tovim. He therefore appears to be allowed to keep one day. Others I know have been told by their Dayan they can keep only one day. The general view seems to be that I must keep two days. If I'm in a hotel I keep two days, but if I'm with family and I have to keep Pesach one day longer it's awkward. I can't really afford hotels and I'm embarrassed to cause problems. What's your view? A: Two days of Yom Tov for those living in the diaspora, when visiting Israel is an old question. In the days of the Bet Yosef, there was a special synagogue in Jerusalem that was opened only on the second day of Yom Tov and attended by the visitors. The Chacham Zvi, Rabbi in Amsterdam. wrote that there is no possibility of keeping two days in Erez Yisrael. The two day possibility existed only in the diaspora. The Rav Shulchan Aruch was also of the opinion that one day in Eretz Yisrael was the rule. This discussion has been renewed in modern times when it has become very common for the diaspora Jews to travel often to Israel to own homes there, and to stay at times for long periods. Many poskim disagree with the Chacham Zvi and say that it is question of minhag (tradition) and if they are returning to the place of the two-day minhag they should keep that practice in eretz yisrael. A minority side with the Rav and the Chacham Zvi. In a particular case there are other factors that might influence the halachic decision and you should consult with your posek. Q: My parents never got married since mom is Jewish and dad was catholic. I know that I'm a Jew since mom is, too. My question is: as far as I'm not a child of a married (Jewish) woman, is there anything that could disqualify me according to the traditions and/or the Jewish law? A: There is nothing preventing you from being a serious and devoted Jew. I hope that that is you decision. Q: I have discovered that my mother in law did not receive a halachically valid 'ghet' (divorce papers) and she has " remarried. (The ghet was issued by liberal non orthodox beit din in the United States.) May I eat in my mother in laws home? Does she still have a chezkat kashrut ? In all other ways she is seen by the outside world as being Orthodox. ( Schule affiliation, head covering etc.) A: One should not jump to conclusions about important halachic status questions without investigating the situation carefully. As far as your mother in law's status I suggest that you clarify with a posek who knows the issues involved. Your mother in law covers her hair and is formally orthodox; I assume that she does not question her status, and that her standards of kashrut should not be questioned. Q: I just retired from 30+ years as a CIA clandestine operative where my work took me mainly behind the old Iron Curtain and extensively to the Middle East. I was, at times, ordered to takes a life by my commanders/country. Is it ever allowed to violate "Thou shall not kill?" A: I can't relate to the past. The halacha directs us that we are obliged to protect ourselves from a rodef, a person who pursues us with intention to do serious harm. This can be extended at times to include people who are planning to do harm, and who have the where with all to inflict serious damage. I can't say about your situation but the possibility exists that your action was within the context of halacha. Q: Armageddon is described in the Christian New Testament as a "Hebrew" word. Can the Rabbi please indicate if this word can be split into 2 or 3 parts and what does the word signify in Hebrew? A: Armageddon seems to be a difficult word whose source or root is unclear. Some associate it with the place name (found in the Bible) Meggido. This is possible. Q: My next-door neighbor is a lady in her nineties. She has outlived her family and friends, and for the past three years has been in a Jewish Care nursing home. Her will, written about thirty years ago said she wanted to be cremated, and her husband was cremated some years back. She has told me repeatedly she does  not want to be cremated, but the social workers say she has been declared mentally incapable of making decisions or a new will and her old will must stand. Jewish Care is under the orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Can the Rabbinate overrule the social workers? A: Our assumption is that a Jew always wants to do the right thing. When the original will indicating cremation was written, that was done against her purer intention to do the right thing. It is important that all the information be brought to the attention of the local rabbinate and that they try to fight for the proper kind of burial. I imagine that your witness will be crucial; even if she is incompetent in most things she may be reasonable about others. I wish you well on your efforts. * * * Cafe Oleh experts have been chosen for their knowledge and reputation. 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