Do Clothes Make the Halakhic Man?

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #15a: Do Clothes Make the Halakhic Man?

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

R. Hiyya Bar Abba and R. Assi were sitting in front of R. Yochanan and R. Yochanan was drowsing. R. Hiyya said to R. Assi [we now skip the first two questions he raises]: "Why are the talmidei chakhamim in Babylonia dressed up? Because they are not benei Torah." (Shabbat 145b)

The simplest interpretation of R. Hiyya's point is that the scholars in Bavel dress in fine rabbinic garb to cover up their inadequacy as scholars. Rather than doing the arduous work of actually becoming a scholar or a saint, many are tempted to take the easier path to recognition by putting on a long coat or growing a big beard. Indeed, this temptation applies to yeshiva students as well. It is far easier to feel that one is accomplishing things in yeshiva by putting on a jacket than to actually master the Talmudic page or deal successfully with character flaws.

According to this first interpretation, the pronoun "they" in the line "they are not benei Torah" refers to the scholars. R. Yisrael Lipshutz, in his Tiferet Yisrael (Avot 4:6, Yachin 38), points out that if the Babylonian scholars fail to know the material, the gemara should not refer to them as "talmidei chakhamim." He suggests that "they" refers to the general Jewish population of Bavel. The authentic scholars of Bavel are unable to achieve the recognition due to them as a result of their scholarship because they teach a people unable to appreciate the depths of Torah. The scholars are forced to resort to rabbinic grab, as this is all that their congregants understand.

If R. Yisrael is correct, R. Hiyya's charge addresses the congregants and not just the scholars. Certainly, the leaders must exhibit true rabbinic greatness and not just a rabbinic wardrobe. At the same time, the people have a responsibility to learn to appreciate true excellence. While it would be unrealistic to expect every doctor and carpenter in the community to become a scholar, we can ask that they learn enough to differentiate the true man of knowledge and counsel from the phony.

Of course, it would be false to say that clothes are irrelevant. Dignified clothing can express honor for an endeavor and particular types of clothing can express identification with a community. At the same time, we must remember that dress pales in comparison with learning and true character. We should always prioritize the more difficult attempt to reform the person inside the clothes.