Parashat Shemot: Jewish Language and Clothing

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #13: Jewish Language and Clothing

By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            There is a well-known midrash that Bnei Yisrael merited redemption from slavery in Egypt for their having retained particular mitzvot and symbols of Jewish identity.  Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that we did not change our names or our language, we did not speak lashon ha-ra, and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships).


            Arayot and lashon ha-ra are, needless to say, forbidden by the Torah.  But is there any law requiring us to speak or familiarize ourselves with lashon ha-kodesh (the holy language)?  The Tosefta (Chagiga I) says that once a child develops the ability to speak, his father should teach him Torah and lashon ha-kodesh.  If he does not do so, the Tosefta adds, then "it would have been more appropriate for him not to have been born."  The Sifrei (Parashat Eikev 11:20) comments that if a father did not do this, he is considered as having buried his son.  The Sifrei derives this from the Torah's having juxtaposed the mitzva of teaching children and the reward of long life, implying that if one teaches his children Torah and lashon ha-kodesh, they will enjoy longevity.  However, the converse is also true: if a father does not do so, their days will be shortened.


            Although the Rambam does not codify in Mishneh Torah the obligation to speak lashon ha-kodesh, elsewhere he states explicitly that indeed such a mitzva exists.  The Mishna (Avot 2:1) instructs us to be as meticulous concerning "easy" mitzvot as we are with "difficult" mitzvot.  The Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishna, portrays the study of lashon ha-kodesh as an example of an "easy" mitzva.  If, indeed, studying lashon ha-kodesh constitutes a mitzva, why does the Rambam make no mention of it in his Mishneh Torah?


            Let us first inquire as to whether this mitzva of studying and speaking lashon ha-kodesh is an independent mitzva, or is merely a prerequisite to the mitzva of learning Torah.  The Sifrei and the Midrash cited the mitzva of learning Torah together with the requirement of teaching lashon ha-kodesh. And the Yerushalmi (Sukka, end of chapter 3) formulates the halakha as follows: "Once a child can speak, his father should teach him LASHON HA-TORAH."  These sources might imply a strong relationship between the study of lashon ha-kodesh and Torah learning, namely, that the former serves to help facilitate the latter, and does not stand on its own as an independent mitzva.


            Rav Yaakov Emden was asked if it is permissible to study Hebrew grammar in the bathroom.  He thought that this was forbidden, given that the only proper way to study Hebrew grammar is through the study of biblical grammar.  Consequently, one who studies grammar will inevitably be reminded of sections of Tanakh.  Since the study of Tanakh is forbidden in the bathroom, we must also forbid the study of Hebrew grammar.   Rav Y. Gershuni pointed out that if the study of lashon ha-kodesh were an independent mitzva, then it would be intrinsically forbidden in the bathroom.  Since Rav Yaakov Emden forbade it only due to the inevitability of studying Tanakh, he apparently felt that learning lashon ha-kodesh is only a prerequisite to Torah study.


            We may, therefore, suggest that the Rambam felt that although there is a mitzva of studying and speaking lashon ha-kodesh, it need not be mentioned in Mishneh Torah, as it is merely a "hekhsher mitzva" (a prerequisite to the performance of a mitzva).  Indeed, true study of the Torah also involves the study of lashon ha-kodesh, which enables one to understand the Torah more fully.


            The Torah Temimah (Devarim 11:19) mentions that he wrote an extensive treatise entitled "Safa Le-ne'emanim" about this mitzva.  In this essay, he raised the question as to why no codifiers mention the requirement to speak lashon ha-kodesh.  He suggested that perhaps the mitzva applies only in the land of Israel, whereas in the Diaspora, it would be impossible to fulfill for many reasons.  Despite this rationale, he was not satisfied and tried to suggest another reason for its omission.


            In our world today, when so much of Torah literature is available in translation, one might wonder how important it is to study lashon ha-kodesh.  In truth, however, besides the fact that much of Torah has not been translated, it is obviously better to study Torah in the original.  The nuances and style of language are lost in translation.  Le-havdil (to separate the holy from the secular), if one reads Shakespeare in translation, does he get the full meaning and depth of that literature?


            Let us now turn our attention to the issue of clothing.  Although many people instinctively "quote" a midrash that Bnei Yisrael did not change their names, language or style of clothing, S. Buber observes that there is no midrashic source regarding clothing (footnote to Pesikta D'Rav Kahana 10:3).  The Ritva (in his commentary to the Hagada), though, apparently knew of such a midrash and explains it to mean that Benei Yisrael wore tzitzit and were thus immediately recognized as Jews by their special garments.  The Kol Bo (commenting on the Hagada's remark that Bnei Yisrael were "metzuyanim" – "exceptional") writes that Benei Yisrael's unique clothing prevented assimilation.  Interestingly, Moshe Rabbeinu himself seems not to have observed this custom.  As we read in this parasha, when Moshe arrives in Midyan, he does not identify himself, and when Yitro asks his daughters who assisted them, they answer that it was an Egyptian.  Apparently, he did not wear any special garb that would identify him as a Jew.


            Is this issue only a question of custom and Jewish identity, or is it mandated by Halakha?


            The Rambam (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 11:1) codifies a prohibition against following the laws of gentiles, forbidding us from imitating their dress or hairstyle.  A Jew should be recognizable by his clothes and distinguishable from gentiles through his mode of dress.  However, the Yereim (313 R 88) writes that it is forbidden merely to resemble the seven nations which inhabited Israel, and to conduct ourselves like the Egyptians.  Moreover, the Meiri (Avoda Zara 52b) limits the prohibition to dressing or coifing oneself in a style resembling an avoda zara.  The Rama (Shulchan Arukh, Y.D. 178) rules that clothing similar to non-Jewish style is only forbidden if it would lead to immoral behavior.  He also forbade wearing clothes that were worn as part of special customs which had no objective value.  Any clothing used for specific purposes (such as clothing identifying doctors) is permitted.


            Whether or not there is a halakhic imperative for Jews to distinguish themselves in their dress, the popular "midrash" implies that it is certainly a positive value.  In fact, the prophet Tzefanya said, "It shall happen on the day of the sacrifice that I will remember (punish) the officers and princes and all those who dress themselves in gentile garb"  (Tzefanya 1:8).