Talmidav Shel Aharon
23-5768: Mitzvah N-21-22
April 14, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 21 – This is a negative commandment: Do not follow the customs of the heathen.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “And in their statutes you shall not walk” (Lev. 18:3). One is not to emulate them in any way of dress that is distinctive for them, nor let the locks of the hair grow. Neither is one to shave the hair at the sides, leaving the hair in the middle of the head, which is called a crest. Neither is one to shave the hair in apposition to the face, from ear to ear, leaving a long growth behind him. Whoever does any one of these, or anything similar, is to receive whiplashes. If someone is close to the ruling circles of government and he needs to dress in their kind of clothes and emulate them, he is permitted. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.
Negative Mitzvah 22 – This is a negative commandment: Pay no heed a person prophesying in the name of an idol.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “You shall not listen to the words of that prophet.” (Deut. 13:4). One should not get into any long discussion with him or ask for a sign or a wonder. If he performed a sign or a wonder, no attention is to be paid him. Whoever thinks of a sign of his that perhaps it is true, violates this prohibition. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.
In Mitzvah 21, the Hafetz Hayim is concerned that by mimicking the practices of pagans, we will come to follow their lure. Judaism was a minority religion and if we do not maintain or special practices, than it is so easy to slip away into the majority religion. Even last weeks lesson, which spoke of intermarriage, it was always assumed in pre-modern times, that the majority religion would eventually pull the Jew away from the Jewish faith. Many Jewish rituals are designed to keep Jews separate and apart from the rest of the world and to uphold the unique elements of our faith.
The thrust of this mitzvah is not to go around looking like a pagan. It is not about refraining from a “Mohawk haircut” but trying to look like something that you are not. We have evidence, in Greco-Roman times of Jews, wanting to participate in gymnastic games that were always performed nude. Such Jews were embarrassed by their circumcision and actually had “surgery” (a very crude plastic surgery) to make it look like they were not circumcised. That is how far they were prepared to go to look like everyone else. Many cults insist on certain types of clothing and haircuts to this day to help identify followers. Jewish history is filled with people who dressed like pagans because they had jobs that put them in contact with pagans everyday and they needed to look like those they served (the Talmud often mentions Barbers as wearing their hair in pagan styles). It was not forbidden, but the Sages always tried to get Jews to look like Jews.
This is not about fashion necessarily. Much of what is fashionable today may be a violation of modesty rules in Judaism, but would not constitute looking like a pagan. But note that many signs of royalty and government also use religious symbols and if that is part of the “job” of working for government, this could be of help to the Jewish people in a time of trouble (think Queen Esther) and it is permitted to dress like a pagan.
In Mitzvah 22, the issue that it raises for us today relates directly to cults. Signs and wonders are very interesting things to see. There is no prohibition of attending a magic show or a “wonders of Science” show. The trouble begins in the interpretation of the “wonder”. If the result is given a “religious” interpretation, it is a sign that Jews need to get away quick. Cults depend on such interpretations to gather in members, using these wonders to convince others of the importance of the cult and its leader. For a long time Jews seemed to be the primary targets of such cults, unable to see that the connection between wonder and explanation was at fault. It does no good at all to enter into the discussions over the merit of the wonder or not. And here it does not matter if we are talking about cults, missionaries, or anyone else trying to convince a Jew that this religion is better because of this wonder or sign. We are not to argue with them, or show them the error of their ways, we are to pay no attention and walk away. We are not even allowed to consider if the wonder may be true or not.
So does this leave us in the dark about modern discoveries in science and the natural world? Again, the issue is not the wonder, but the explanation of the wonder. As long as it does not demand that we give up our faith, we can study and learn. As soon as it is used to “prove” that they are right and we are wrong, it is prohibited.