Religious life tends toward conservatism, retaining the practices and rhythms of prior years. New stringencies are often derided as fanaticism, an offensive rejection of earlier generations’ religiosity. While this may sometimes be the case, this hesitance cannot allow for ossification. New circumstances demand a renewed application of religious law that smoothly accounts for the present yet respects the past. An example is found in the responsa of Rashbash, R. Shlomo ben Shimon Duran. The fifteenth century son of a Spanish emigre rabbi, both of whom became leading authorities in the ancient Jewish community of Algeria, consciously changed long-standing practice toward stringency and defended his right to do it.

Barefoot in Shul: Defense of a Chumra

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I. Rashbash and Chumra

Religious life tends toward conservatism, retaining the practices and rhythms of prior years. New stringencies are often derided as fanaticism, an offensive rejection of earlier generations’ religiosity. While this may sometimes be the case, this hesitance cannot allow for ossification. New circumstances demand a renewed application of religious law that smoothly accounts for the present yet respects the past.

An example is found in the responsa of Rashbash, R. Shlomo ben Shimon Duran (bio). The fifteenth century son of a Spanish emigre rabbi, both of whom became leading authorities in the ancient Jewish community of Algeria (link), consciously changed long-standing practice toward stringency and defended his right to do it.

II. Respect for a Shul

The Gemara (Megillah 28a-b; Berakhos 62b) lists disrespectful actions that are incompatible with the honor due a synagogue. You may not eat or drink in one (see this post: link), nor use it as a shortcut or a place to stay dry from the rain. A synagogue is a holy place, intended for connecting with God. We must treat it appropriately.

Rashbash (no. 285 – link) explains that there are two kinds of respect and disrespect. The ultimate, true type is entirely spiritual. However, even the apparent kind, which is subjective, must be maintained. The definitions of this kind of respect and disrespect are bound by time and geography. Proper behavior depends on contemporary attitudes, what people consider respectful and not.

Therefore, Rashbash concludes, in Muslim countries you may not enter a synagogue while wearing shoes. Since people in those places consider entering a home while wearing shoes disrespectful, and certainly when appearing before a king, they must accord even greater respect to a synagogue. In Christian countries, however, you must wear shoes in a synagogue because, in those places, that is considered proper behavior.

III. Sources

Prior to the Rashbash, Tosafos (Shabbos 10a sv. rami) had ruled unequivocally that you must wear shoes while praying, except for Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av when we are restricted regarding footwear. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Tefillah 5:5) writes that it depends on what people in that place consider respectful. Surprisingly, only after a lengthy analysis, Rashbash quotes the Rambam. Apparently, he independently arrived at Rambam’s approach and reaches the appropriate conclusion for fifteenth century Algiers.

In subsequent literature, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 91:4) adopts Rambam’s language and later authorities generally accept it. Magen Avraham (91:5) quotes a responsum from R. Moshe Mintz (no. 38), who also ruled that people may not enter a synagogue while wearing sandals. However, on further examination it is clear that this German-Polish rabbi meant that people must wear shoes rather than sandals (link). Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 91:5, 151:8) quotes Rashbash at length, as does Kaf Ha-Chaim (91:25). Somewhat anomalously, Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 91:5, 151:9) insists that the entire discussion centers on wearing socks but not shoes. Everyone, he claims, requires one or the other because otherwise you appear to be following a Muslim practice. Rashbash, however, seems to base his entire argument on Muslim practice.

Rashbash’s ruling seems to mirror R. Ahron Soloveitchik’s view that nowadays all men must pray while wearing a tie. Since that is how we greet the President, we should show God at least that much respect. I know only a few people who follow that ruling. For whatever reason, it has not caught on.

IV. Chumra or Proper Application?

Rashbash is particularly concerned with the accusation that he is overstepping his bounds by forbidding a long-standing practice. Rather, like R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi (see Chullin 6b-7a), Rashbash was merely filling a role that previous generations had left for him. The Mishnah and Gemara, he argues, are replete with cases of later authorities forbidding something earlier rabbis had allowed. We never say that later rabbis must remain silent simply because earlier rabbis did not say something.

This logic should apply to both leniency and stringency. We must follow the proper application of halakhah in whichever direction it leads. R. Hershel Schachter is fond of saying that sometimes following the practice of prior generations is the biggest deviation. When circumstances change, earlier generations would have practiced differently and we must as well. Rashbash teaches us that this leads not only toward leniency, but also the occasional stringency.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

41 comments

  1. >Religious life tends toward conservatism, retaining the practices and rhythms of prior years. New stringencies are often derided as fanaticism, an offensive rejection of earlier generations’ religiosity. While this may sometimes be the case, this hesitance cannot allow for ossification.

    Lechumra and lekula, right?

  2. You have to read to the end to get the answer to your question.

  3. “When circumstances change, earlier generations would have practiced differently and we must as well.”

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh; were it only so simple.

  4. So following this logic, one should not wear hats in shul (in Western countries where this is considered disrespectful). No?

  5. “IH on June 12, 2011 at 9:59 pm
    So following this logic, one should not wear hats in shul (in Western countries where this is considered disrespectful). No?”

    Not so far off-SRH I believe made some visiting Rav take off their hat when they entered his house to visit him.

  6. Most yekkes over 50 wear ties to shul.

  7. The specific issue of wearing shoes in shul is very relevant in Israel, where many wear sandalim without socks, and Kohanim remove their shoes to duchen everyday. One shul I know of has a takana that Kohanim are not to duchen without socks. Even though many do wear sandalim without socks, this is still considered informal dress, so I wonder whether the Rashbash would forbid it.

    The problem is that in some communities in Israel, there is virtually no concept of formality. Many would greet a President in a T-shirt and sandalim. Does this mean that they can daven that way, or does the halakha impose a concept of formality, even where none exists by custom? If so, how do you define what is formal and what is not?

  8. Mycroft, R’ Hirsch made R’ David Tzvi Hoffman take off his *yarmulke* when he was interviewing him for a position in his school. They only covered their heads when learning Torah and davening (and, I assume, eating). Outside, of course, everyone wore hats.

  9. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    in the oldest shul in the Caribbean, all worshippers remove their shoes at the door.

  10. Shachar Ha'amim

    The Jews in Djerba, Tunisia pray barefoot in their beit knesset to this very day

  11. This logic should apply to both leniency and stringency.
    =================================================
    It would be an interesting halachic/sociological study to analyze whether thie thesis is supported in application. My bet would be that it is much more often applied in practice for stringency (perhaps due to “we don’t really know so it can’t hurt to be more stringent)
    KT

  12. “New circumstances demand a renewed application of religious law that smoothly accounts for the present yet respects the past.”

    And then:

    “When circumstances change, earlier generations would have practiced differently and we must as well.”

    I suppose the libertarian critique of sentiments like these in the political realm might be as follows: While this all sounds good in theory, the reality is that the underlying principle is so vague that, in practice, it is wide open to abuse…with the resulting danger that policy will simply end up reflecting the political preferences of whomever is in power at the time.

    Now of course halacha should not be equated in toto with the modern political complex (for example, our halachic system places a good deal more confidence in its rabbinic authority figures than the modern political system places in modern politicians). That said, I think that previous debates on this very blog over a variety of modern halachic controversies (women’s issues, end of life issues, academic approaches to Jewish texts, etc.) might suggest that this fear is not wholly unwarranted even within a halachic context. It should at least be considered.

  13. >Rashbash is particularly concerned with the accusation that he is overstepping his bounds
    Nice pun, Gil.

  14. joel rich on June 13, 2011 at 4:03 am
    This logic should apply to both leniency and stringency.
    =================================================
    It would be an interesting halachic/sociological study to analyze whether thie thesis is supported in application. My bet would be that it is much more often applied in practice for stringency (perhaps due to “we don’t really know so it can’t hurt to be more stringent)
    KT

    Certainly true in general among those who are not the LWMO.

  15. By the way, I’ve been to ceremonies with the President of Israel, at his residence, where almost everyone apart from the charedim were in very informal clothes, and many were in t-shirts and shorts. (Many were kibbutznikim, but not all.) No one thought it was unusual, least of all Peres himself, who was in a suit and tie and is probably one of the more formal people in Israel.

    I wear Crocs and socks on the Har HaBayit, but it’s davka the “frummer” types who walk there barefoot. (And we’re talking rough and unpaved ground there.)

    So when the kohen next to me is barefoot, I just think, “Nu, so was the kohen gadol” and leave it at that.

  16. The Rashbash’s teshuva is very interersting, but it hasn’t the slightest thing to do with chumra or kula.

  17. MiMedinat HaYam

    the gemara calls it — “koach de’heteira adif”. of course, not practiced today.

    2. in RSRH’s yeshiva, they took off their yarmulka’s for secular studies (?etc?)

    3. when the winning world series team comes to the white house, its in suit and tie. (not shtreimels, etc; even though it’s air conditioned.) check out basketball team this / next week.

    4. sachar ha’amim — in djerba today, they wear their shoes, so as to be able to flee right away. (my cousin had a deal with her husband while they lived in south africa — they each had their paperwork and $100 in their shoes at all times, and were instructed to go the airport at the first sign of trouble, and NOT wait for their spouse. take the first plane out. and all israelis had the same instructions.)

  18. >R. Ahron Soloveitchik’s view that nowadays all men must pray while wearing a tie. Since that is how we greet the President, we should show God at least that much respect.

    Not sure if this true nowadays. The president himself makes public appearances without a tie these days.

  19. But, it is still viewed as rude behavior for a man to wear a (formal) hat indoors.

  20. Joshua Josephs

    By this logic of conforming to the actions of people at a particular place in time, it seems the we ought not to allow shukling or movement during Tefillah particularly by the Shliach Tzibbur. Anyone who has seen a US president address the country will note that they take particular care to stand/sit very still. I am sure of course that much of this is due to the distraction their movement would cause on TV, but nonetheless it seems to fall in this paradigm.

  21. “By this logic of conforming to the actions of people at a particular place in time, it seems the we ought not to allow shukling or movement during Tefillah particularly by the Shliach Tzibbur. Anyone who has seen a US president address the country will note that they take particular care to stand/sit very still. I am sure of course that much of this is due to the distraction their movement would cause on TV, but nonetheless it seems to fall in this paradigm.”

    No, the halochio principle here how one would appear BEFORE a president/king/etc., not that the mispallel is the president himself.

  22. Would you shukel when you met the president?

    The point about wearing a hat indoors is very apt. Of course, the Jewish view of headcovering is exactly the opposite of the Western one.

  23. “Would you shukel when you met the president?”

    If you are talking about President Obama, yes I would 🙂

    Which reminds me, if JJ is correct, shouldn’t we be davening using a teleprompter?

  24. Hats are forbidden in American Courts, and the security actively enforces this.

    Why do we wear hats?

  25. >No, the halochio principle here how one would appear BEFORE a president/king/etc., not that the mispallel is the president himself.

    He may have messed up the analogy, but by the same token we would not shake or fidget before the president, but try to remain still to the best of our ability.

    Personally I think all this stuff is bunk, since we have diverged greatly from comparing God to Habsburg emperors and our present notions of royalty are Euro-centric and anachronistic, but if we’re going to do it anyway then we should deal with the fact that we would not shokel before the sovereign.

  26. MiMedinat HaYam:

    “in RSRH’s yeshiva, they took off their yarmulka’s for secular studies”

    in RSRH’s school (not a yeshivah) or in the hildesheimer rabbinerseminar?

  27. To me, the interesting aspects of the teshuva are these:

    (1) That societal notions of what is respectful or disrespectful can be imported into, and become part of, halacha even though they have a non-Jewish source.

    (2) That a concern that the non-Jews among whom we live will look down upon our religious practices carries weight in halacha.

  28. “Why do we wear hats?”

    “We” don’t. Some do; most just wear kipot. The (formal) hat in shul is identity politics masquerading as halacha.

    My question is why Gil posted this, seemingly, without thinking through the conclusions of his halachic position?

  29. ““Why do we wear hats?”

    “We” don’t. Some do; most just wear kipot. The (formal) hat in shul is identity politics masquerading as halacha.”

    I knew someone who had to get special dispensation to wear a kippah indoors at a work function ca 1970. (He was eating, or he probably would have taken it off.) The point being, a little-jew-hat is still a “hat” for american etiquette purposes, or at least it was at one time…

  30. “IH on June 12, 2011 at 9:59 pm
    So following this logic, one should not wear hats in shul (in Western countries where this is considered disrespectful). No?”

    “Not so far off-SRH I believe made some visiting Rav take off their hat when they entered his house to visit him.”

    This was Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, z”l the author of Shu”t Melamed LeHo’il. He was indeed told by Rav SR Hirsch, z”l to take off his ישא when he met with Rav Hirsch because the custom at the time was that hats were removed in the presence of an important person. Rav Hirsch was known as an important person and he was concerned that non-Jewish teachers in the school would think that Rav Hoffman was disrespectful if he left his headcovering on. This is brought down in a responsum written by Rav Hoffman who was asked about the propriety of removing one’s headcovering in court when an oath had to be taken. He brought the story of Rav Hirsch to buttress his lenient ruling. But that’s not the end of the story. Apparently, a recent publisher of his Responsa either didn’t like this responsum or was under pressure so he removed the responsum from the volume and all you see is a big blank space. Check it out – it is responsum #56 published by Hamossad Le’Idud Limud Torah. Pretty amazing!!!!! This link is to a version that does have the responsum
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=1053&st=&pgnum=194

  31. Emma — in shul? On the broader topic you raise, see: http://www.jlaw.com/Recent/yarmulkecourtroom.html and note a distinction is made between a kippa/turban/chador/fez and a formal (Western, after all) hat.

  32. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg)

    In Japanese class in college, i happened to be wearing a baseball cap one day, and took it off in the middle of class (to scratch my head maybe?) revealing the yarmulka underneath. The instructor, who had probably never met a Jew before coming to the USA, stopped what she was saying and turned to me, and asked with a very confused look on her face, “[Steg]-san, you are wearing two hats at the same time?” And so i learned to put my yarmulka in my pocket when wearing anything else on my head…

  33. on hats and halacha – see arukh hashulchan,oc:91:5 and levush oc 151:6 (saying that head covering is not dependent on local cust…lets not forget that to some people – minhag yisroel – torah.

    not so pashut…question today is why do people insist on double head coverings – kipah and hat – there is na stickel of torah on that too.

  34. ‘“We” don’t. Some do; most just wear kipot. The (formal) hat in shul is identity politics masquerading as halacha.’

    Same thing with a kippa serugah.

  35. >Same thing with a kippa serugah.

    How is that masquerading as halacha? No one who wears a kippa serugah claims that davka a serugah is a halachic requirement.

  36. Ruvie — The Aruch ha’Shulchan text is more nuanced – but, in any case, a kippa would satisfy. Also, given the author is recent enough that we have photographs of him, I note that I haven’t seen many people wearing his type of hat to shul: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/YM_Epstein.JPG

    Finally, the photograph belies the point about תלוי במנהג המקום

  37. “How is that masquerading as halacha? No one who wears a kippa serugah claims that davka a serugah is a halachic requirement.”

    First, wearing a hat is not masquerading as halochoh either (see RAMBAM, MB about wearing a hat as one does in the street). My real point is that a kippa serugah is certainly worn for identity politics.

  38. IH – the AS is wearing a spodek, which was once common in Lita and is now commonly worn only among various chassidishe groups like Ger. Litvaks also wore streimlach (see Rav Kook, RSZA, etc.) but is no longer worn by Litvaks.

  39. Rafael — yep, thanks. Personally, I’m holding out for the revival of the judenhut.

  40. MiMedinat HaYam

    regarding jacket and tie and the president:

    president reagan NEVER took off his jacket (and i believe tie) in the oval office. he considered the room a (what we could call) holy place. referencing the previous occupants of the room.

    and you would NEVER see him with his feet on the desk.

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