An IDF Soldier’s Dirty Uniform

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by R. Gil Student

When we pray, we talk to the King of kings. In that spirit, we should dress as if we are meeting a king (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 91:5). Most people today are not as strict about this as they can be. It is rare to find men who wear a suit and tie for every prayer service — three times a day — even though they certainly would dress that way if they would meet a king or other dignitary. However, many make sure to wear at least a jacket when praying.

I once forgot to bring my hat and jacket to shul when I went to learn at night. I only realized just before Ma’ariv. I asked Rav Mordechai Marcus zt”l whether I should run home and get my hat and jacket, even though I would end up davening without a minyan. Does the rule to dress properly override the desire to pray with a minyan? Additionally, if it is my minhag to wear a hat and jacket for prayer, and a minhag is binding as a vow, does that mean I am biblically obligated to wear a hat and jacket for prayer? This last argument is suggested based on rulings of the Chasam Sofer. Rav Marcus told me that no, it is better to pray with a minyan without a hat and jacket than to pray alone with a hat and jacket. A minhag does not override a halakhah, the Chasam Sofer notwithstanding. I have since seen that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhos Shlomo, Tefillah 2:15) and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (quoted in Tefillah Ke-Hilkhasah, ch. 7 n. 80) rule likewise.

What should a soldier do if he is just back from an operation or an exercise and his uniform is dirty? Should he change into a clean uniform and miss the minyan or pray with a dirty uniform? In a short book on army uniforms, titled Hilkhos Madei Tzahal (p. 36), Rav Shlomo Aviner answers that ideally a soldier should change his uniform. However, if he is unable to do so then he should pray as he is because the dirt, the stains, are “mitzvah stains.”

The book’s editor, Rav Mordechai Tzion, quotes a short entry from Rav Aharon Ziegler’s Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik that was published on Torah Musings, July 31, 2014. Rav Soloveitchik was once asked by a student serving in the IDF whose job was cleaning and maintaining tanks whether he had to change his clothes before praying Minchah. Rav Soloveitchik replied, “Why would you need to change? You are wearing bigdei Kodesh, holy clothes!”

Rav Tzion further quotes an amazing passage from Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein’s introduction to his Chashukei Cheimed on Eruvin. Rav Zilberstein’s father-in-law, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, once got his clothes dirty while searching for chametz. One of the grandsons came to wipe off the dirt, knowing how strongly his grandfather felt about wearing clean clothes. Rav Elyashiv stopped him, saying that this was a “mitzvah stain.” Just like the Gemara (Pesachim 65b) praises the priests who got dirty from the blood of sacrifices, so too we should be proud to get dirty from doing mitzvos.

Rav Zilberstein continues that presumably this thinking also applies to a rabbi who dirties his clothing while checking and fixing the local eruv. Often, that involves walking in mud and climbing up poles. While normally a rabbi must be careful not to wear dirty or stained clothing, this does not apply to dirt and stains from checking an eruv. Rav Zilberstein also quotes his brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who applied this to someone painting a shul. Even if his clothing gets dirty with paint, he can pray in that dirty clothing because the stains come from the mitzvah of beautifying a shul.

So, too, suggests Rav Tzion, a soldier in a uniform that is dirty from IDF activity. Because the soldier is engaged in a mitzvah, the dirty on his uniform is a “mitzvah stain” just like someone checking for chametz, fixing an eruv or painting a shul. Perhaps, I suggest, even more so, because the soldier is engaged in piku’ach nefesh, saving lives, which is so great a mitzvah that it overrides all other mitzvos. While it is always best to wear clean clothing when praying, it is perfectly acceptable to pray while wearing an IDF uniform with “mitzvah stains.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

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