Acharei Mot 5763
“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt,
or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow
Back in the days when Nicholas the first was Czar in Russia, the
government issued a decree that Jews should wear hats with brims instead
of yarmulkes, like the non-Jewish residents. This caused a great uproar
among the Jews: “this is a law of the goyim” …and of course in this
week’s Torah portion it says “not to follow their practices.” Some of
the Jews said “one should be killed and not transgress,” quoting the
Talmud which says that while normally you can transgress any commandment
to save a life, in a time of persecution, when the non-Jews make decrees
against the Jews, you should die rather than transgress even a minor
mitzvah, because giving in would be a chillul Hashem, a desecration of
The chasidim sat in the beit midrash, the study hall, of Rabbi Menachem
Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker rebbe, and they had great and heated
arguments amongst themselves about this decree, some saying we should be
strict, and not obey it, others being more lenient, saying we should
The rebbe’s door opened, and he asked, “What’s the noise? What
happened?” They said to him, “the government has issued a decree that
Jews should change their clothes and wear the garments of the goyim.”
The rebbe said “The only ‘Jewish clothes’ are the tallis and tefillin.”
And he closed the door behind him.
The Jews were upset because they felt the secular authorities were
commanding them to give up something that considered an integral part of
their Jewishness, of their self-identity. Things probably haven’t
changed that much. I suspect if you told a typical chasid that he could
no longer wear a black suit, he’d get equally upset. But what exactly
were they upset about? Was the Czar really preventing them from
fulfilling a mitzvah, or requiring them to transgress something? Or was
it just a custom they were worked up about?
This is not to say that customs are not important. But sometimes it
seems like we lose sight of our relationship with God and instead get
hung up on our customs. Take dietary laws, for example: some people
who don’t follow the dietary laws at all would probably get very upset
if you told them that they were forbidden to eat matzah ball soup.
We do regularly elevate customs into positions more exalted than law.
Let’s look at the example of “Jewish clothes.” When we have a bar
mitzvah on a weekday Rosh Chodesh, what are the “Jewish clothes” you
will see in evidence? Kippah, tallis, tefillin. Pretty much every male
will be wearing a kippah. Most will a tallis. A few will wear
Which of the three is the most important?
Deut. 6:8: 8. say “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand,
and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” There is a specific
commandment to put tefillin on. This is understood by the rabbis that
each adult male Jew (many egalitarian rabbis would suggest this as a
mitzvah for women as well) has a positive obligation, a commandment from
the Torah, to put tefillin on every day.
How about the tallis? This is also part of the Shema, in Numbers 15:38.
“Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes
in the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that
they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue.”
The rabbis understand this as being a requirement of the garment. Any
garment that has “corners,” that is square, needs to have fringes.
Otherwise the garment does not need fringes. There is no requirement
for a person to go out of his way to put on a garment that has tzitzit.
But if you do happen to put on a garment with four corners, it better
have tzitzit on it. So why do we put on a tallis? Since our usual
clothes don’t have four corners anymore and is exempt from fringes, we
put on a tallis because we are eager to have the opportunity to fulfill
another mitzvah, even if we’re not required to.
How about the yarmulke, the kippah? I searched and searched, but
couldn’t find a verse in the Torah to relate to this custom. In the
Talmud, Shabbat 156b, it says: For R. Nahman b. Isaac’s mother was told
by astrologers, Your son will be a thief. [So] she did not let him [be]
bareheaded, saying to him, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of heaven
may be upon you, and pray [for mercy]’. In tractate Kiddushin it says
that a “great man” needs to cover his head, but not everyone. The
standard answer given for why we wear a kippah is to remind us of God
above us…which is also found in tractate Kiddushin, “R. Huna son of R.
Joshua would not walk four cubits bareheaded, saying: The Shechinah is
above my head.” So wearing a yarmulke is NOT required by the Torah at
ALL. It is, rather, a sign of piety.
Which makes it exceedingly curious that everyone wears a yarmulke, most
wear a tallis, and a few wear tefillin. This is the EXACT OPPOSITE
ORDER of what is called for by the Torah! We are commanded to wear
tefillin. There is a commandment surrounding the tallis which we can
fulfill if we wear it. There is no commandment whatsoever to wear a
yarmulke. But walk into shul without one, and see what happens! But
does anyone say anything if you don’t put on tefillin?
How about another contemporary example. The Torah tells us regarding
Passover (Exodus 12:16): “And in the first day there shall be a holy
convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to
you; no kind of work shall be done in them, save that which every man
must eat, only that may be done by you.” There is no commandment in the
Torah to observe the 8th day of Passover. The eighth day of Passover in
the Diaspora came about after the destruction of the First Temple, and
people in Babylonia didn’t know which of the two possible days was Rosh
Chodesh, the new month, so they celebrated on both days to make sure
they covered it. For 1,700 years now the calendar has been fixed. We
know exactly when the month starts, no question. Yet we had only 6
people here on the 7th day of Passover, the day mandated by the Torah
that we should not work. And we had close to 30 people here on the
eighth day…the day we recite Yizkor, the memorial service. The vote of
custom over law was 30 to 6.
What was the response of the Kotzker rebbe? How do we understand his
response to his students?
What he was telling them is, “don’t worry so much about your customs.
Worry more about what’s really Jewish. If they tell you not to put on
tefillin, come back and talk to me. Don’t make such a fuss over a
Yet we do that all the time. We lose sight of the “why” we do certain
things. We lose sight of the idea that at the heart of Judaism is
serving God and connecting with God, and our path for connecting with
God is through the mitzvot. We turn our customs into idols, and lose
sight of their roots.
In his book Go Rin No Sho, the Book of Five Rings, written in the 16th
century, Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman ever to live in Japan
(his title means “sword saint”) advised “learn to distinguish between
gain and loss in worldly matters.” We can apply that to spiritual
matters as well. The Kotzker Rebbe was telling his students the same
thing: know what’s important.