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Why ‘aliyah bullying’ is just a massive red herring.

For most of us who live in places where Chabad has a presence, we’ve got used to their ubiquitous little tables set up with tefillin, and the inspiring way they encourage so many Jews who otherwise wouldn’t give the mitzvah of laying tefillin a second thought, as they run around their busy lives.

Come rain or shine, those Chabad shlichim don’t miss an opportunity to call Jews over to them on the street, and ask them if they’d like to lay tefillin.

Let me ask you something:

Is that ‘tefillin bullying’?

I mean, there are 613 mitzvahs, and not everyone is going to have the privilege of doing all of them in one lifetime. Surely, when the Chabad shlichim are coaxing people to spend a few precious moment connecting to God, and putting God’s mitzvah of laying tefillin ahead of what they themselves wanted to be doing at that precise moment, that is a good thing, isn’t it?

Let’s explore another example.

Say, we have a guy who doesn’t eat kosher. Say, that guy has a ‘religious’ sister who is trying to encourage him to swear off the pork, and to only eat kosher meat. Let’s eavesdrop on that conversation, a little:

Sister: You know, my dear brother, every time you eat another rasher of bacon, it’s disconnecting you from God and doing terrible damage to your soul. You are such a refined Jewish neshama! Eating pork products is so beneath you, sweet brother. And also, God doesn’t like it very much.

Brother: I find your comment to be kosher bullying. You telling me that God doesn’t like it when I eat pork doesn’t help me to feel good about myself as a Jew, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Do we agree with him?

What about the Jewish boy who is seriously dating that nice, non-Jewish girlfriend? His mother realizes that things are getting serious, and arranges to have a last-ditch talk with him:

Mother: I know I didn’t raise you right, I know I didn’t take the Torah seriously, I know I put what was easy and comfortable for myself ahead of what God really wanted me to do, and how He really wanted me to live, as a Jew – but please, I’m begging you, don’t marry that girl! It’ll devastate me, and end 3,000 years of Jewish continuity, because your kids won’t be Jewish!

Son: Mother, I feel intimidated by these kind of comments. I’m fed up with all your nonsense about your grandchildren not being Jewish. I’m standing up for my rights to live exactly how I want. There are many, varied reasons why I just couldn’t find a Jewish girl to date, and at this stage, I don’t believe I need to.

[Mother bursts into heart-wrenching sobs].

Son (increasingly defensive…): I’m just defending my right to live my life and not be attacked because I can’t just break up with the woman I love and marry someone Jewish instead. Well done to you, mother, that you married a Jew, but spare a thought for those who have tried and failed to find a Jewish spouse. I had to date outside the faith just to get a girlfriend, and I have other Jewish friends who won’t even consider marrying a Jew now, because it was so hard for them on the Jewish dating scene.

Is this “don’t marry out” bullying?

And if the answer is ‘yes’, is that a bad thing?

If something is a mitzvah, if something is a Torah commandment, then surely we should be encouraging other Jews to do it, with all our strength? Part of the reason I’m so in awe of my local Chabad shlichim here in Jerusalem is that they are actively encouraging Jews to do mitzvahs every single day.

Come listen to the Purim Megillah!

Come join us for the Pesach Seder!

Come participate in Kaparot, come listen to a lecture on the Tanya, come give some tzedaka to build our new shul!

Do I have the wrong end of the stick here?

Instead of thinking how awesomely inspiring it is that they are constantly encouraging me to move out of my comfort zone, and to move past my laziness and apathy and yeoush and disinterest, I should be accusing them of mitzvah bullying, instead?

That doesn’t sound right to me.

Everyone has their reasons why certain mitzvahs are hard for them. For example, the mitzvah of covering my hair as a married woman is really, really hard for me. It was so hard for me, I didn’t do it for the first eight years I was married.

But that doesn’t meant that I started justifying what I was doing to myself, and explaining how my ‘mission’ in life didn’t include covering my hair, or how my big, important job working for the British government meant I had a free pass on covering my hair.

I didn’t cover my hair because I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to cover my hair, and my personal circumstances, outlook, work (and crazy, crazy big hair!) all made it very difficult to do.

But I still acknowledged I was in the wrong, and that God really did want me to cover my hair.

And, I was still very impressed by my friends and acquaintances who were covering their hair full-time, because I knew how much inner strength and determination that required.

So what changed?

Things changed when we finally got to Israel, and my parnassa hit the skids, and I started to realise that me not covering my hair – as well as a whole bunch of other ‘little’ things, like not benching after bread, and wearing jeans, and going to the movies – actually had some serious spiritual consequences, and was causing me a lot of issues in my actual day-to-day life.

I started covering my hair with such a bad grace – but my shalom bayit picked up instantly, and my parnassa also rebounded (not immediately. God likes to maintain something of an illusion with these things, to preserve our free choice.)

So now, I happily choose to cover my (still crazy….) hair, not because I like the mitzvah, not because it’s easy – it’s still so very, very hard, and I’ll post about all that another time – but because:

I realized this is what God wants.

And that doing what God wants makes my life so much easier and nicer.

There are certain spiritual rules God put in place for how He wants Jews to live, and how Jews can best maximize their spiritual potential. Sadly, plenty of Jews today don’t even know about these spiritual rules, and the mitzvoth that they are clothed in.

The fewer of these ‘rules’ a Jew operates by, the more difficult, stressful and challenging their lives inevitably will be.

So let’s ask this again, is it right to ‘lecture’ other Jews about doing mitzvoth?

That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? When people put out memes with “love your fellow Jew as yourself”, is that considered ‘lecturing’? How about if they share a shiur on avoiding sinat chinam and lashon hara?

Is that considered ‘lecturing’?

Couldn’t every single one of us turn around and say something like:

Nice for you, that you’re managing to avoid slandering people all the time and hating other Jews who are different, but some of us just couldn’t get there, hard as we tried. Some of didn’t have the strength to avoid participating in all the juicy gossip on Facebook. Some of us just couldn’t continue seeing the good in other people, some of us just had way too many bad middot to overcome to have the energy to start working on our own sinat chinam, even though we know deep down that’s preventing the geula and causing us so much suffering in our own lives.

But God is surely going to save me, despite all my bad middot and unrepentant aveirot! I don’t doubt that for a moment!

Couldn’t we all make that same argument about every mitzvah we find hard, and that we don’t really want to do?

And then what? Where does reward and punishment fit into this picture?

If a Jew can do anything they want, pick and choose their mitzvahs, then state that for sure, God is going to reward them exactly the same regardless of the mitzvahs they’re actually striving to do, or are saying they are ‘exempt’ from doing, that totally negates the concept of reward and punishment.

This is Judaism 101. This comes from Jewishvirtuallibrary.org:

The doctrine of reward and punishment is central to Judaism throughout the ages; that man receives his just reward for his good deeds and just retribution for his transgressions is the very basis of the conception of both human and divine justice.

Rambam states in the 11th of the 13 Principles of Faith that:

“God gives reward to he who does the commandments of the Torah and punishes those that transgress its admonishments and warnings. And the great reward is the life of the world to come; and the punishment is the cutting off of the soul [in the world to come]. And we already said regarding this topic what these are. And the verse that attests to this principle is (Exodus 32) “And now if You would but forgive their sins – and if not erase me from this book that You have written.” And God answered him, “He who sinned against Me I will erase from My book.” This is a proof that God knows the sinner and the fulfiller in order to mete out reward to one, and punishment to the other.”

Can you see the problem, here?

Moving to Israel is a mitzvah. (I know there are apparently ‘frum’ people who are so confused they are even doubting that, so please take a look at the daas Torah in this post, Deconstructing Aliyah, which sets out a whole bunch of real, actual Torah sources on the subject, if you’d like a change from all the ‘daas me‘ flying around the internet.)

So, if we’re going to start accusing other people of ‘aliyah bullying’ then we have to be consistent, and also start accusing other people of ‘kosher bullying’ and ‘tefillin bullying’ and ‘not marrying out’ bullying too, because as you can hopefully see for yourself, the same arguments are effectively playing out in each of these arenas.

It’s always hard to keep mitzvahs, in some ways. God expects us to keep striving out of comfort zone, to keep trying to give Him what He wants, and to not give up on the mitzvoth even when we can’t quite reach them.

I have so many mitzvoth I’m still struggling with, not least my own problems with lashon hara and anger.

I could turn around and give God a bunch of excuses why I still flip out and go ballistic – and they’d all be true! But that doesn’t change the picture that God says that getting angry is a very bad thing, and that He wants me to carry on working on it, until 120.

Sure, I can justify my bad behavior all I want.

But that doesn’t change the fact that God wants me to do better, and He wants me to get Him involved in really solving the issue.

So unless we’re also going to start accusing God of being a “good middot bully”, or a “keeping the Torah bully”,  it seems to me this whole ‘aliyah bullying’ idea is really just a massive red herring.

What’s the Jewish hat name, and other questions

It might surprise you to know that the most popular search time involving Jews (besides Israel) is: Jewish hat name. Every single month, around 5,000 people are wondering to themselves, “what do Jews wear on their head” and “what’s that hat, that Jewish wear?”

(It might surprise you to know this, too, but hardly anyone on the web is searching for ‘Jews’. Nearly everyone is searching for ‘Jewish’, which kinda explains why traffic from search engines has been so puny, the last four years.)

So, I decided to do a post devoted to answering the question of: “What’s the Jewish hat name”, and other related questions – all phrased the same way people are searching for them on Google, so that hopefully more people will find the answers to their questions about “what do Jews wear on their head?”

Q: What’s the Jewish hat name?

A: The Jewish hat name will vary depending on what country and what community you’re in. In the US, UK and other English speaking countries with a large population of chareidi or Chassidic Jews, the hat will be called a yarmulke, which often sounds as though it’s pronounced ‘yamaka’.

So, when people want to know: how do you spell yamaka? – the answer is, you don’t spell it how it sounds.

But there’s another Jewish hat name that’s very common too, and that’s the kippah. Most of the Hebrew-speaking Jews in Israel will refer to their Jewish hat as a kippah, not a yarmulke.

Q: Kippah vs yamaka – what’s the difference?

A: While in theory, any beanie-type Jewish hat could be called either a kippah or a yamaka, in practice, there are certain types of Jewish hat that are only called by one term, or the other. For example, in Israel, there is a type of crocheted kippah that’s usually very colorful, and which can range in size from teeny-weeny, to ear-covering huge.

The smallest knitted kippah I ever saw was on the head of a teenager who was clearly making a point to his parents, and it was the size of a quarter. This type of knitted kippah is almost never called a yarmulke, as yarmulke is a term commonly used by Jews outside of Israel, and most Jews outside of Israel don’t wear a knitted kippah.

There’s many reasons for this, but a big one is that many Jews don’t feel so comfortable wearing a big, flamboyant, colorful kippah that’s going to instantly mark them out as Jews, in a world where violent anti-semitism is on the rise.

So usually, a Jew who is wearing a kippah in public outside of Israel will wear one that is black, and less immediately obvious. And the types of communities who are ‘religious’ enough to wear a kippah full-time tend to refer to it as a yarmulke.

Q: Why do Jews wear hats?

A: Jewish men cover their heads as sign of respect to God, and as a way of acknowledging God’s omnipresence in the world. Even a not-observant Jew will usually cover their head when they attend services at a synagogue, or for other Jewish life cycle events like a wedding, funeral or Passover Seder.

In Israel, many Jewish men who otherwise don’t wear a kippah or hat will cover their head in some way whenever they are reciting a bracha, or blessing, usually on food or drink. Often, you can see some very creative ways of Jews covering their heads in this way, with napkins, tablecloths, and even their own hands being pressed into service.

A more religiously observant Jew will cover their head 24/7, because they are more aware of God’s presence in the world, and are trying to respect it, and stay connected to it, throughout all their mundane actions throughout the day.

Another less happy reason why a Jew will wear a hat, specifically, as opposed to a kippah or yarmulke, especially outside of Israel, is to try to ‘blend in’ a bit more, while still covering their heads. In recent years, the Chief Rabbi of France put out a message telling French Jews that it was preferable for them to cover their heads with a baseball cap, or some sort of other generic head gear, in public, to avoid being singled out by anti-Semites. That same message is being heard in Jewish communities throughout Europe, including Belgium and Germany.

In the UK, where I’m originally from, most Jews are usually relatively comfortable wearing an obviously Jewish kippah or yarmulke in areas with a high population of visible Jews, like Golders Green, Stamford Hill or Broughton Park. But when they go into areas with fewer Jews where a man in a little Jewish hat will stand out a mile, they will often also tend to plump for a baseball hat instead.

Q: What’s the Hasidic Jew hat called?

A: There are many different answers to this question. If you’re referring to a round, furry disk of hair that can sometimes rise up to a foot tall (!), this is called a shtreimel. This type of hat is typically worn by Hasidim on Jewish holidays, and the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, as a mark of respect.

Orthodox Jews typically wear their finest clothes on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and as shtreimels are usually very expensive to buy, they are kept for the special occasions.

Then, there’s the black fedora type hat that other observant Jews tend to wear, also throughout the week and also on Shabbat. Depending on which group of religious Jews you belong to, the style of the hat will vary. For example, Chabad Hasidim typically wear a type of black hat called a fedora with a more pinched look at the front, and a down-turned brim.

While people who belong to what’s called the more yeshivish crowd (after a yeshiva, the place where Jewish men learn Torah), will tend to wear a Borsalino style with the brim up.

Again, this changes depending on the community and country you’re looking at. One thing to note is that while you will see a lot of shtreimels even in Israel, you tend to see far fewer black hats, outside of certain enclaves. That could be because Jews in Israel feel much more comfortable wearing their little Jewish hats in public here, so they don’t need a different type of hat to cover up their kippahs or yamakas.

Q: Why do orthodox women wear wigs?

A: There is a commandment, or mitzvah, that once a Jewish women marries, she should cover her hair. There are a few different reasons given for this commandment. (Go HERE for a more in-depth discussion of this subject.)

The first reason is that hair is very attractive to other men, so when a Jewish woman covers her hair and keeps it only for her husband’s eyes, she is sending a very powerful message to other men that she is unavailable.

There are also kabbalistic reasons for covering hair, that have to do with bringing more spiritual bounty and blessings down into the Jewish home. The Jewish tradition is full of stories which clearly depict how the effort a married Jewish woman makes to cover her hair brings her all sorts of blessings in the home, including successful children and increased parnassah¸ or the ability to make a living.

Now, in terms of why do orthodox women wear wigs, specifically, we hit a big disagreement within the orthodox Jewish community itself.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z’tl, was a very big fan of orthodox Jewish women covering their hair with wigs, and that’s why you see so many Chabad ladies wearing wigs, even today.

On the other side of the debate are a number of big rabbis, including many Sephardic Rabbis, who have a very strong tradition that married women should only cover their hair with a hat or scarf, and not with wigs.

The issue is still being hotly debated, and each orthodox community has its own guidelines and mores. In practice, many orthodox women outside of Israel will choose to cover their hair with a wig over a hat or scarf simply to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to themselves.

For example, when I was coming through Manchester airport a little while ago, because I was covering my hair with a hat, as opposed to a wig, I was called over by the security staff, and taken off to a little booth on the side where I was asked to take my hat off, so they could check it.

Man, my hair was a fright show… And that whole experience is not exactly fun, so many orthodox Jewish women in those types of situation will just prefer to wear a wig, and to blend in. Also at work, it’s often just easier to wear a wig, to avoid any awkward situations or potential discrimination.

In Israel, far, far fewer women wear wigs, and most of the married women who choose to cover their hair do so with headscarves, in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Again, I could write a whole book on the topic of “Jewish head covering female”, but I hope this gives you the main idea.

  • If you have any other questions about Jewish hat names, or other aspects of Jewish life, please leave me a comment, and I will do my best to answer your questions. You might also want to check out the Judaism 101 category, for other articles exploring basic Jewish concepts.