Rabbis and ties

Rabbis and ties

About the letter to Rabbi Zahavy about a friend who refuses to wear a tie in an unnamed shul (“Dear Rabbi,” June 6). The shul’s dress code is that in order to get an honor on Shabbos or Yom Tov the honoree must wear a tie. The writer says, “It hurts me to see him suffer this arbitrary form of punishment and humiliation.”

Rabbi Zahavy takes a strong stand with the congregant. He labels the shul’s dress code as “nonsense.” This is hardly appropriate language coming from a rabbi about a shul’s policy, which follows the dictates of no less a person than the prophet Ezra (6th century BCE), who enacted the rule that individuals should give special “kavod” (honor) to the Sabbath, marked by their change of clothing. This landmark saying of the prophet is quoted in the very first paragraph of chapter one on the laws of Shabbos in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Laws).

I have heard from one person that since a tie is worn daily in the business world, then to really honor the Sabbath or a holiday, someone should wear a special suit or at least a special tallis. In comparison, the shul’s requirement is minimal. And yet Rabbi Zahavy sees fit to denigrate this duly constituted and halachically based rule, and he insults it as a “do-as-we-say intimidation.” Is he correct?

Is this Rabbi Zahavy’s attitude towards every group that has rules for its members? Would the rabbi hurl the same insult at the strict rules of attire at the Spanish and Portuguese shul in NYC, where the officers who sit on the bima wear tails and tophats? Or at the British House of Lords for its strict code, including the wearing a female-style white wig and black robe by its male members?

In fact, the shul’s rule is that a congregant may daven 24/7 without a tie, and would even be given an aliya without a tie on a weekday, but not on Shabbos or Yom Tov. Yet this congregant is willing to forego the mitzvah of an aliya or leading the congregation in prayer even on his parent’s yahrzeit if it falls on those days because he refuses to comply with the dress code. Rabbi Zahavy denigrates the shul but fails to note this congregant’s egocentricity, nor label and bemoan the congregant’s obstinacy in that he consciously chooses not to honor his dead parent davka to assert his defiance of a rule that he doesn’t like. Nor does the rabbi clarify that the shul’s policy is not a punishment or humiliation; that it is not arbitrary but applies to everyone, and that his friend’s “suffering” is his friend’s choice.

Rather than join a shul that suits him better, after having done his best to change the policy through persuasive halachic arguments, the gentleman prefers to ostentatiously parade his rebellion every time he enters shul. Isn’t there something wrong here with this behavior, and with Rabbi Zahavy’s response?

Further: Rabbi Zahavy’s denigration of the shul’s policy defies Jewish thinking as espoused by the greatly admired and beloved Hillel, who says, in Pirkei Avos, “love peace and run after peace” and “do not separate yourself from the community.” The rabbi’s point of view also is antithetical to the Jewish concept of imitato Deus, wherein we are encouraged to emulate Hashem’s qualities, including the fact that He is Indivisible and a Unity. We are encouraged to live harmoniously with our fellow creatures and promote unity at every turn.

People differ on many subjects, including halacha. There are thousands of rabbinic disputes recorded in the Talmud, but they are resolved peacefully and harmoniously. Once a law or minhag is established by majority vote, all are obliged to adhere.

Rabbi Zahavy’s reference to Moses and other prophets is disingenuous and misleading. Nowhere does he claim that any of these venerable leaders defied the dress code of their day. Further if we were ever fortunate enough to have one of them beamed down from heaven a la Star Trek, I believe that an exception would be made for their flowing robes, and they would get an aliya on Shabbos even without a tie. My congregation, which has a similar rule, has made exceptions in the past. But more important, don’t you think that those prophets would follow the custom that they dress superior to their weekday garb comes Shabbos or Yom Tov? Clearly, the tie is not the issue. The goal is to make an uplift in our garb to honor our holy days.

We are glad that Rabbi Zahavy raised this issue, giving the matter a forum for public discussion. And although we disagree with Rabbi Zahavy and believe that he erred on this one, we agree with him that the gentleman in question should daven at a shul where he can philosophically agree with the establishment and be at peace with himself and his fellow congregants.


As I argued in my column, it does not seem to me that enforcing an arbitrary and capricious petty tie rule does anything to enhance the Sabbath. It does annoy, embarrass, and intimidate some of the people who come to synagogue to worship. Almost no Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck and around the world has such a Sabbath-tie rule. I’m sorry that Dr. Gross cannot understand the overwhelming majority Orthodox point of view on this specific issue. He is correct that the Torah does teach that “We are encouraged to live harmoniously with our fellow creatures and promote unity at every turn.” I hope he sees fit to make more effort to help us all live by that principle in our sacred worship and I wish him well.