“When will you wear a hat?” My Chavruta (learning partner) asked.
He was a young Israeli rabbi, and we had become quite friendly over the months that we had been learning together. While the question could be understood as coming from a ‘holier than thou’ perspective, I do not think it was. He was my friend, and he wanted me to wear a hat, because he wanted me to do what he thought was right.
I understood this, so I answered without insult or malice.“When I find out that it’s halakha (Jewish law), I’ll wear one.”
“Really?” His eyes glimmered. He thought he had me.
I have to be clear with you, I was already fairly certain it was not mandated by Jewish law to wear a hat, because while my father wanted me to wear a hat when I turned 13 (it’s a Rav Soloveitchik thing), he never really got into the issue with me, or told me that it was halakha1. Mostly because it’s not. But my friend thought that it was, and he got a Mishna Berura (written by the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) to prove it.
I don’t remember the specific placement anymore (perhaps someone could provide it in a comment), but if my memory serves Rabbi Kagan’s ruling was that while praying (and especially while reciting the blessing after meals) one must wear a hat, since we wear hats in the street. Being that while in public we dress with a certain level of respect for those around us, how can we dress in a less respectable manner before God Himself?
I agreed with this logic. I think we should dress respectably to pray, don’t you?
“But I don’t wear a hat in the street…” I countered. Rabbi Kagan was clear. If wearing a hat is part of dressing in a respectful manner, then we should wear one to pray. But if it is not part of dressing respectably, then it is no longer relevant!
“So what?” my friend countered back. “It’s the halakha!”
“But he made it dependent on the reason!”
“Maybe it was dependent on the reason then; but now, it is halakha.”
I shrugged, and that was that. We had finished our learning for the day, and I went home.
It seems to me that my friend was advocating a position where anything that was ever done as a part of Jewish law or life in the past must be kept even when the reason no longer applies. In his opinion, this would apply not only to laws from the Sages (who themselves argued about this point), but seemingly to every custom or law ever made, like the law of wearing a hat to pray, which was declared based on a reasoning that no longer applies today.
Certainly, this point is not intuitive, and the rabbis I consider my teachers have not advocated this position. I think the onus is not on me, but on my old friend, to prove that Jewish law and custom really do travel through history like fly-paper, so that while we may add, nothing can be taken off.
1-Though if you actually want to know my father’s position on the matter, you will simply have to ask him. I may have wildly misunderstood him, and I cannot take responsibility for representing his opinion on this or any other matter, in fact.