Someone once wrote a letter to the great Rav Moshe Feinstein, asking him if individuals should remove their yarmulkes when walking into places of questionable repute. Rav Moshe replied “no” — the whole reason the Eabbis instituted wearing a yarmulke is to remind us that Hashem is constantly watching our actions. It’s been said that the word “yarmulke” is a hybrid of the words yarei malka – fear of the King. In today’s age in particular, it’s important to want to wear the yarmulke to remind ourselves not to walk into inappropriate places.
Let’s remember that our way of dressing had a big impact on Klal Yisrael in Mitzrayim. The Midrash tells us the Jews were saved because of four merits: not changing their names, their language, their clothing and keeping harmony – there were no informers. Yet, we’re told the Jews worshipped idols and were on the forty-ninth level of defilement! What type of merit was their outer garb when inwardly they were in such a low place?
The Gemara Brachos (4a) draws a parallel between the redemption from Egypt and the redemption from Babylonia. When they left Babylonia, there were no open miracles. Why? Because while they did keep most of the laws of the Torah, they had changed their names, language, clothing and had intermarried.
Clearly, there is something special about being careful with the externals, but what does it entail?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk gives a deeply penetrating explanation. Hashem told Yitzchak He was granting him Eretz Yisrael and all the blessings promised to Avraham because Avraham “observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” (Toldos 26:5) Here, the safeguards are referring to Rabbinic prohibitions instituted to protect us from violating any mitzvos. For example, they expanded the circle of relatives one may not marry and put in many rabbinic safeguards regarding the laws of Shabbos.
We see now that the promise that Hashem granted to Avraham and the Bnei Yisroel was specifically for creating a safeguard. When something is precious in our eyes, we take steps to protect it. The halacha illustrates this point in the following case: Someone paid a person to guard an attaché case stated to contain ten thousand dollars. Alas, the guard was negligent, and the case was stolen. If the owner would then inform the guard that actually, there was one hundred thousand dollars in the case, the guard would still only be responsible for ten thousand dollars, since he could claim he would have been much more vigilant regarding this larger sum of money.
Our precautions, the steps we take to protect, are proportionate to how precious the item is to us.
Clothing matters. Externals matter. They communicate how much we value what’s inside. The Jews in Egypt walked, talked and looked like Jews by their manner of dress, even if their actions were lacking. It showed they identified as Jews and wanted to protect their kedusha (holiness.) They had challenges and blunders, but they valued their Judaism.
The opposite was true of the Jews in Bavel. The Jews dropped their unique outer appearance because they wanted to mix with the other nations. This demonstrated that they did not value their Judaism, even while still performing most mitzvos!
The coming week will be vacation time for many Yeshivos. Many call it “Yeshiva week.” To me, it’s a contradiction. It’s really “No yeshiva week!” Yet, the name sticks and perhaps for good reason! The name Yeshiva week reminds those of us who attend yeshiva, to act like people who attend yeshiva, even while we are not in a yeshiva. To maintain proper outer attire reminds us that we are bnei yeshiva and a “light unto the nations.” Our clothes and presentation on vacation — or in the workplace — constitutes our safeguard for our Jewish identity.
For example, placing filters on our computers and phones for the internet is not because we are weak, but because we are strong and value what we have. We don’t want to take any risks or chances with our precious souls.
Wearing a yarmulke is not one of the 613 mitzvos. It was added by the rabbis because they knew we need an ongoing reminder of who we really are. More importantly, it demonstrates that we want to remember to be on a level that demonstrates how a person should behave. Our outer garb demonstrates that we value and cherish our connection to Hashem and want to keep that strong.
Wherever we are — at home, at work, at play, on vacation — let our modest outer garb for both boys and girls, men and women, remind us of our commitment to Hashem and his mitzvos, and help us in our multitude of activities, to reflect a person who cherishes his relationship with Hashem.