By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The following shidduch-dating account is a true story. A shadchan in Israel had set up a nice yeshiva student, who was originally from England, with an American young lady studying in a shana bet program in Israel.
The young man picked up the girl and took her to a hotel lobby. The conversation began smoothly enough, as they discussed various aspects of coping with transportation, the weather, and other innocuous subjects typical of first dates. And then the young man said something that made the girl’s jaw drop.
He explained that to deal with the cold weather, at times he will wear a jumper. She was in a state of shock. Was the young man pulling her leg? He seemed very serious and earnest. Somewhat incredulous, she asked him, “What yeshiva do you learn in again?”
“In the Mirrer Yeshiva.”
“Do other guys there wear jumpers?”
“Well, some of them do, but some won’t because I suppose it may not be so yeshivish.”
The girl fumed inwardly, “How could the shadchan have set me up with this . . . with this . . . whatever!”
She just wanted to go back home. The date ended on a somewhat sour note.
The young man was a bit taken aback by the girl’s closed-mindedness. Is the world she is from so rigid that a simple jumper would get her all frazzled?
The girl informed the shadchan about the young man’s antics, perhaps to warn him not to set him up with others. The shadchan said that he would speak with the boy.
Before we continue with the narrative, it should be noted that neither the shadchan, nor the young man, nor the young lady access Wikipedia. The reader might find the following Wikipedia entry somewhat fascinating:
“A jumper (in American English), pinafore dress or pinafore (British English) is a sleeveless, collarless dress intended to be worn over a blouse, shirt, or sweater. In British English, the term jumper describes what is called a sweater in American English.”
Unfortunately, the damage was done, and neither side wished to pursue things further.
All of this brings us to an issue that we will at times see within our communities. Sometimes on Purim (especially during a Purim play), at a wedding, or at a women’s-only concert, we will find people dressing up in clothes designed for the opposite gender. There are poskim who permit this type of activity, such as the Mahari Mintz, cited in the Bach in Yoreh Deah 182. The Mishnah Berurah, however, recommends against it, because this may involve a Torah prohibition of “lo silbash gever simlas isha”—a man may not wear the dress of a woman. Why risk an activity that may involve a Biblical prohibition?
The general halachos of this commandment are found in chapter 182 of the Yoreh Deah section of Shulchan Aruch. It deals with wearing clothing and numerous other activities that are specific to the opposite gender and the consequent prohibition involved in performing them.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the reason for this Torah prohibition is to prevent someone from disguising himself and mixing with the opposite gender for licentious designs. However, this explanation does not deal with why there may be a prohibition in just wearing one article of such clothing. The Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos actually gives an entirely different explanation. He writes that such dressing brings up improper thoughts within the person’s mind.
With this explanation of the Rambam, we can now well understand why some poskim understand the prohibition to include even just one article of clothing. We can also understand how individual activities that are unique to one gender may be a problem as well.
An interesting example might be in regard to the minhag of many chassidim to avoid using a tefillin mirror. Although there is a halachah that the tefillin shel rosh must be exactly centered horizontally between the eyes (and placed above the eyes and right below the forehead), the Shulchan Aruch originally ruled that the use of a mirror was an activity specific to women, and was thus forbidden. Although both the Rema and Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, explain that this ruling is no longer applicable in our times, there are still many people who refrain. The Rambam’s explanation here is instructive in understanding this.
Chazal tell us that Yael utilized a tent-peg rather than a sword to do away with the enemy general. While pikuach nefesh would certainly trump the prohibition of lo silbash, since the enemy was drunk and fast asleep anyway, the use of the tent peg was proper because it prevented the improper thought process to which the Rambam refers.
The debate may shed light upon another debate, which involves women and skiing. It is almost impossible for women to ski without wearing ski pants (under a skirt). Are women’s ski pants prohibited? Rav Ovadiah Yosef permits it, while Dayan Weiss in a responsum forbids the wearing of any such pants—even ski pants specific to women. With the Rambam’s explanation of the prohibition, we can now understand why Dayan Weiss ruled in this manner. The very notion of wearing pants may also conjure the improper thought process to which the Rambam refers.
There are numerous poskim who forbid the wearing of clothing of the opposite gender even on a temporary basis and in jest. The Sefer Yereim (Siman 96), the Knesses HaGedolah (Orech Chaim 695), and the responsa of the Rivash #296 are just some examples.
Baruch Hashem, the majority of people do not fall within the purview of this prohibition—including the protagonist of the story mentioned above. But there is an important lesson from the words of the Rambam that is applicable to everyone. We are accustomed to hearing about the mitzvah of v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem—that we have to be very careful to stay away from physical danger. This Rambam brings home the notion that it is not just physical dangers that we must stay away from; we must also distance ourselves from any activity that could lead us to improper thought processes. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and yes, the boy with the jumper (read “sweater” for those who did not catch it) is still single.