Wednesday, November 22, 2006

chukos ha'akum - the issur of copying non-Jewish practices

I assume this is the inyana d’yoma …
The gemara (Avodah Zara 11) discusses the practice of burning the belongings of a dead king, which was both the practice for Jewish kings as well as non-Jewish kings. Why does this not constitute a chok of avodah zarah which the Torah prohibits copying? The gemara answers “sereifa lav chukah elah chashivusa”. There are two possible ways to read the gemara’s answer: 1) even though burning was a practice of idolatry, since it also practically served the function of honoring the dead kings, it was permitted; 2) the burning was done simply to honor kings and was never an idolatrous practice, hence it is permitted. A very important nafka minah between the two readings is whether a practice used for idolatry is permitted to be duplicated if done for some practical function – the Ran, based on this gemara, holds this is not a problem, but Tosfos disagrees. Support for Tosfos comes from the sugya in Sanhedrin 52 which quotes a pasuk to justify using a sword to carry out the punishment of misas sayif, as that was the method also used in idolatry – if using a sword is functionally the best way to carry out this penalty (the gemara tells us other ways constitute “misa minuveles”), why does the gemara need a pasuk as a matir? Therefore, Tosfos argues that there are two types of practices the issur of chukos ha’aku”m relates to: practices that are used in the worship of avodah zarah, which would be prohibited even if they serve a useful function unless we have a pasuk as a matir, and practices which aku”m do which are not used in avodah zarah worship but are just customs or social norma – here a matir is also needed, but finding a functional use for the practice or behavior suffices. In a nutshell, the machlokes Tosfos and the Ran may boil down to a simple definition of terms: is chukkas ha’aku”m a prohibition against idolatrous practices, or practices done by idolotors (with the caveat that they serve no greater function). What if all non-Jewish doctors and hospitals have doctors wear white robes – is that prohibited because of chukos ha’aku”m? The Mahari”k addressed this very question and held that unless there is a breach of tzniyus, based on the Ran unless the manner of dress is used in the practice of idolatry there is no issue, which is how the Rama paskens. The GR”A (Y.D. 178:7), however, favors the opinion of Tosfos, which leads to far greater stringencies – even in matters of social norma, a matir based on functionality or practical benefit is needed if a gentile practice is duplicated. Does a tie serve a function other than imitating the social norma of the gentile society? If not, then wearing one might not be permitted! From celebrating Thanksgiving (and soon to be inyana d’yoma: office holiday parties) to yalmukahs in the workplace, determining where to draw the line in issues of chukos ha’aku”m is an inevitable dilemma of living in a free society that encourages “blending in” with the crowd. Tosofos and the Ran are the starting point for working out the details.

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