By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Recently, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita, was asked whether a female nurse or health professional may wear a red facial mask since the Shulchan Aruch states that red clothing is a breach of tznius. He ruled that it is permitted since the purpose of a mask is not to make her more attractive, but rather to protect her from illness.
What follows is an overview on the halachic issue of wearing red.
The Gemara in Berachos 20a tells us of the self-sacrifice of Rabbi Adda bar Ahava who encountered what appeared to be a Jewish woman wearing a “karbalusah” (red scarf) in the marketplace. He took it away from her and the woman subsequently took Rav Adda bar Ahava to court. He lost and had to pay the rather large sum of 400 zuz. He inquired what her name was and when she responded, “Matun,” he replied: “If only I had listened to your name, Matun (translation: be patient), I would have saved myself 400 zuz.”
The Ben Yehoyadah asks: Why does this particular incident constitute mesirus nefesh or self-sacrifice? He answers that Rav Adda bar Ahava was unsure as to whether or not she was a Jewish woman. He felt that it was worth the risk of assuming that she was in order to ensure that a Jewish girl would not violate a prohibition.
Why Did He Rip It?
The Aruch and most of the commentaries that discuss the issue write that Rav Adda bar Ahava ripped the article of clothing on account of its apparent lack of modesty in color (it was an overgarment over other clothing). The Maharal (Netzach Yisroel chapter 25) understands that he ripped it on account of it being an article that Jews shouldn’t wear because it is like the gentiles’ way. The Maharal does not understand that the ripping was because it was immodest, but rather because it denotes assimilation.
Regardless as to what the self-sacrifice actually was and why it was ripped, there seem to be five approaches in the commentaries as to what exactly the prohibition would have been in a Jewish girl wearing a karbalusah.
Pritzus. The Aruch and Tosfos in Kesuvos 72a explain that it is pritzus — a breach of decency — and brings to sin. The Shach (Y.D. 178:3) further explains in the name of the Maharik (Shoresh 88) that it is not the manner of modest people to go in red, and that this is a tradition in the hands of the Jewish people. It is not the manner of tznius and hachna’ah — a humility of dress.
V’kaivan d’hacha. In Teshuvos Binyomin Ze’ev Vol. II # 282 “V’kaivan d’hacha” he explains that red is very important and exotic in a sense, and it is not the way of Jewish women to dress in such a manner. Many understand this as complementing the idea of hachna’ah, humility of dress, expressed above.
Avodah Zara. The Nemukei Yosef seems to provide an explanation that red is the color used by the priests of avodah zara, and that in wearing red there is a trace of violating avodah zara.
Shatnez. The Teshuvos Gaonim Kadmonim (#101) writes that he perceived that this article of clothing contained shatnez — a prohibited mixture of fibers. This is also the approach of the Terumas HaDeshen (Siman 276).
Eisav. The Chasam Sofer has a different approach: that the power of Eisav stemmed from red or Mars. He cites the interpretation of Rabbeinu Bachya on the verse, “Haliteini nah min ha’adom ha’zeh — feed me from this red,” and that it’s something entirely foreign to and unbecoming of the Jewish nation.
Plugging It All Back In
There may be a second or corollary issue of tznius (modesty) in bringing excessive attention to oneself, but for now we are dealing with the particular issue of wearing red. Starting from the last explanation and going backward — according to the Chasam Sofer — a red mask might theoretically be an issue since this may evoke the red of Mars or Eisav. The red mask does not present a specific problem of shatnez. Red may possibly have been used in avodah zara, so that would address issue number three. It could also be that the red mask may be extremely exotic. The only one that the Shulchan Aruch adopts is the first one — modesty. For this, Rav Zilberstein ruled it is permitted.
Guidelines for Red
There are other reasons to be lenient even for some of the other opinions cited above. The halachah is that the item must either be entirely red or the majority of it visibly red (see 178:1 and commentaries). Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, had ruled (see Halichos Bas Yisroel p. 92 footnote 7b) the color Bordeaux is not considered red for these purposes. The author extends that to other types of off-red as well.
The origin of the word “karbalusa” is explained by both Rabbeinu Chananel and the Aruch as referencing the fleshy red part on top of a rooster or chicken’s head. This would seem to be the type of red that is referenced in the Gemara. Since most red masks are not this color, it is good according to their view as well.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvos v’Hanhagos Vol. I #136), shlita, seems to understand the aforementioned Gemara that it includes any color that brings attention to oneself. Thus, a bright yellow or bright pink would be included in the prohibition according to Rav Shternbuch. Rav Chaim Kanievsky is also quoted as forbidding any bright color. Other poskim cite other sources for not bringing excess attention to oneself and forbid any bright or neon color. They do not state that their source is this Gemara in Berachos, however.
In Sefer Mitzvos HaBayis Vol. II page 145, a ruling issued by Rav Yitzchok Elchanan Spector, zt’l, is cited that states that since nowadays gentile women no longer wear red as a sign of pritzus, the Gemara is no longer applicable. This view was originally published in a Torah journal in Europe. Clearly, however, Rav Elyashiv and other more contemporary poskim do not adopt the approach of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.