Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 

For the Sake of Appearances

This Rabbinical opinion was developed by Michael Gillette and it represents a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

Question:  May a Jew wear a military medal if it contains the shape of a cross?

Opinion: The medal may be worn only in a situation in which the wearing of the medal is clearly consistent with its nature as a military award and not casually, or in any other circumstance.

  At our recent Torah study, a member of the group asked whether it is permissible for a Jew to wear a military medal that is in the shape of a cross, such as the American Distinguished Service Cross.  The question was based on a concern that wearing such a medal might appear to resemble the wearing of a Christian religious symbol, and the inquisitor wondered if this is permissible according to Jewish law.  As I mentioned at the time, Halacha is concerned with appearances of this type.

  There are actually three distinct areas of Halacha that deal with appearances.  One area is Chillul Hashem, which is a prohibition against behaving in a way that publicly disgraces God, and indirectly the Jewish People as a whole.  A second area is known as Chashad, and it deals with behaving in ways that would cause an observer to think less of a person based on his perceived actions, even if the actor was not doing anything wrong.  The third area of concern, Marit HaAyin (often referred to as Marit Ayin, Ma'arit Ayin, Ma'arit Ha'ayin, Maris Ayin etc...), is similar to Chashad and it deals with actions that erroneously appear to be unacceptable and might lead others to engage in truly inappropriate behavior.

  I do not believe that Chillul Hashem is relevant to the current question since this concept applies to actions that are actually wrong and shameful.  The issue at hand involves an action that is not wrong in itself (wearing a military medal), but might lend an appearance of impropriety (wearing a Christian cross).  Therefore, the more relevant concepts will be those of Chashad and Marit HaAyin.  Although similar, these concepts are slightly different and an example might help to distinguish between them.

  Suppose that I keep kosher but I have many friends who do not.  I often like to eat with my friends but I am very careful to bring my own food when we dine together outside of my home.  If I wear a kippah when I go into a Burger King, even if I bring my own food and merely sit with non-kosher friends who order at the counter, those who see me might think less of me because they assume that I am eating treif food while simultaneously professing to be a traditionally observant Jew.  Even though I am not eating treif, so I am not actually doing anything wrong, my reputation could be hurt by the misunderstanding of my actions because it appears that I am eating treif.  This is an example of Chashad, and eating in the Burger King under these conditions would be prohibited.[1]  According to Halacha, I should avoid even the appearance of impropriety in order to protect my reputation.

  Alternatively, if I wear a kippah when I go into a Legal Seafood Restaurant, some might actually believe that the restaurant is kosher (this is a mistaken belief held by people whom I have known) because they see an apparently observant Jew eating there.  Even if I bring my own food and merely sit with non-kosher friends who order off the menu, my wearing a kippah into a restaurant that might be kosher when it isn’t could lead other Jews who do keep kosher to make an erroneous assumption about the restaurant and thereby eat treif.  This is an example of Marit HaAyin, since my behavior did not just hurt my own reputation but it also led other Jews to commit errors of their own.  Marit HaAyin is more serious than Chashad and the restrictions on it are more strenuous.

  Since Marit HaAyin is more serious than Chashad, if we can show that it is permissible to wear the Distinguished Service Cross consistent with Marit HaAyin, that would show that we can also wear it according to Chashad.  Before we can make the argument, however, we should review the sources on Marit HaAyin.

  The primary source on this issue and the place where we first find the term ‘marit ha’ayin’ (for the sake of appearances) in the Hebrew is in Tractate Shabbath of the Babylonian Talmud.  This section of Talmud discusses a variety of laws concerning the observance of Shabbat, and as part of the discussion it also reviews actions that are prohibited during Shabbat.  Part of the Mishnah on daf 146b reads:


  The Gemara that follows states:

IF ONE'S GARMENTS DROP, [etc.] Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Wherever the Sages forbade for appearances sake (emphasis added), it is forbidden even in the innermost chambers. We learnt: HE MAY SPREAD THEM OUT IN THE SUN, BUT NOT IN SIGHT OF THE PEOPLE? it is [a controversy of] Tannaim. For it was taught: He may spread them out in the sun, but not in sight of the people; R. Eleazar and R. Simeon forbid it.


R. Huna said: If one shakes out his cloak on the Sabbath, he is liable to a sin-offering. Now, we said this only of new ones, but in the case of old ones we have nought against it; and this is said only of black ones, but in the case of white or red ones we have nought against it; [but in any case there is no culpability] unless he is particular about them.

  This section of Mishnah considers the possibility that a person’s clothes accidentally get wet during Shabbat and that when the owner of the clothes gets home, he changes into a dry outfit.  Since his clothes are wet, it is natural that the owner would want to place them out in the sun to dry.  However, washing clothes is an action that is prohibited on Shabbat.  Now the man did not wash his clothes on Shabbat, so he has not violated the basic Halacha.  Nevertheless, if he places his clothes out to dry in a public place, an observer who did not know that the clothes were made wet by falling into a puddle might conclude that the man had actually washed his clothes.  To avoid this appearance, the man should not lay his clothes out to dry; at least not in a public place.

  The Mishnah clearly states that laying the clothes out is only prohibited in public, but implies that it is not prohibited if it is “not in sight of the people”.  A lengthy Talmudic debate surrounds the issue as to whether or not the prohibition should extend to private places as well, as indicated in the text where it reads “it is forbidden even in the innermost chambers”.  This debate about public versus private action is taken up further in an exchange between the schools of Hillel and Shammai in Tractate Beitzah, daf 9a.  The details of that argument are a digression from our current discussion because it becomes very clear in the Gemara quoted above that the key point is the matter of appearances.

  The Mishnah clearly states that the prohibition of laying out one’s clothes in the sun only applies if the clothes became wet by falling into water on the road.  In other words, this applies if you step into a puddle, but not if you get caught in a downpour.  Why would the Rabbis distinguish between a puddle and the rain?  The answer seems to be that if it had just been raining, an observer would have known that the clothes could have gotten wet by means of a downpour and would not, therefore, conclude that the clothes had just been washed.  If it had not just rained, however, an observer would not assume an innocent explanation for why the clothes are wet because falling into a puddle is a far-fetched scenario.  The more likely conclusion would be that the owner of the clothes actually did wash them, and this could create confusion about what actions are permissible on Shabbat.  The prohibition seems to hinge entirely on how likely it is that the observer will be confused by what he sees, not just on whether the true action violates Halacha.

  To prove that my interpretation is correct, consider the Gemara.  As part of the commentary on this section, Rav Huna asserts that the prohibition should be considered so important that if one does lay out one’s clothes, he is just as liable as if he had actually done laundry on Shabbat (and would have to make a sin offering).  However, this is only true if the clothes in question are black in color.  If the clothes are white or red, no liability exists.  But why should the color of the clothes matter?  Because if you drop black clothes into a puddle and then lay them out, they will appear recently laundered since the black color of the cloth will mask any dirt from the puddle.  But if the clothes are light colored, it will be clear that they are muddied and that they were not recently washed.  Therefore, laying out muddy white clothes would not lead an observer to assume that the owner had done laundry on Shabbat while laying out even muddy black clothes will.  Again, it is the creation of an inappropriate appearance that matters.

  We can bolster the argument by considering another section of Talmud that corroborates this interpretation.  Tractate Avodah Zarah picks up the argument on daf 11b with the following Mishnah:


  This section of Talmud concerns itself with the possibility that if a Jew were on the road to a non-Jewish city while a non-Jewish festival is going on, it might appear that the Jew is on his way to attend the festival.  Therefore, the Jew ought not to be on that road interacting with non-Jews during the festival.  Notice that the prohibition does not apply when a festival is not taking place, nor does it apply to roads that lead to multiple cities, some of which are engaged in festivals and some of which are not.  The prohibition is not against going to a non-Jewish city or doing business with non-Jews.  It only applies when those activities take place in a context that would lend the appearance of the Jew celebrating a non-Jewish event.  Interestingly, this piece of Mishnah would speak directly to the contemporary practice of attending office Christmas parties.  I believe that, by Marit HaAyin, Jews ought not to attend such parties since it lends the appearance of celebrating Christmas and leads others to believe that it is permissible for Jews to celebrate Christmas[2].

  Once again, my interpretation is strengthened by considering the commentary.  The Gemara reads:


            Our Rabbis taught: It is forbidden to enter a city while idolatrous worship is taking place therein or [to go] from there to another city; this is the opinion of R. Meir. But the Sages say, only when the road leads solely to that city is it forbidden; if however the road does not lead exclusively to that place it is permitted. If a splinter has got into his [foot] while in front of an idol, he should not bend down to get it out, because he may appear as bowing to the idol; but if not apparent it is permitted. If his coins got scattered in front of an idol he should not bend and pick them up, for he may be taken as bowing to the idol; but if not apparent it is permitted. If there is a spring flowing in front of an idol he should not bend down and drink, because he may appear to be bowing to the idol; but if not apparent it is permitted. One should not place one's mouth on the mouth of human figures, which act as water fountains in the cities, for the purpose of drinking; because he may seem as kissing the idolatrous figure.

            What is meant by not being apparent?  Shall we say that he is not seen? Surely Rab Judah stated in the name of Rab that whatever the Sages prohibited merely because it may appear objectionable to the public, is also forbidden in one's innermost chamber! It can only mean that if [by bending] he will not appear as bowing to the idol.

  Notice that the Talmud now gives three further examples of activity that is prohibited because of appearances – bending down in front of an idol to remove a splinter, bending down in front of an idol to pick up dropped money, and drinking from a fountain in a way that resembles either bending down before an idol or kissing it.  Although an interesting discussion then follows to describe why each of those examples is necessary, we need not digress on those points here.  The important aspect of this Gemara for present purposes is the fact that it includes the language “but if not apparent it is permitted”.  This language is then clarified to mean that the behavior is acceptable “if [by bending] he will not appear as bowing to the idol”.  This clearly indicates that the actions are acceptable if they will not create a misunderstanding, but they are unacceptable if they will.

  Let’s return now to the question that was raised at Torah study.  May a Jew wear a military medal in the shape of a cross?  Based on the Talmudic passages offered, I would argue that the Jew may do so only in such a way or in such an environment where it is clear that the decorated soldier is wearing a medal without religious connotation, but that he may not wear the medal in any situation where confusion might develop.  If, on Veterans Day, our heroic Jew dons his uniform, complete with his Distinguished Service Cross, and marches in a veteran’s parade, I do not believe that anyone would view the medal as anything other than what it is.  Likewise, if our character puts on his dress uniform to attend a formal function and sports his full set of citations, the cross will not be viewed as religious symbol.  However, it is common practice to collect medals at antique shops and to wear them as fashion accessories or to display them in one’s home.  Such a collector of other people’s medals could be drawn to the Distinguished Service Cross because it is a cross, and thus insert a quasi-religious connotation to its display.  Where this confusion is possible, I believe that the action is prohibited on the principle of Marit HaAyin.

  Remember that Marit HaAyin is based on the concern that one Jew’s action could inadvertently create confusion on the part of other Jews, and thus inappropriately effect the actions of others.  This is an interesting concept.  How much should I care about how my behaviors, even if correct in themselves, may lead others to act badly?

  We can, of course, argue about the value of any particular Halachic practice, and no doubt this discussion may seem silly to some readers who don’t worry about eating kosher to begin with.  Nevertheless, it is important to understand that according to Jewish tradition, appearances matter.  They matter because they generate responses.  Jewish law would have me not only be honest in business, but also appear honest in business because it is my job to demonstrate and communicate the value of honesty to others.  It isn’t enough to be good in my own heart; I must, as part of Tikkun Olam, model good behavior and support good behavior in others.  In order to do that, I must not only act well, but also appear to act well.  This is the value of Marit HaAyin.

  The concept of Marit HaAyin applies not only to Tikkun Olam generally, but also to the Jewish people specifically.  We must recognize that the survival of our tradition depends on the actions of individual people.  Without a commitment to living a Jewish life, however one interprets that, Judaism will deteriorate and disappear.  That is why it is so important not only to be committed Jews ourselves, but to appear to be committed Jews to other Jews.  When we behave in ways that cause other Jews to feel less compelled to take seriously the demands of our tradition, we tacitly incite the deterioration of Judaism.  That is why, in my opinion, you should not wear a Distinguished Service Cross for fun, but you may attach it to your uniform on Veterans Day.

[1] It should be noted that one way out of this difficulty might be to wear a normal hat over my kippah while in the restaurant.  In that circumstance, I no longer profess publicly to be an observant Jew and misunderstandings about the apparent inconsistency between wearing a kippah and eating treif disappears.  We might also consider the possibility that I feel a connection to the minchag of wearing a kippah, but that I am not concerned with kashrut, such that I publicly wear a kippah while intentionally eating treif.  That action would not fall under the concepts of Chashad or Marit HaAyin, since it doesn’t create confusion between appearance and reality.  I believe that wearing a kippah and eating food that is obviously treif in public would fall under Chillul Hashem, however, and be prohibited on those grounds.

[2] According to my interpretation, Marit HaAyin could prohibit a Jew from allowing a Christmas tree in her own apartment even if she shares the apartment with a non-Jewish roommate who does celebrate Christmas, unless there were some clear and obvious way to differentiate spaces within the apartment that do not reflect on the Jewish lease holder.  This implication might be avoided, however, by reasserting the distinction between public and private activities as outlined in this paper where we discuss Shabbath 146b.  As mentioned, the debate about public and private distinctions is taken up in Tractate Beitzah where Hillel takes a more lenient position on private actions.  The Mishnah Berurah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, does indicate that certain actions that are prohibited in public are not prohibited in private, and that might create an exemption for Christmas trees in an apartment.  An examination of this question is beyond the scope of this discussion, however.


Talmudic Sources on Marit HaAyin include:  Avodah Zarah 12a, Bava Metzia 90a, Bechorot 43b-44a, Beitzah 9a, Pesachim 13a, Shabbat 61b, 64b, 137a, 146b, Sotah 3a, Taanit 11b, Yoma 38a.  Mishnah Sources include:  Kilayim 3:5, 9:2, Shekalim 3:2, Sheviit 3:4.

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