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Faith under fire; concealing identity.

Written by שי טחן, 6/2/2024


Faith under fire; concealing identity. Part 2

Rabbi Shay Tahan

Last week, we discussed how to behave when faced with individuals who pose a threat due to our religious beliefs. We covered topics such as handling the mezuzah in dangerous areas and the permissibility of removing our kippah in potentially risky situations. Today, we'd like to explore the question of whether we are obligated to disclose our Jewish identity if directly asked by someone. For example, if an Arab asks him whether he is Arab like him, can he disguise his origin in front of someone who appears to intend harm based on our religion?

This question appears to be explicitly addressed in the Shulchan Aruch(יו״ד סימן קנז ס״א) : "It is forbidden for a man to say that he is a non-Jew so that they will not kill him." We learn from this that one must be willing to give up their life rather than deny their Jewish religion.

The crucial question that needs clarification here is that the principle is when one is placed in a scenario of violating the Torah or giving up their life, they should violate the Torah as life is considered more precious. The Rosh and the Tur provide an answer: By claiming to be a gentile, one is considered as if he denies his faith, which falls under the prohibition of believing in idol worship. The obligation, in this case, is to give one's life rather than violate this prohibition.

Rabbeinu Yona  (ספר היראה)also ruled that if someone falsely claims that you are a gentile, it is incumbent upon you to correct them and affirm that you are Jewish.

Still, in our specific scenario, where someone asks if he is an Arab, he may answer affirmatively to avoid harm based on a couple of leniencies. Firstly, halacha permits providing an unclear reply that can have multiple meanings. For example, the Gemara  (נדרים סב,ב וכן ברמ״א סימן קנז)states that a Torah scholar may say, -עבדא דנורא אנן"I worship the fire," although that might sound as if he intends to worship the fire idol, his real intention is to convey worship of Hashem, who is metaphorically referred to as fire in a pasuk. "כי ה’ אלקיך אש אוכלה הוא"-.

Accordingly, one may say that he is Arab, as Arab identity is not strictly tied to a religious belief but often associated with a place of origin. Arab identity can be interpreted through national, regional, or local lenses rather than exclusively tied to the Muslim religion. Therefore, claiming to be an Arab could be understood as identifying as a Jew from an Arab country. Even if one does not have Arab origins, lying to preserve oneself is permitted in dangerous circumstances.

The late Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who served as a rabbi in the Kovno Ghetto during the Holocaust, recounts a poignant story in the "Valley of Weeping" section of his responsa "M'Ma'amakim" (Volume 10, Question 4). He shares the following: "I heard about a great sage who, during a decree, was asked if he was Jewish. He replied, 'Kein Yid,' which, in the German language, signifies a negative response, but in Hebrew, it means 'Yes, I am.' The evildoers, unaware of the dual meaning, thought he was answering in a non-Jewish language and spared him. However, his true intention was in the holy language, 'Kein Yehudi,' [meaning: 'Yes, Jewish'], sincerely and unequivocally declaring his Jewish identity."


A similar account is found in the writings of Rabbi Menashe Klein, who recounts in his responsa "Mishne Halachot" that a week after being liberated from the Buchenwald camp, where he had hidden during the Holocaust, there was a selection by the Nazis. When asked if he was Jewish, having concealed himself among the patients, he invoked this halacha and replied, "Kein Yid," using language with a double meaning, and thus he was saved.

Another leniency can be found in the insight of Rav Elyashiv(אשרי האיש יו״ד ח״א עמוד צב) , as he offered a different perspective on this halacha. He wrote that the prohibition to falsely claim to be a gentile applies only when there is an attempt to convert the individual to another religion. However, in a situation where there is no such attempt, one may claim to be a gentile. Therefore, if someone finds themselves in a hostile environment, they may choose to save themselves by falsely claiming to be Arab, according to this interpretation.

Conclusion: Considering both the allowance for ambiguous responses in halacha and the perspective of Rav Elyashiv, one may choose to identify as Arab to avoid potential harm.


Modifying Attire to Blend In: Is it Acceptable to Change Clothing to Appear Non-Jewish?

In another scenario, an individual may find themselves on vacation surrounded by people who harbor hostility towards Jews, and there might not be an immediate option to relocate. Even if the person can conceal their head with a hat, their distinct Jewish appearance may still be noticeable due to their clothing and tzitzit. In such a situation, is it permissible for them to remove the tzitzit and their 'Jewish' attire and wear regular clothing, like jeans and colored garments?

Regarding tzitzit, if one can conceal the strings under their clothing, it is advisable to do so. However, if there is still concern about wearing tzitzit even underneath the clothing, it is permissible to remove them entirely. This is because the obligation to wear tzitzit arises only when one dons a garment with four corners. Wearing such a garment, though, is not obligatory. The practice of wearing tzitzit is primarily to fulfill additional mitzvot, but in situations of potential danger, it is acceptable to remove them.

Regarding the rest of the clothing, the halacha(סימן קנז)  is more lenient since one does not verbally declare their non-Jewish identity; therefore, it is permitted. An illustrative story is recorded in Sefer Chasidim, (Chapter 189) at a time of persecution, of a devout man who found himself wearing non-Jewish attire and fleeing, unintentionally conveying the impression that he was not Jewish. Filled with remorse, he sought guidance on whether he needed atonement. The rabbis advised him that he did not need atonement for dressing in such a manner (but directed him to ensure that, in the future, he avoids wearing clothing made of shaatnez).

Another story is recorded in the Midrash (מדרש רבה פרשת וישלח פרשה פב אות ח): Two students of Rabbi Yehoshua changed their attire during a time of persecution. They were confronted by a renegade named Ishtartus, who said to them, "If you are Torah scholars, give up your lives for it. Why did you change your attire? If you are truly the sons of Torah, you should be willing to die for it."

They replied to him, "We are indeed the sons of Torah, and for its sake, we are prepared to be killed."

Their response was that while they were indeed willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Torah, it is not obligatory or necessary to endanger oneself by appearing in clothing that specifically identifies one as a Torah Jew.

Conclusion: One who finds themselves in a dangerous environment may change their clothing to conceal their identity.



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