For the week ending 15 March 2008 / 8 Adar II 5768

Hoops on Studs

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jake in Denver

Dear Rabbi,
Why can’t men wear earrings according to the Torah since we find that the Jewish men gave their earrings for the golden calf, and also the Torah says a Jewish slave should have his ear pierced? Don’t these sources suggest that in Torah times men wore earrings?
Dear Jake,

You ask a very piercing question.

But before answering, it’s worth noting that when the people came to Aaron demanding an intermediary to replace Moses, Aaron told them to take the earrings from their wives and children (Ex. 32:1-2). Rashi explains that Aaron intended to stall, hoping that the women would not part with their jewelry, and that’s in fact what happened. Lest you think the women were only interested in their gold, that’s not the case, as later they donated it generously toward the Tabernacle. Faced with the women’s spiritual opposition to the calf, the men therefore donated their own earrings.

But were these men in fact Israelites?

When the Jews left Egypt, a mixed multitude of peoples, the “eiruv rav”, left with them (Ex. 12:38). Many of these peoples converted, but even so, most of them were not sincere converts but opportunists seeking to benefit from the Exodus-style “right of return”. This mixed multitude is infamously referred to as “the people” — “haAm” — in contradistinction to the Israelites who are called “the children of Israel” – “B’nei Yisrael”. In fact, usually, and particularly where the people is described as misbehaving, the code word “haAm”, referring to the mixed multitude, is used.

This is the case regarding the sin of the golden calf. The verses state: “When the people [haAm] saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people [haAm] gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Make us gods that will go before us....And all the people [haAm] stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron”. Later, many Israelites were enticed to honor or worship the calf in varying degrees, but the men who proffered their earrings for the calf were members of the mixed multitude. Originally non-Jews, these men may have had earrings, but that doesn’t mean the Israelites normally did.

Regarding the piercing of the Jewish slave, the verses state: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work six years, and in the seventh, he shall go free....But if the slave says, 'I love my master...I will not go free,' his master shall...bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him [until the Jubilee]” (Ex. 21:2-6). Note that this is not an indication that Jewish men of Torah times pierced. On the contrary, the fact that the Torah indicates ear-piercing specifically for a slave implies that other Jewish men did not have pierced ears. What’s more, presumably, a free man who chose to pierce would conjure up associations of negativity and inferior status. Ultimately, the point is moot because while the verse mentions piercing a hole in the slave’s ear, there’s no mention of his wearing an earring.

In conclusion, I’m not saying Jewish men in Biblical times did not wear earrings — that requires more historical research. Nor am I commenting on Judaism’s position on men’s earrings nowadays — that might be the subject of an upcoming discussion. But what I am saying is that the particular sources you cite offer no indication that in Torah times Jewish men wore earrings. On the contrary, these sources suggest that they didn’t.

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