I was in seminary, and I was in B’nei Brak for Shabbos. It was going to be a good one: we’d daven at the yeshiva, walk around admiring the poverty and sheer numbers of children, and ambush R’ Amnon Yitzchok on his way to seuda shlishis for a brocha. (This was before he turned out to be the kind of person who thinks women shouldn’t drive.)
I put on my brown wool suit with the skirt that hit exactly 3 inches above my ankles, knotted the belt, and walked out to a glorious Shabbos morning.
The hostess’s daughter caught sight of me in the hall and gasped in horror.
“What?” I asked. I did a quick check. Elbows, collarbone, knees… everything was covered with inches to spare. The suit wasn’t boxy, but it wasn’t fitted. I wore no jewelry… what could the problem be?
With trembling fingers, she pointed at my belt.
I looked at it. It was a neat square knot, just like my mother had taught me.
I looked back at the daughter. “What?”
“Assur!” she declared.
I laughed. “No it’s not. It’s temporary.” Who ever thought I’d be schooling a Bnei Brak girl on halacha?
She shook her head. “Zeh assur!”
“No it’s not.”
Her lack of English vocabulary, my limited Hebrew vocabulary, and the fact that neither of us had much more information than what we had already shared prevented our conversation from progressing much.
But, hearing the noise, her mother came out of the kitchen. She tsked at my belt. “Assur!”
Exasperated, I denied it again and made a move to leave. But my kind hostess wouldn’t let me leave with a transgression sitting right above my navel. She dragged her husband into the discussion.
“Who told you this was muttar?” he asked, very skeptically.
“My Halacha teacher,” I said.
“An American?” he sneered.
“He learned in Ponovitz,” I retorted. It was true. Not that he’d learned any halacha there, but he had studied there after high school.
With his prejudices necessarily checked, the father moved on to question more deeply. “Where did he find this?”
“The Mishna Berura.” It was a good guess. I don’t remember my teacher ever mentioning any source except the Mishna Berura, so I figured it was from there. But I honestly couldn’t be sure, because we never learned anything inside. In the name of efficiency, we were lectured to, without much by way of sources of citations.
A perhaps unintentional byproduct of this was our complete inability to backcheck the sources. It’s a sad fact: When it comes to the most important rules that regulate our daily activities, bais Yaakov students are educated to be ignorant.
The father sat down with his sefarim and pored over texts for a few minutes before declaring that I was wrong, my teacher was wrong, and my knot was wrong: you couldn’t knot a belt on Shabbos.
“It’s in there,” I said confidently. “Look for something about tying aprons.”
To his credit, he looked a little bit more before confirming his previous conclusion: I was wrong, my American teacher was wrong, and my knot was wrong.
My faith in my teacher was unshaken. I said it must be in there somewhere, and I wasn’t unknotting my belt. And with that, I walked out.
Like all good bais Yaakov girls (and presumably all benos melachim) I have a fact-checker on call to do my legal research for me. After Shabbos, I called my father and demanded that he find the source for temporary clothing knots being okay on Shabbos.
After a bit of digging around, he found it, but said it was deep in a footnote to some small print, or something. Maybe not even in the Mishna Berura. I don’t know. How would I know? I’m not even sure what the Mishna Berura looks like, let alone its commentaries.
Being a halachically committed bais yaakov girl is exceedingly frustrating.
Why, I wondered, do I need a man to do all my research for me?
Why am I limited to saying “My teacher said” or “My father said” on all matters halachic?
After 12 years of rigorous Jewish education, I am a helpless babe in the woods when it comes to the most important things in my life.
How did this happen? Was it on purpose? Is there some way in which this is a good or desirable thing?