VAYISHLACH (Genesis, 32:4-36:43) — “Straight Pins and Paszkes”

This week’s Torah reading addresses the idea of interaction with those who are different.

Jacob was about to see his brother Esau for the first time in years.   Esau was angry with Jacob over the fact that Isaac had blessed Jacob instead of Esau.  Esau had vowed to kill his younger brother.

Jacob sent messengers … to his brother Esau… He told them, “tell my brother … ‘I lived with Laban — and observed the 613 Commandments. I didn’t pick up any of his evil ways. Therefore, you will not be able to defeat me because G-d will continue to protect me.’ ” (A synopsis of Genesis, 32:4-5 and the commentaries of Rashi and Sifsei Chachomim.)

The Torah teaches us to be sure not to learn the negative lessons from those who surround us.  Jacob was telling his brother that over the years he had been very careful to avoid being influenced negatively by his environment.


A few years ago, my family spent a few days vacationing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, AKA Amish country.  (Much has been said about the apparent similarities between Chassidim  and the Amish. 

 While some might be tempted to draw similarities between the two groups  based upon modes of dress,  these similarities are superficial.)

Like typical tourists we viewed a model of a typical Amish home and hired a typical Amish buggy ride.  We learned quite a bit about the Amish lifestyle.

I am not referring to religion.  Many people are curious about what exactly the Amish believe.  I am not.  There are books available on the theology of the Amish, but that does not interest me.  I respect Catholics and Protestants, regardless of the nuances of how they practice.  I am not into comparative religion.  Orthodox Jews do not participate in ecumenical councils.   (See “The Pope and the Designated Hitter.”)

That being said, there is much about the Amish that fascinated me.  I found many things that I could relate to, and quite a few things with which I disagreed.  I understand the desire to limit the amount of influence that “English” – the Amish term for anything non-Amishsociety has on one’s growing children.  I certainly admire their sense of working together and taking care of each other.  However, their insistence on the use of straight pinsrather than snaps and buttonsto fasten clothes was lost on me.


There was a cute coincidence that brought a smile to my face.

We, too, place limits on our contact with the outside world.  For example, many Torah educators have come out very strongly on the potential dangers of uncontrolled access to the Internet.  Our Sages long ago placed limitations on social interaction with those who believe differently than we.

We respect all people.  We are all created in the Image of G-d.  That has nothing to do with the fact that Jews are supposed to marry Jews.  Our Sages, therefore, placed limits on the “innocent” social contacts that could lead to intermarriage.  Wine, a beverage which is used extensively in religious as well as social situations, has special rules that go beyond the requirement of Kosher ingredients.  So does bread.

Wine can, and often has, led to breaking down social barriers.  Therefore, wine that has been handled by gentiles is to be avoided.  (There are exceptions to this rule, which are beyond the scope of this article.) I can like and respect a non-Jewish business associate without our going to the bar together!

A similar rule was enacted about bread and other baked items.  There is a company, Paszkes, (pronounced “Pash-kes”) that distributes cookies and candies under strict Kosher supervision.  Paszkes products are usually available only in neighborhoods that are heavily populated by strictly orthodox Jews.  It was interesting to notice, as we viewed a model Amish home, that there was a package of Paszkes cookies on the table!

So much for avoiding “English” influence! 🙂


We stayed in a hotel within walking distance of Lancaster’s orthodox synagogue so we could attend Shabbos Services.  A Chassidic member of the congregation (yes, I’m sure he’s not Amish!!) shared with me an interesting observation about the Amish.

The Amish, he said, could teach us a few things.  He reminded me about the statement of the Talmud that there were three things that led G-d to take the Israelites out of Egypt.  In reality, our ancestors were not that different from their masters.  However, there were three Mitzvahs that they did:  They maintained their own language, names, and style of dress.  In this way, they were able to preserve their distinctly Jewish identity.  L’havdil, in a similar vein, the Amish too, continue to speak a German dialect in the home (that’s Pennsylvania DEITCH, not Dutch).  They obviously dress in their own way, and continue to use Biblical names.

There is another thing we can learn from them, he said.  One of the greatest sins an Amish person can commit is to act with Hochmut, Pride.  Their simple lifestyle speaks to the concept that it is wrong to act in a way that calls attention to one’s status as wealthy or otherwise accomplished.  There is no “keeping up with the Joneses” in the Amish community.


As I prepared to leave Lancaster and head home on Sunday afternoon, I realized that I would not make it home until well after sundown.  Normally, I would attend Mincha Services (see “Time to Pray!”) at a synagogue, but this time, there would be no synagogue to go to.

Therefore, I decided that it would be best to recite the Mincha Service before I left.  I stood in a parking lot next to my car, reading the prayers off an app on my smartphone.  There I was, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Davening Mincha.  I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t feel self-conscious.  I felt rather distracted from my prayers because I was hoping that no one would notice me.

Suddenly, it hit me!  Right there, in the middle of the Mincha service, I remembered where I was.  This is Amish country!  If these peculiar looking, big-black-hatted, straight-pinned, buggy-driving people go about their lives and couldn’t care less what you or I think of them, what do I care if some people stare at a Jewish guy in a parking lot Davening Mincha?!

My ancestor Jacob made it a point to tell his brother that he observed every Mitzvah while living near his corrupt father-in-law Laban.  Jacob was totally unfazed by the fact that Laban ridiculed his beliefs.  Jacob was not self-conscious; he was doing the right thing!  It took a Chossid from Lancaster with an observation about the Amish to remind me to learn an important lesson from Jacob!


As the story goes, a secular Jew got on a subway in New York City.  This fellow, who had come to America from Poland, shuddered when he found himself face to face with two VERY Jewish looking fellows with long beards and big black hats.

Our “hero” had spent the last 40 years doing everything in his power to “fit in” among the gentiles and assimilated Jews in his neighborhood.  He wanted to distance himself as much as possible from anything that remotely resembled the “Shtetel.” This was America!  Europe belonged to the past!  And now he was confronted by two walking anachronisms known as Chassidim.

He was repulsed.  He could barely hold back the venom in his voice.  “What’s the matter with you Chassidim?” he demanded in his still-Yiddish-accented English.  “Why must you call attention to yourselves in front of the Goyim?  This is America, not Poland!  I’m embarrassed to be seen with you!”

The two “Chassidim” looked at each other and then at him with confusion.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said one of them.  “What’s a ‘Goyim?’  We’re not from Poland.  We’re from Pennsylvania Dutch country.  We’re Amish.”

Our belligerent Jewish anti-Semite instantly became an advocate of diversity.  “Oh, I’m so-o-o-o sorry!” he gushed with a scarlet face.  “I have so much respect for you people.  I think it’s so wonderful that you continue to follow your traditions and don’t let modern society influence your lifestyle!”

The “Amish” fellow looked back at him with a smile, and asked him, in Yiddish, “So why was it so terrible when I was Chassidic?”

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.



“Way to Go, Joe! (Lieberman)” (2003)

…A funny thing happened on the way to synagogue last Friday.

I got into my car to drive to Services.  I was running late; it was about ten minutes before sundown.  I turned on the radio and heard a familiar voice.  Senator Joseph Lieberman, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was being interviewed.  “What’s he doing on the radio,” I asked myself.  “I thought he’s a Sabbath observer!” …

Read more.


“The Inferior Decorator”, or,  “Stay Out Of My Bedroom!” (2002)

… To Reuben, such action was unacceptable. He would not stand by silently and watch his mother play second fiddle to her sister’s maid! … In describing what Reuben did, the Torah writes: …vayishkav es Bilhah pilegesh aviv…,… a painfully literal reading of the text gives us an additional insight. The actual translation implies that Reuben had committed adultery with his father’s wife!

…No, it wasn’t adultery. But, in a sense, it was close… It was repulsive. It was wrong…

Read more.


“All or Nothing?” (2001)

A thirty-six‑year separation had not moderated Esau’s hatred for his brother.  Jacob was returning to Canaan  after all these years, and it was time to get even.  Esau resented Jacob for having received Isaac’s blessings.  He had 400 soldiers with him, and it was “pay‑back time.”

Jacob wanted to appease his brother. … he selected a gift for his brother Esau…  Hopefully, Esau would accept the gift graciously and let bygones be bygones.  If not, Jacob was prepared to defend himself and his family.  And, of course, he had prayed to G‑d for protection…

The brothers met…  Their first argument at that meeting was as to the ownership of the gift…

Read more.


“Name that Angel” (2000)

… What is in a name? Our Sages tell us that there is great spiritual significance in the name that is given to a person. When G-d created the world, He brought all the animals to Adam, who gave them names, each of which summarized what that animal was all about. He even named himself. He called himself “Adam” because he had been fashioned from the Earth (“Adamah” in Hebrew), reminding himself that despite his potential for spiritual greatness, there is an “earthy” tendency in man that can bring him down. He also named G-d “Adon“, which means, “Master.”

… What does “Yisrael” mean? …

Read more.


This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in Monsey,  New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 11:43 am  Comments (2)  

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I very much enjoyed your piece on your journey into Amish culture. Do you know if the Amish terms “Hochmut” and “Demut” derive from the similar biblical words, with a very different connotation attached?

    • Thank you for the compliment. I really have no idea about the etymology of those words.

      Be well, y.s.

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