Jewish Clothing

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Dress

There are among us some Jews who dress in a manner that reflects a Torah-true life.

This means that it is possible to exhibit in public articles of clothing and a manner of wearing a beard which depict that the wearer seeks to follow the commands of the Torah respecting hair style and religious symbolism.

Let us begin with Leviticus 19:27. There is if course no book in the Torah called Leviticus. The true name of the third book of Moses is Vayikro, which means “and he called”. These are the three words with which the book begins. Chapter 19:27 of that book may be translated: “Do not round the corner of your head, neither shall you destroy the corners of your beard.” There are other prohibitions concerning the shaving of hair so that an orthodox (straight belief) or Torah true Jew wears long sideburns known as Payot Harosh or, in Yiddish, Payes.

Shaving or trimming the beard is not permitted on Holy Days, particularly on Shabbat, which is the Holiest Day in Judaism. The use of a straight razor is also prohibited, so that in the past Jewish men used depilatory (pilus is the Latin word for hair) powder (Nair) while now electric razors may be used.

Some pious (Chassidic) Jews wear long sidelocks because they interpret the law to mean that one may not shave the temple at all.

In addition to the influence of Torah on appearance, there are those Jews who wear a beard and sideburns because they want to appear Jewish.

This means that those Jews who display Jewish hairstyles and clothes attain existential validation in the same fashion as those who wear a uniform or those who display a symbol such as a Mogen David or a cross on their lapel. Existential validation is sought by all of us as we seek to present ourselves to others in everyday life. The presentation which we promote leads to the “looking glass self”, as Cooley called it. What we wear, what we say, how we confront others is reflected in the manner which others exhibit toward us. Hence the “looking glass” self. Therefore, the Jew who wears a distinctively Jewish form of attire seeks to be treated as a Jew.

We Jews are of course not the only ones to wear beards and ear locks and black clothes. Some fundamentalist Christians do this also. So the story is told of the Jewish woman who meets a man on a train. The man wears a black hat and black suit. A “secular” Jew, she berates the man and says: “You orthodox Jews embarrass us all. Your clothes and beard cause anti-Jewish hatred.” “ I am not Jewish,” says the man. “I am Amish and we wear black clothes and beards. It is our tradition.” “Of course,” says the Jewish secularist. “You have every right to wear such clothes and you are to be commended for carrying on your cultural tradition.”

So why do some Jews wear black clothes? In part this came about because the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. The European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (The Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming).  These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to their rank. Hence, the upper class wore gaudy clothes of many colors and ornamented profusely. By law, Jews were non-persons and had to wear black clothes so they could be identified at once. The Jews also had to wear a yellow armband or star or other mark. This was abandoned in the eighteenth century but re-instituted by the European killers during the years 1933-1945.

Black clothes are also known to Jews as a symbolic expression divrai yirah shomayim, which means “fearing heaven”. To some Jews life is very serious and the Jew is always conscious of his relationship to G’d. Therefore black is worn so as to avoid frivolity and also place distance between the wearer and everyone else.

Orthodox Jews also wear a prayer belt called a g*rtel in German or Yiddish. This belt is to indicate that the wearer separates his upper body from his lower body as the head is the location of all that is inspired while our bottom serves lesser purposes.

Many orthodox Jewish men also wear a black hat and some wear a streimel , i.e. a fur lined hat. The hat style may vary according to the European origin of a Chassidic sect. Therefore, Lithuanians may wear a different head covering than Galicians, although all will wear a skull cap all day.

The wearing of the skull cap, also known as a kippa or yarmulka, shows respect for G’d, who is thought to live in heaven above us. Hence we separate ourselves from the divine presence by wearing a hat or cap at all times.

Jewish clothing has entered the non-Jewish world. This is particularly true of the garb worn by Christian priests. Our Tallit, or prayer shawl, is called a stola by R.C. priests, using the Latin word. The entire Christian priestly garb is derived from the description of the clothes worn by the Jewish priests at the time the Temple stood in Yerushalayim.

In short, even our clothing is being used by others to celebrate their religion.

Muslims are entirely indebted to us for their religious clothes and in fact their scriptures and their food laws and everything else they have. This doesn’t prevent them from preaching hate and throwing bombs. Nevertheless, we believe that despite their delusions peace will yet come to all of us. May it be soon and in our day. Bimhayro v’yomaynoo.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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