For the week ending 3 November 2007 / 22 Heshvan 5768

Clothes Minded Jews

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Daniel Branower

Dear Rabbi:

Why do many Torah observant Jews who live in Israel dress in a European style, as opposed to a more Mediterranean or "native" style?If the idea is that Jews are returning from exile to Eretz Yisrael, their ancestral home, why the adherence to the traditions and customs of the previous exile home? Thank you.

Dear Daniel,

There is no particular “Jewish” style or mode of dress. There are requirements and prohibitions regarding covering the body and one’s general appearance, but these are related to modesty and humility more than ethnicity. For example, a man must cover his head, torso, upper arms, waist and legs to the knees. In addition, a woman is required to cover her arms and legs below the elbow and knees, while a married woman must also cover her hair.

From a Jewish perspective, then, as long as the garments are acceptable in terms of properly and modestly covering the body (i.e. the clothes cover what’s needed and are not tight-fitting, flashy or attract attention) any style or mode is okay. For this reason, over the ages and across the globe Jews have had a wide variety of wardrobes including togas, robes, shawls, coats, and suits and ties.

Usually, the general appearance of the clothes that Jews wore and wear is patterned after, or at least affected by, the style of the culture in which they live. This, of course, is a function of climate, availability and social milieu. That being said, even if the surrounding non-Jews did not distinguish the Jew by dress, the Jews themselves usually maintained something distinctively Jewish up their sleeve. This might be as subtle as making an otherwise normal-looking garment specifically out of a number of pieces significant in Judaism such as 7 or 26 (corresponding to G-d’s name), or folding lapels or buttons right-over-left instead of left-over-right.

Once a particular mode of dress becomes incorporated by Jews into Judaism it generally becomes interwoven into the fabric of Jewish belief, practice and ritual, thereby elevating it to the status of “Tradition”. Sometimes this has the somewhat ironic result of Jews preserving initially non-Jewish modes of dress long after the non-Jews have devested themselves of them. Also, this can result in Jews transporting and maintaining a style unique to one particular time or place to another even if it doesn’t fit there as well.

To a large extent, this is the case regarding Torah-observant Jews returning to or living in Israel. On the other hand, there was a sizable European community living in Israel before and during the Jews’ return, and the Jews themselves became a majority over the indigenous Levantines relatively quickly such that the European influence was dominant. Nowadays, in most parts of the modern world, the European/Western mode of dress has become the accepted and expected mode of dress, particularly in formal, business and important contexts.

It is for these reasons that observant Jews, who take their more than 9-to-5 “jobs” seriously, have adopted the European style of dress, even if they’re not of European origin, and even after having returned to Eretz Yisrael.

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