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The Clothes Make the Man of God
by Mori Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron
This is the week of TeSawweh (that’s Tetzaveh for the un-initiated in ancient Hebrew pronunciation) – the Torah portion about sacred clothing, the clothing that would distinguish the Kohen-priests, particularly the High Priest, in their sacred duties. It is also the week I was interviewed by Tamar Yonah (a true honor) about the dubious origins and halakhic problems (according to Torah law) with the relatively late, European custom of dressing up in costume for Purim. How fitting it is for me, then, to teach about one of the more poorly-known aspects of Torah: the importance of a distinct, Jewish dress.
"After the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, to where I am bringing you, you shall not do; neither shall you walk in their statutes."
The following is a summary of the Oral Torah (the actual halakhah) on this Divine Commandment from the Mishneh Torah, the Code of Jewish Law (Laws of Idolatry chapter 11:1)
"One is not to walk in the statutes of the gentiles, and not to resemble them—not in their dress, and not in their hairstyle, nor in anything else of this sort, as it is written: “neither shall you walk in their statutes.” And it is written, “be careful of yourself, lest you be ensnared after them.” "All this is warning about one thing: That one not resemble them; but rather, that the Israelite be distinguished from them and known in his dress and in his other ways, just as he is distinguished from them in his wisdom and his character. And thus it is written, “and I shall make you distinct from the nations.”
In the miSwath (mitzvah, commandment) lo-tha`aseh (Torah Prohibition) #30 in Sepher ha-miSwoth, we learn that the prohibition against copying the statutes of the gentiles not only pertains to their present customs, but those of their ancestors as well. Now it is possible that RaMBaM changed his opinion since his youth, when he wrote sefer ha-miSwoth, deliberately leaving this detail out of Mishneh Torah. This way the Hamburg-hatted, frock-coated Hassidim and Lithuanian-style Jews could claim that today they have a distinct Jewish look — certainly now that the Christian clergy have moved on to new modes of dress.
To me, it’s a stretch. I could be mistaken, but I see no reason to fight what seems clear: Jews are not to dress in uniquely gentile dress — neither that of the present, nor that of the past. (Note: Whatever I say about Haredi dress is said with the deepest respect for the Haredim and their [our] fierce dedication to Torah. I am one who personally identifies as a Haredi Jew, living in a Haredi neighborhood with children learning in a fine Haredi institution.)
One friend of mine shared with me an additional insight: The black garbed Polish 'look' and black hats/streimels [(and I add to that the modern, tight-fitting Western styles of non-Haredim)] make us look foreign to this land. It is hostile clothing to Israel's climate and we look like aliens, or G-d forbid, foreign oppressors who don’t belong here, imported from Europe. The Arabs and the rest of the world claim this as well. Noting our non-native styles, they can say, “See? These Jews came and stole our land. They don’t belong here – go back to Europe!”
What I believe the nations understand subconsciously, somewhere deep in their souls, is something that pains them greatly: This is not the look (and in many cases not the behavior) of the “kingdom of priests” Israel is supposed to be for us. Barukh HaShem (thank God), I see numerous signs of positive change underway.
How, then, are Jews to ideally dress? Believe it or not, the traditions of our unique dress have not all disappeared. We can still learn them from the Jews of the Orient, very few of whom maintain them to this day. From my own great-great-great grandfather HaRav Yehudah Ha-Levi from Dubrovnik, Serbia, to the senior Hakhamim of Baghdad (below ) to the Torah teachers of Yemen: formal-wear for Jewish men varied little.
Among our warriors, the style differed. Below is a photograph of YaHia Habbani of blessed memory, close family to Ya`aqov Mosha (Awad bin Brihim), father of the esteemed Aluf Abir, Mori Yehoshua Sofer shlit”a. The late uncle is dressed in classical Habbani style, which goes back millennia.
The Aluf Abir himself, an expert on ancient clothing of the Near East, once taught me in the name of his father (who is presently well over 100 years old, may HaShem preserve him in good health) that a picture of Arabs 100 years ago would be nearly identical to the way Yishmaelites looked one thousand years ago, and so on back to the times of the Tanakh (Bible). It was no different among his own clan, whose distinguished lineage hails back to the times of Dawidh ha-mmelekh (King David). The style varied per activity, including casual styles such as a very long over-shirt over loose, short white pants — much like the breeches of modern Hassidim.Sometimes the large `tallith was worn as a main garment; among the Habbani warriors it could be wrapped to gird up the entire torso like a rope-belt, criss-crossing the body. 
Whatever the style, from the Beth Midrash to the battlefield, across the Middle East, we maintained our distinct dress. If we are to receive the lesson from our ancient Oral legends (midrash), this is a matter of no small importance: It was partly in the merit of our steadfast loyalty to our traditional Hebrew dress, that HaShem redeemed us from Egypt. The sages even ordained a special blessing for us to make each morning specifically when we wrap our heads turban-style: “Blessed are You, HASHEM our God, King of the Universe, who crowns Israel with splendor.” The Babylonian Talmud (tractate Berakhoth 60b) is clear, and so is Mishneh Torah (Book of Love, Laws of Prayer 7:4) the blessing is made when one “puts his sheet [or cloth] on his head”. (Note that both Talmud and Mishneh Torah do mention hats in other places. This blessing appears to be specifically for authentic Israelite headgear.)
Now before you run for your nearest tailor and wager how quickly you are likely to lose your job, your friends, or worse; what is the practical halakhah (Jewish law)? Today, modern dress is standardized all over the world into a basic, universal “human dress”. In our day, most modes of dress that are uniquely gentile, are also outlandish enough to be a Purim costume. Besides that, although we maintained a distinct style, the truth is that Jews though the ages wore what was comfortable to them in their surroundings. My understanding is, according to my training, that for men – on a basic level – so long as one’s clothes are sufficiently modest, the kippah on our head and fringes at our sides give us a clearly unique and distinct look, and satisfy the basic halakhah (practical Jewish law).
However, to my humble understanding (with no disrespect intended towards those who disagree), there may be two common exceptions to this for men: the 3-piece suit and tight pants — particularly tight jeans. Unlike casual suits, the 3-piece suit is a traditional garment also known as the “Sunday’s best.” Reaching its present form in the last century, it appears to have been — in its original cultural ambient — a special garment set aside by the common gentile for weekly, Sunday idol worship. As for tight pants or jeans, unless they are way oversized so that they sag like the ‘gangbanger’ look (which itself may constitute a distinctly gentile style), this is specifically mentioned in Talmud as prohibited to Jewish men. To my reading, RaMBaM had no need to mention this – would it not be included in the general prohibition of imitating gentile customs?!
As for myself, I am personally unsatisfied with the universal “human dress” code; my soul yearns for more. It doesn’t sit well with me that for over 3,000 years our fathers, our great rabbis, prophets and warriors had distinct Jewish dress styles and haircuts that we can comfortably toss aside in favor of the styles of yuppie-ville and the American mall. In a modern Israel where Buddhist monks, nuns, and Ethiopic Christian priests roam freely in their traditional garbs, must I, a Jew, feel confined to styles out of GQ magazine, that are technically permitted?
Now I rarely delve into mysticism in my articles, but I cannot hold back this time.Tefillin , by Aryeh Kaplan, is one of the most inspiring books I ever read as a Jew growing into Torah observance, years ago. In it, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of blessed memory writes:
"Physical space exists only in the physical world. In the spiritual domain, there is no concept of space as we know it.
But still we speak of things being close or far apart in the spiritual world. What does this mean? We cannot be speaking of physical distance, for there is no physical space in the spiritual realm. But in a spiritual sense, closeness involves resemblance. Two things that resemble each other are spiritually close. On the other hand, two things that differ are far apart in a spiritual sense."
It follows that if we desire to be spiritually close and similar to the greatest men of all time, Avraham our forefather, Mosha Rabbenu, Dawidh ha-mmelekh, Rabi `Aqivah and so on, we should resemble them as much as possible. That is, of course, first and foremost in our deeds: how we relate to others, how we pray, how we learn and practice Torah, how we fight. But it is so difficult in a mundane world where we are so categorized, labeled and limited by those around us. Yet, as I explained above, we create our image – the way we are perceived – and invite those labels, to a degree, by the way we dress and cut our hair.
The foremost reason why, in the Haredi world, Jews wear black hats and suits, is the foremost reason I try to dress more Hebrew: They know how much clothes make the man of God. When passing by a thumping disco alone, a young teen wearing a black hat and suit will feel and react differently than a young man in jeans with a half-dollar sized kippah on his head. Dressing more Israelite can have the same effect. The difference is that the black galuth (diaspora) garb subliminally gives him the feeling of a European arrival from 60 years ago, an exiled man in his own land. Carefully ironed, restricting clothes meant for air-conditioned rooms and paved sidewalks give us a different sense of what is natural and what is foreign.
Moreover, as I discussed above, any dress besides our ancestral one fits a certain negative stereotype in the eyes of the nations, to whom we are to be “a kingdom of priests.” Whether it is as small a step as wearing a large `talith while relaxing and working at home, wrapping one’s head for prayer for Morning Prayers when one is alone, or making a bigger change such as growing one’s beard and side-locks, I highly recommend it. Should you choose to put on tephillin (phylacteries) even for a short while outside of prayer to learn some Torah, you are actually fulfilling the Torah commandment to strive to be in tephillin throughout the day. If you are living outside of Israel, just wearing a large kippah to distinguish yourself as a Jew can be an awesome step.
May the day come soon when kohen-priests will daily don their priestly garments in a rebuilt Beth ha-miqdash (Holy Temple) and Yisra’el (the rest of the nation) will don ours for all the wonderful activities there are for us to do in our ancestral heritage. In the meantime, let’s increase our awareness of the Godly type of people our traditional clothing can help us aspire to become.
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