Orpa Slapak & Esther Juhasz. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Although no specific costume was ever mandated by Jewish law, and no universal Jewish costume ever evolved, certain dress codes have been clearly identified with the Jewish people throughout the ages. In addition to the influence of Jewish law and custom on the development of these dress codes, these codes were impacted by the geography and historical setting in which the costume developed, and the extent of integration in the wider, gentile community.
Several principal factors have determined Jewish dress throughout the ages:
- Halachah: the whole legal system of Judaism which embraces all laws and observances, from the Bible henceforth, as well as codes of conduct and customs.
- Restrictive decrees and edicts by non-Jewish authorities in countries where Jews lived, as well as Jewish inner-communal regulations.
- Prevailing local sartorial styles and dress codes.
Halachah, the code of Jewish law, is based mainly on biblical precepts, which are considered the primary and most authoritative source for all Jewish laws. Since biblical precepts concerning dress are few, they determine only several aspects of Jewish costume. Later halakhic rulings regulated dress codes and interpreted the biblical injunctions.
The explicit biblical precepts refer to attaching fringes to men’s dress and the prohibition of wearing a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen. Some rabbinical authorities and scholars deduce that the covering of women’s hair and peoth—sidelocks (Leviticus 19:27) worn by Jews, which are today distinctive features of the Jewish male external appearance, were also biblical precepts. One should also mention the tefillin—philacteries: these are small leather boxes containing holy and protective texts which are attached to the forehead and the left arm during morning prayer (see Exodus 13:9, 16, and Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18). Today these are ritual accessories to which utmost importance is attributed, but in Talmudic times some scholars wore them throughout the day.
Tzitzith. In biblical times, fringes were attached to outer garments, which were probably a kind of sheetlike wraps, which had four corners. In time, when dress styles changed, two separate ritual garments evolved to fulfill this precept. The tallith, the prayer shawl, is a rectangular fringed shawl worn for prayer and important events in the Jewish life cycle. The tzitzith, which literally means fringe, or tallith katan (literally “small tallith”), is a poncholike undershirt worn at all times by orthodox Jewish men. According to the Torah, one tassel should be blue (Numbers 15:18), but as the process of production of the blue extracted from the murex purpura (a snail used for dying blue and purple in the Mediterranean) was lost, the fringes were usually white. The fringes consist of four cords folded to produce eight ends, knotted in differing numerical combinations, equivalent to the numerical value of the letters of names of God. The religious, mystic-symbolic meaning attributed to these garments imbued them also with protective and magical powers.
Sha’atnez. Because it is not outwardly visible, sha’atnez, though kept to this day by certain observant Jews, is not a distinctive mark of Jewish dress. With mass-produced clothing, special laboratories are required to determine whether a particular garment contains the forbidden mixture. In the past, in many communities, tailoring became a prevalent Jewish occupation in order to be able to control the combination of fibers and textiles of clothes.
Two major tendencies direct halakhic rulings concerning dress. One is segregation from the gentile environment: “Nor shall you follow their laws” (Leviticus 18:3), as is stated generally in the Bible. More specifically relating to dress, Maimonides, the renowned medieval Jewish scholar, stated: “One must not follow in the ways of those who worship the stars nor imitate them either in dress or hairstyle” (Mishneh Thorah, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:1).
Another major concern of halakhic rulings regarding dress are various issues of modesty—for instance, the requirement to be decently dressed and covered during prayer (Tosefta Brachot 2:14, second century C.E.). This attitude was later interpreted as the separation between the upper part of the body, considered spiritual and pure, from the lower part, considered mundane and impure. Among the Hasidim of Eastern Europe (from the eighteenth century on) this division of the body acquired a rich symbolical meaning and is fulfilled by the gartle, a belt donned ritually before prayer.
The equivalent item among women was the apron, the purpose of which was to cover and protect their reproductive organs. These aprons, worn either under or above the skirt or both, were considered a symbol of modesty and magically protective. The wearing of aprons persisted among Eastern European Jewish women and after having almost vanished, made a comeback among some of the ultraorthodox women who wear them while lighting Shabbat candles and during festive occasions. They regard them as charms that will bring them well-mannered children.
Head covering for women. The practice of women covering their heads became pervasive and universal throughout the Jewish world. In some communities, it became customary to cut the hair or even shave it shortly before or after the wedding. Some women attempt to leave no hair uncovered while others allow some parts to be seen as is customary in each community. The custom of wearing sheytls, wigs, was adapted by Jewish women in Europe in the sixteenth century, when it was fashionable for both men and women, and it has lasted as an option for head covering among some Jewish orthodox groups into the twenty-first century. In several places in Morocco, in Bukhara and Georgia, Jewish women’s coifs incorporated false hair that served as partial wigs. Such is the elaborate mahdour headgear of the Jewish women of the Sous region on the southern coast of Morocco. This is an intricate work of silver interwoven with the hair of a horse’s tail, two locks of which frame the woman’s forehead.
The wearing of wigs even in the twenty-first century is a highly controversial issue among the different orthodox groups. Some claim that the display of hair, even false hair, does not abide with the prohibition to conceal it, since the showing of any hair is considered erotic, and therefore immodest.
With the passing of time, both the manner and style of the head covering have taken many forms and differ immensely from place to place. In the past, prior to modernization, women’s head covering attested both to her marital status as well as to her socio-economic status, her place of residence, and communal affiliation. In Sana’a, Yemenite Jewish women wore the distinctive gargush, a hoodlike headgear that concealed the hair, the forehead, and the neck. It identified the Jewish woman from the Muslim woman and the Jewish woman of San’a from Jewish women of other localities. Every woman had several hoods, the most sumptuous was the gargush mezahhar merassaf (the full golden hood), decorated with gilt, silver filigree pieces, and with several coins. All these riches formed part of the woman’s dowry, which she received from her father and were used as her cash reserve.
In the early twenty-first century the distinction is less geographic and attests to religious group affiliation and degree of religiosity. Szatmar Hasidic women in New York and Jerusalem wear similar head coverings—a scarf covering their hair entirely, sometimes with a padding under it or a small piece of synthetic wig in front, or a synthetic wig worn under the scarf.
The women of the Neturei Karta, and the most extreme groups, shave their hair, and cover their head with a tight black scarf. Whereas the Belz Hasidic women wear a wig and a small cap on top of it, Sephardi-Oriental women in Israel do not wear wigs but fashionable hats and scarves.
Head covering for men. Unlike women’s hair covering, men’s head covering has only become obligatory in the last centuries. It is not mentioned in the Torah, and in the Babylonian Talmud it is only a custom practiced by certain people—Torah scholars—and at certain times, such as during prayers and benedictions. It is conceived as a sign of religious submission and respect to higher authorities and before God.
In the sixteenth century, when the Shulhan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, was written and accepted by all Jewish communities, men’s head covering was not yet universal or compulsory. The code stated that covering the head was a sign of a God-fearing Jew and especially important during study and prayer (Orakh khayyim 2,2; 151.6). In Christian countries, the Jewish covering of the head in the synagogue evolved as contrary to the practice of uncovering one’s head as a sign of reverence, while in the Muslim world, Jews were no exception to the general practice of covering their heads. In both Christian and Muslim lands, Jews were required to wear a hat, the shape and color of which would serve to identify them as Jews.
Well known in its time was the Judenhut, the medieval pointed Jewish hat by which Jews were identified, and which are clearly seen in both Jewish and Christian depictions of Jewish life. The wearing of a double head covering—a kippah or yarmulke (skullcap) and hat—among the ultraorthodox, or a scullcap only, by orthodox Jews, evolved in nineteenth-century Europe and became part of the controversy between reformists and traditionalist groups. Among some of the reformists, the skullcap is worn during prayer and other ceremonial occasions. As for the ultraorthdox, in order to express their opposition to the reform, they started to wear a skullcap and a hat on top of it. In the early twenty-first century, especially in Israeli society, covering of the head or not distinguishes between secular and observant Jews. The type of covering indicates socio-religious and ideological, even political affiliation. For instance the kippah srugah, a crocheted skullcap, has become an identity mark of the National Religious community and political party.
Restrictive Decrees and Edicts
Apart from the inner Halakhic rules, Jewish costume was determined by restrictive decrees issued by the gentile authorities in the countries in which Jews lived in the diaspora. These laws required Jews to wear special garment items, prohibited them from wearing particular fabrics and colors, and obliged them to mark their dress with badges.
In Muslim lands, the edicts began with the Laws of Omar (in the eighth century) that required that all non-Muslims be distinguished by their external appearance, by their clothing, the external manifestation of their lower legal status as “infidels.” This distinction had farreaching legal and social implications, and it served as a tool for keeping ethno-religious hierarchies and boundaries. These laws were the conceptual guidelines for practical restrictions imposed by different rulers. The decrees did not deal with entire outfits, but pertained mainly to the colors and quality of fabrics, and sometimes to particular components of dress such as head gear or footwear. In Bukhara, the Jews had to wear ropelike belts as a distinction mark.
Infidels were supposed to wear dark colors such as black or dark blue (some places had specific colors for Jews and others for Christians). Green was reserved for Muslims because it is the holy color of Islam. Jews were not allowed to use luxurious fabrics, as were enumerated in the edicts. There were restrictions pertaining to the cut and size of the garment. In Turkey, the size of the turban was of great significance—the larger the turban, the higher the rank of its wearer—thus the edicts restricted the length of the turban fabric and the width of the cloak permitted to Jews. In Afghanistan in the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish men could only wear gray turbans.
Similar restrictions were imposed in medieval Europe by the church councils. In 1215, the Lateran Council issued the well-known dress restriction as a reaction to the forbidden mingling of Christians with Jews and Muslims:
… [T]hey may not … resort to excusing themselves … for the excesses of such accursed intercourse, we decree that such [Jews and Saracens] … in every Christian province and at all times shall be distinguished in the eyes of the public from other peoples by the character of their dress. (Rubens, 1973, p. 81)
These decrees also included the wearing of a badge. The badge differed in shape and color as well as in the place where it should be displayed, either on the right shoulder or on the hat. In the duchies of Italy, a yellow patch was worn. In England, its shape was of the Tablets of the Law, and in Germany, the badge was a ring-shaped sign. The Jews were also obliged to purchase these badges from the government. “Every Jew above the age of seven must wear a yellow or red and white badge. The royal tax collectors will collect the fee for the purchase of the badge” (France, 1217-1284).
These edicts and restrictions were intended to mark the Jewish population and set them apart from others, thereby aiming at degrading and humiliating them. The spirit of this distinction did not disappear altogether and was revived by Nazi Germany by imposing the yellow badge as a race discriminator. The reaction of the Jewish population to these laws took different forms. In many cases, as can be expected, it was resented, but in some instances, it was accepted positively as described by a traveler to the Ottoman empire in the seventeenth century: “As in religion they differ from others so they do in habit: in Christendom enforcedly, here in the Turkie voluntarily” (Sandys, p. 115).
Though this may not be accurate, it does acknowledge different reactions to the humiliating restrictions. These differentiating restrictions were accepted positively, as they met with the Halakha and the desire to differentiate themselves from others by their clothing. In some cases, these restrictions were given different explanations and an inner symbolic interpretation. For example, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews and the Jews of Sana’a in Yemen held that the wearing of black, adapted by the Jews themselves, was considered as a sign of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Temple. (There are several other signs commemorating the destruction that, according to Jewish law, one has to keep).
These restrictions were at times corroborated by inner communal regulations and sumptuary laws called takkanot. These regulations issued by Jewish communities referred mainly to women’s attire, instructing them to refrain from wearing luxurious clothes—especially with gold decorations and opulent jewelery—mainly in the public domain. Their purposes were twofold: the first, to avoid arousing jealousy among non-Jews, as it was feared that excess finery in Jewish dress might bring about additional edicts by the authorities; the second, to avoid internal tensions between rich and poor families within Jewish communities. These regulations limited excessive finery in weddings and other festive occasions but allowed some exceptions.
Such rules and regulations provide very important historical sources for a meticulous study of dress codes in each community.
We have unanimously decided that from this day forward … no woman, young or old, shall wear arm bracelets, or chains, or gold bracelets, or gold hoops, or gold rings, or any gold ornament … or pearl necklaces, or nose rings … [A woman] cannot wear any garment made of wool or silk, and [she] certainly [cannot wear] gold or silver embroidery, even if the lining is inside out, except for a head covering, which is all she is allowed to wear … and as for children and infants, neither boys nor girls may [dress] themselves [in articles made] either of gold or of silver or of silk. (From regulations pronounced by the rabbis of the community of Fez, Morocco, 1613)
Velvet for dresses, even for linings, is forbidden to women and girls, with the exception of black velvet. The bride may wear any kind of velvet under the canopy during her wedding … any type of skirt which is stiffened with a hope of wire or … other devices is forbidden to married and single women … even small children. … From today until further notice, no silk dresses of two colors should be made for women, with the exception of dark grey and brown. (Fine: 20 thalers). Whoever offends openly or in secret will be excommunicated and treated as someone who has sinned against God. (From the Jewish regulations for clothing and weddings, Hamburg, Germany, 1715)
Sartorial Styles and Dress Codes
The great variety of Jewish traditional attire prior to modernization, attests to the marked influence of the surrounding culture on each Jewish community. One can safely say that the attire of the Jews resembled more that of their surrounding culture than that of Jews living in other places, notwithstanding the distinction marks imposed on them.
Yet costume was not only conceived as marking ethno-religious boundaries, but also as defining group identity within the Jewish communities; one example is the “great dress,” worn as a bridal and festive dress by urban Spanish Jewish women (descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) in Morocco. This sumptuous outfit made of metal thread-embroidered velvet, was strikingly different from the local Muslim costumes. It strongly resembled Spanish costume of the sixteenth century and preserved many of its stylistic traits. In Morocco, this dress became an identity mark of the urban Spanish Jews vis-àvis the local rural Jews; it was one of the symbols of the preservation of the Spanish heritage, which was a source of pride to this group. However, it is not certain that this dress was worn by Jews in Spain. Within Morocco, there were also variations of this dress each belonging to a certain town, Fez, Rabat, Mogador, and others.
This rare example of the preservation of sartorial styles by an immigrant group for over 400 years leads to another feature thought to be typical or recurring in Jewish costume in different places. It has been observed that Jews in many communities had a tendency to retain dress styles long after they have been abandoned by the gentile society. After some time, these anachronistic clothes or items of dress were appropriated by the Jews and considered later to be exclusive to them and even an identifying trait. The best known example of this phenomenon is the Hassidic or ultraorthodox costume, derived from the Polish eighteenth-century dress of nobleman and appropriated and preserved by the Jews, which became a distinctive attire exclusive to them. Another example is the sheetlike wrap-and-veil street wear worn by Jewish women in Baghdad until 1952. The custom of veiling was a norm in Muslim society. Jewish women adhered to that norm. Veiling was the prerogative of Muslim women and was not imposed on low-status women such as servants and non-Muslims. Non-Muslim women are not required to veil themselves. The Bagdadi wrap covered the whole body, while the face was hidden by a square black veil. In this period, Baghdadi Jewish women’s izar, veils, were made of pastel-colored silk interwoven with metal thread. Prevalent among Muslim women in former times, such dress came to be considered a distinctively Jewish outfit in the early twentieth century when the customary Muslim attire changed to a plain black wrap.
The conflict between the will to integrate and the will to isolate Jewish society from the gentile surrounding cultures was strongest in Europe in the period of emancipation and modernization during the nineteenth century. As European society enabled the Jews to become equal citizens, some of the Jews wanted to assimilate and not to be distinguished by their dress, while others saw this assimilation as a great danger to Jewish religion and culture. The reform Jews changed their traditional garb to fashionable modern costume. This change was accompanied by debates over head covering and other matters. These changes and reforms caused a strong reaction among some of the East European Jews centered in Hungary, who preached to cling more strongly to tradition. Every domain of life and dress was considered a central aspect of this tradition (under the halachic precept that anything new is forbidden by the Torah).
The wearing of better clinging traditional attire down to the minutest detail has turned the dress of the ultraorthodox Jews into a kind of uniform by which they are recognized. It is also considered a protective mechanism against sin.
Since there are few common features of Jewish costume across time and place, it is fundamental to study it in relation to surrounding historical and cultural setting. Yet, in the confines of a given society and the bounds of limited time, Jews could still be identified by certain particularities of their dress, which were often a combination of local dress with one or two sartorial elements that they carried with them throughout time.