On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dear Beth, Is there a dress code in Judaism?

Dear Beth, *

As a newly observant Jew, I find it hard to figure out what the dress code to observant Judaism is.

Aside from Kippahs for men and hats or wigs for married women, how do I need to dress to be considered a religious Jew?

Yours truly,
Closet full of clothes and nothing to wear

Dear Closet,

Like Most things, Judaism does have what to say about how we dress, but it’s very different than most of us think. Before I go through some of that, I thought it would be helpful to recap some of the statements that either I or my wife has heard observant Jews say over the years.

“Someone who wears jeans to shul on Shabbas should go home and change”

“I don’t see how a woman who wears pants can consider herself religious.”

A remark to me once when I was wearing sandals on a hot summer Sunday afternoon “Did you go off the derech?” (Derech means path or way. Basically, he was asking me if I am still an observant Jew)

“Unless you’re Israeli or Chassidish, a man should wear a tie at the Shabbas afternoon service. What is this? Casual Mincha?

“Get out of here and come back when you’re wearing a decent jacket” This was a story told to me by my mother about what a reformed Rabbi said to someone wearing a plaid suit jacket on Rosh Hashanah in the 1960s.

There are a lot of factors that dictate what a Jew should or shouldn’t wear on a regular basis. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. We should dress in moderate, clean clothing ** Dressing in dirty or ripped clothing is not appropriate. Obviously, if someone is a mechanic or a gardener, their work clothes are going to get dirty. This law doesn’t mean that they have to look like their going to the opera when they’re going to work in the mud. This also goes for clothing with colorful language on it. Use your judgment and you’ll be fine.

2. We should not imitate the styles and clothing of the non Jew *** ideally, we should stick to our own styles of clothing and not spend our time, energy or money on what the latest trends are.

3. We should not to wear extravagant or flashy clothing. **** We should dress nice, but we should also be modest in both dress and behavior. This is one of the reasons why so many observant Jews gravitate to black and white clothing. I don’t think that a little color in one’s wardrobe is a violation of Jewish law, but if your clothes are so flashy that when you walk into a room, everyone turns to stare, you may want to choose something else to wear. This doesn’t mean that one should go out looking ugly, but it does mean that we should make efforts to be the most looked at person in the room.

4. We should wear clothing the covers our body *****. There are a lot of opinions out there regarding to what extent this goes. I’m not going to deal with the specifics, but the idea is the same as modesty. If your clothing is such that it draws attention to features of your body that we ideally shouldn’t want, it may not be the best idea.

5. A man should wear clothes designed for men and a woman should wear clothes designed for women. The most common area of controversy in this area is whether a woman can wear pants or not. From what I read, it seems like if a woman wore pants that were designed for women, she would not be violating any Jewish law. However, it’s become the custom of Jewish women not to do so publicly. It’s less common for men to wear women’s clothing, but the same rules apply.

6. Especially when we pray, we should dress as if we were standing before a king. Keeping all this in mind, all Jews should try to dress appropriate to the best of their ability, but they should keep in mind wear they are spiritually and not push themselves into overload. For man, it would be great if I would wear a suit and tie every time I prayed, but if I happened to be at the beach when the time for prayer arrived, it would be much better to pray in a bathing suit then to not pray at the appointment time. Also, if you’re one of those people who hate wearing a tie, don’t push yourself too hard. Some people take this a step further and rightfully say that since G-d is with them all the time, they should always dress formally. This is very admirable, but not required by Jewish law. It’s slightly off topic, but its falls under the general category of dressing up. There’s an interesting phenomenon in our society, where a man or woman will get dressed up to go face the world, but when they come home to their spouses, they strip off the make up and change into clothes that are more comfortable and less faltering. While we should be comfortable in our own homes, we should also keep in mind that they most important person to look attractive to is one’s spouse.

7. Black hats, long coats and gartels (strings that Chassidic men wrap around their waste.) These are clearly in the realm of customs and stringencies. If your Rabbi or spiritual mentor wears things like this and you want to imitate him, great. If not, it’s no big deal. They are not necessary to be an observant Jew, but can be a stepping stone for someone who has already reached a stable level in his observance and wants to push themselves higher.
All of this being said, I believe the most important thing is this letter isn’t if we dress properly, but how we relate to people around us who we don’t believe are dressed properly. Dressing properly is extremely important, but always keep in mind that when we learn a new law or custom, we should focus on how we can improve ourselves, not how we can improve our neighbor. The best thing you can do to inspire your friend and neighbor is become and inspiration by leading by example.

* This is a fictional letter that discusses a real problem that BTs go through. There is a lot of confusion out there regarding what is or isn’t acceptable dress and not a lot of practical advice on it. If you have real questions, feel free to email me at AriMiller613@gmail.com.

** Kitzur Shulchen Aruch, Chapter 3
*** ibid.
**** ibid
***** Shulchen Aruch HaRav, Chapter 2

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