[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
The Stereotypes of “Orthodox” Dress
Let’s face it, the image of a stereotypical “orthodox” Jew in the minds of people today is a Haredi-Hasidic one – a black hat, long sidelocks, an untrimmed beard, and dressed in black Polish-style clothing. This image is so entrenched that many often do not believe religious non-Haredi Jews when they say that they are “orthodox” (myself included). Wearing a trimmed beard (or shaving it completely), sporting a leather or knitted kippah – even the wearing of khaki slacks and sweatshirts – all of this very often evokes an assumption of irreligiosity by both Jews and non-Jews on the part of the person wearing them.
Among religious Jews today the matter of dress is – in my opinion – perhaps the greatest factor of division among us. There are shuls where one is not allowed to be shaliah tzibbur unless he is wearing a black hat and a suit jacket. Beside a general mistrust of anyone not hasidic with regard to religious matters, there are Hasidic Jews who won’t eat meat slaughtered by shokhtim whose wives don’t wear a sheitel or wear a sheitel but do not have a shaven head underneath. Black suits and white button-up shirts are the standard and those who wear colored shirts, socks, or pants are viewed as being somehow less serious in their devotion to God. And let’s not forget the veritable insanity surrounding the various styles of kippot. Haredi-Hasidic children are often disallowed from playing with other orthodox children because they are not “frum” in their mode of dress, and children of Dati Leumi families are disallowed from attending certain schools in Israel due to the lack of black-and-white clothing in their parents’ wardrobe. In today’s orthodox world, the clothes not only make the man (or woman), but define his (or her) devotion to God, the Torah, and Judaism in general.
But is this how it’s supposed to be? And where did all of these ideas related to clothing come from? Is it permitted to treat people differently or make negative assumptions about them because of their style of dress according to halakhah? What does the halakhah say about clothing styles/colors, etc.? The correct answers to these questions are invaluable today as Jews work toward unity
Distinctive Clothing in the Prophets
As for the first question, no, this is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, the prophet Tzefanyah (“Zephaniah”) brings apparent criticism against those who use clothing in this way:
[1:8] And it shall come to pass… that I will take note [to punish] the princes and the sons of the king and all those who wear strange/foreign clothing (מלבוש נכרי).
The Radak, in commenting on this passage, cites several views.
Although he brings one view that [simplistically] understands nokhri as being the equivalent of akum (עכו”ם – an acronym for ovdei kokhavim u-mazalot, a late term invented by Christian censors as a replacement for goy), he brings another two views, the latter one being presented in two different forms. These other interpretations understand the word nokhriy here, in the context of Sefer Tzefanyah, as not denoting “foreign” (i.e. non-Jewish) clothing necessarily, but rather “strange” clothes – being either stolen or for purposes of arrogance (see there).
He begins by quoting the view of his late father (אבי ומורי ז”ל):
“…and all those who wear strange clothing – [That is] when they saw that any person over whom they had power was wearing beautiful clothing, they would rob it from him and wear it themselves.”
He then quotes the commentary of Ibn Ezra:
“…strange clothing – different from all the people as an expression of arrogance that no one else should dress as they do.” (1st form = distinct clothing that no one else is allowed to wear)
Further down he states “And there are those who explain [thusly]”:
“…strange clothing – [That is] people who present themselves as ascetics (parushim) and pietists (hasidim) who wear strange clothing that is unlike the rest of the people in order that [the people] will recognize them by their clothing as being ascetics (parushim) – And [those who do this] their ways are evil.” (2nd form = distinct clothing that marks their false piety)
Le-aniyut da`ati, the current situation within the Haredi-Hasidic fulfills both forms of the latter explanation: [A] “rebbes” and rabbinic types wear strange and fancy garb out of arrogance that others are not considered “worthy” to wear, and [B] the Haredi-Hasidic world dresses in strange and outdated European styles of clothing in order to mark themselves as somehow being on a higher level (madregah) of spirituality than all other Jews. They very publicly want to be seen as pietists, something which the prophet condemns as destructive.
All this being said, I think it is safe to say that strange or special garments for supposed reasons of piety is simply not a part of Torah values.
The Genesis of Wardrobe Politics
So where did this whole idea of a supposed standard Jewish uniform come from? Poland and Lithuania. Beginning in the 16th century, regional rabbinic leaders began instituting “decrees” about what Jews were allowed to wear and what they were not. Everything from particular colors, styles, types of material, hairstyles, the number of rings that could be worn on the fingers, where and when any embroidery could appear on any given article of clothing, etc. were scrutinized by the leaders and then legislated to the European Jewish masses. This trend grew and became more pervasive in the 17th century through the orders of the Council of the Four Lands and the Lithuanian Council. More and more para-halakhic rules were added and soon a culture of religiosity through clothing style was born.
These costume regulations and the resulting clothing “culture” were thereafter picked up almost wholesale by the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, through which they received their “canonization” into spiritual law. The Hasidic innovation was that they assigned mystical/kabbalistic significance to each garment worn by religious European Jews in their time. Not only this, but each “rebbe” made his own personal innovations, legislating to his followers further particulars regarding clothing – leading to the plethora of jacket styles, lengths, colors, and the assortment of fur and fox tail headgear we see today. Along the way, those who refused to conform to these regulations were ostracized, accused of apostasy, and put into herem.
In the 19th century, Russia began attempting to use governmental power to force Jews to abandon their “distinctive” dress, but to now avail. Jews in those lands resisted these advances and their resolve with regard to clothing and styles of dress became even more steely than ever before. Yet all of this would likely never have been an issue had the Jewish populace been allowed to simply do as they always had: dress in the general style of the cultural context in which they lived – something neither forbidden nor frowned upon by either the Torah or the halakhah.
This resistance continued through the rise of the heretical Reform movement and the haskalah, each time becoming more inflexible in an effort to display their devotion to their traditions. And now, due to this historical process which began in Poland and Lithuania, we have the defunct concept of religious Jewish dress still today – a defunct concept that is responsible for everything from cases of shunning, to disqualification of edim, to acts of violence every year.
The Mishnah – Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain
The Mishnah hints at the idea that Jews do not pay attention to clothing color or footwear in Masekhet Megillah [4:8], where it states:
האומר איני עובר לפני התיבה בצבועים אף בלבנים לא יעבור בסנדל איני עובר אף יחף לא יעבור
“The one who says, ‘I don’t pass before the teyvah [the ark where the Torah is kept – i.e. to be shaliah tzibbur] while wearing colored garments’ – even while wearing white we do not allow him [to act as shaliah tzibbur]. And if he says, ‘I do not pass [before the teyvah] while wearing sandals’ – we do not allow him to [act as shaliah tzibbur] even while barefoot [since anyone who espouses such ideas is a sectarian/heretic – see the Gemara in b.Megillah 24b].”
In other words, the Mishnah maintains that since there are no halakhot that dictate that a person must wear a certain type of shoe or color [or presumably style] of clothing in order to lead public prayers in the shul, one who espouses such contrivances is acting in the way of minut (sectarianism/heresy). By making baseless distinctions regarding clothing, such a person is disqualified from acting on behalf of the community since he is suspected of being a sectarian and perhaps by letting such ideas stand his sectarianism will spread and lead to divisions among the Jewish people, has va-halilah.
Even though the strict context of this mishnah is likely in regard to specific heretical sects extant during the time of its writing, it still indicates that silly and para-halakhic/extra-halakhic ideas about clothing are not only unwarranted and discouraged, but can be very damaging to the unity of Kelal Yisra’el. In the words of Hazal: “Af al pi she-ein ra’ayah le-davar zeikher le-davar – Although there is not formal proof [here in m.Megillah 4:8] of the matter, there is still an indication of it.”
Jewish Garb – Four Basic Principles
So what does the halakhah require with regard to clothing styles and colors? Not much. Lets first be clear that nowhere have there ever been intricate and/or detailed regulations about the color, style, material, embroidery, etc. of clothing in the halakhah. From the standpoint of Torah and halakhah, all clothing choices made my religious Jews must conform to the following basic principles:
 Sha`atnez (mixtures of wool and linen) are prohibited – (Vayikra 19:19; Devarim 22:1 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Kilayim 10:1)
 Beged Ishah (cross-dressing) is prohibited, whether males dressing like females or vice-versa – (Devarim 22:5 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 12:10-13)
 Tzeniut (modesty) is required – (related to Vayikra 19:1ff and others – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot De`ot 5:10). Although related to passages in the Torah and Nakh, the Jewish concept of modesty is generally fixed according to time and place, based on the modest members of the non-Jewish society at large in conjunction with principles of personal decorum handed down to us by Hazal.
 Avodah Zarah (idolatry) is prohibited – (Vayikra 18:3, 20:23; Devarim 12:30 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:1-2). The prohibition as regards idolatry related to mode of dress is ONLY in regard to a garment that is specific to non-Jews in expressing either idolatrous religious notions or impropriety/immodesty. Otherwise, as Rav Yosef Karo z”l in the Kesef Mishneh (commenting there) states: “…but when the clothing is not specific to them in any of these ways, a Jew is not required to dress differently than idolaters at all or in any way (כלל ועיקר).”
This means that as long as the above directives of the Torah are not violated, a religious Jew is allowed to wear what he or she so desires. Denim, plaid, blue jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes, polo shirts, etc. – all is permitted under the halakhah and any negative treatment of good Jews due to their choice of clothing style is absolutely unfounded.
More on this in PART II