Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Appearance and Attire

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

As many of my friends know, I have an adept eye for men’s formal fashions. I’m one of those people who notes the clothing that others wear, be it the style, quality, or message conveyed. The Talmud teaches that dressing well can fool others into believing that you are exceptionally smart or important[1], so don’t be fooled!

The Torah teaches us that the purpose of the clothing worn by kohanim was for “honor and glory.”[2] By this, the Torah is clearly teaching us that the way we dress displays our sense of standing and purpose, both as individuals, as well as Jews. This kohanic attitude actually applies to us all, as the entire Jewish people are called a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[3] Furthermore, we are also to learn from the kohanim the importance of regular bathing and fresh breath.[4]

Click here to read moreIndeed, the Torah and the rabbinical literature are replete with references to proper attire and presentation. For starters, the Midrash teaches us that Adam wore only the finest garments.[5] Even God Himself takes appropriate dress very seriously - we are taught that He personally cleaned and pressed the clothing of the Jewish people while they were wandering in the desert and even made sure that all garments were always perfectly tailored to the wearer.[6] Moreover, we are taught that God also ensured that the Jews wandering the hot desert never suffered from body odor, as the manna He fed us for forty years was not only a delicious food, but also contained properties that served as an anti-perspirant deodorant.[7]

Wearing nice shoes is also extremely important, as the Talmud teaches: “One should sell even the beams of his house in order to buy shoes for his feet.”[8] It is also important to ensure that one’s shoes fit well.[9] One should never walk around barefoot.[10]

A Talmudic maintenance tip for your clothing: never sit on a new mat or other surfaces – it’ll ruin your clothes.[11] Similarly, be very careful when holding children – they are known for dirtying one’s clothes.[12] Here’s a Talmudic tip to ensure your house smells nice: sprinkle your floors with wine.[13] Clothes are not meant to serve as pillows[14] and never rip your clothing in anger.[15] We are cautioned never to wear clothing inside out, nor to put two garments on at once, as it can cause you to lose your mind![16]

The importance of proper attire is further emphasized as we prepare for Shabbat. The Jewish people are encouraged to wear especially nice clothes in honor of Shabbat.[17] The Talmud[18] derives the obligation of having special Shabbat perfumes and other finery from Naomi’s words to her daughter-in-law Ruth, “Wash yourself, perfume yourself, and put on your fine garments.”[19] It is suggested that everyone, young and old, possess a perfume reserved exclusively for Shabbat use.[20]

Rabbis, scholars, and others in leadership roles are cautioned to be even more particular with the way they dress than others. The Talmud teaches, for example, that any Torah scholar who goes out in public with a stain on his clothes is worthy of death.[21] Although the death penalty was never implemented for such an offence, it does give us a sense of the severity and importance in portraying a proper image. Appearing before God in prayer also demands a dignified dress and appearance.[22]

Dress and appearance certainly have their place in Yiddishkeit.[23] Clothes don’t just cover a person – they expose a person.


[1] Shabbat 145b.
[2] Shemot 28:2.
[3] Shemot 19:6.
[4] Rambam, Hilchot Biat Hamikdash 7:13; OC 4:17.
[5] Bereishit Rabba 20:12.
[6] Rashi, Devarim 8.
[7] Ibn Ezra, Devarim 8.
[8] Shabbat 129a.
[9] Shabbat 141b.
[10] Pesachim 112a; OC 2:6.
[11] Pesachim 140b.
[12] Mishna Berura 262:6; Sefer Chassidim 18.
[13] Pesachim 20b; Bava Kama 115a.
[14] Ibid. 2:2.
[15] Sefer Chassidim 71.
[16] Mishna Berura, OC 2.
[17] Yeshayahu 58:13.
[18] Shabbat 113b.
[19] Ruth 3:3.
[20] Ibn Ezra, Ruth 3:3.
[21] Shabbat 114a.
[22] Sefer Chassidim 18.
[23] Kohelet 9:8.

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