Jewish Hats

Manuscript illustrations, family seals, and rabbinic decisions all indicate that Jewish men in most of medieval Christian Europe wore special hats.

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The hats appear to have been made from cloth, although some have suggested metal in certain cases. Israel Isserlein (1390‑1460) wrote about hats woven of straw and whether they are suitable as head covering for pray­ers. Jews sometimes adopted the “Jewish hat” as a prominent feature of their personal seals. Some French illuminators show a wide variety of Jewish hats, including one in a sky blue color with a small brim and soft pointed peak (in colors such as pink and bright red-orange), and a black hat with a wide brim and no peak at all.

Spain and Italy Were Exceptions

Jews in Spain did not wear this special “Jewish hat” at any time. In Aragon-Catalonia, at least in the thirteenth century, it was customary to wear a kind of hood with the point flopping down in the back and to the side. Although some sources refer to “distinctive dress” worn by Jews in Italy (to differentiate them form Christians), contemporary illustrations show no evidence of this, nor was the hat worn there.

* As the famous reliefs of the Dura‑Europa synagogue [built around 245 C.E. in present-day Syria] demonstrate, Jews in the Persian Empire wore a mixture of Greek and Persian clothing. The so‑called Jewish hat of medieval Europe (chiefly in Germany, France, and England) appears actually to have originated in the Persian hat, soft and with a brim and slight conical point on top. This may be seen also in the Dura paintings, as well as in a sixth‑century (C.E.)Egyptian wall painting portraying the miraculous story of the three children saved from the furnace (Daniel 3.21) and in pottery figurines from China (ca. 618­-907) representing, presumably, Jewish merchants.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.