"The apparel oft proclaims the man," Polonius advises Laertes (Hamlet, I: 3), but it is doubtful if God paid heed during Creation. "The two of them were naked, man and his wife," Genesis 2:25 reports, "yet they felt no shame."
Only after the incident of the serpent and the eating of the forbidden fruit were Adam's and Eve's eyes "opened" and they became aware of being naked. "And the Lord God made skin garments for them and clothed them," it says, prior to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the perfect world God had hoped to create, clothes didn't “make the man.”
Yet even if only a concession to human weakness, clothing has long played a significant role in Judaism. Clothing has reflected religious identification, social status, emotional state and even the Jews' relation with the outside world. The ancient rabbis taught that maintaining their distinctive dress in Egypt was one of the reasons the Jews were worthy of being rescued from servitude.
The Torah says little about clothing, either descriptively or prescriptively. Without explanation, it prohibits blending wool and linen in a garment, in the same verse forbidding "mixing" different seeds and species of cattle (Leviticus 19:19). It forbids men from wearing women's clothes and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5), without specifying the characteristics of either. It also requires Jews to put fringes on the corners of a four-pointed garment (Numbers 15:37-41), both as a way of identifying the Jew and reminder reminding the Jew to observe the mitzvot.
On the other hand, the Torah provides extensive detail regarding the clothing of the priests, and particularly the High Priest, for their duties in the Tabernacle in the desert (Exodus 28), later adopted for the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet while the High Priest's garb was elaborate, colorful and full of symbolism, for Yom Kippur, the one day a year he would enter the most holy portion of the sanctuary, he was to wear only white linen (Leviticus 16:4), a sign of humility. White clothing became the symbol of purity, and black a sign of mourning. Nowadays mourning is indicated by the tearing of a garment.
When the Jews were sovereign in their land in ancient times, the standard of dress of those who were wealthy, such as successful landowners, reflected their status. The nobility and upper classes dressed more elegantly. The styles of the neighboring peoples also had their influence. But when the Jews were exiled (70 C.E.) and lived under foreign control, the impoverishment of many Jews became evident in their dress.
In some cases, over time the Jews adopted distinctive dress voluntarily, to separate themselves from the prevailing culture. In others, they were required by law to dress in a particular way, e.g., special hats and badges in medieval Spain and 13th-century Poland. Jews of Eastern Europe came to adopt fashions of the early modern Polish nobility, such as the black robe (caftan) and the fur hat (shtreimel), which are still worn by various groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The origins of men covering their heads with a hat or yarmulke (skullcap) are not clear. The Talmud relates several incidents where covering the head is considered a sign of submission to divine authority. Some attribute it to the Jews' need or desire to differentiate themselves from Christians, for whom removal of the hat was a sign of respect. By the 16th century, it had become common enough to be codified as normative behavior among the more observant, who still cover their heads all day or at least during prayer and study.
For women, the uncovered head was from earliest times considered immodest, if not worse. Married women covered their heads so as not to draw the attention of other men. The sheitel (wig) worn by very religious married women is a relatively late variation on this. These practices are observed today only in very traditional circles.
Over the ages, rabbinic authorities often spoke out on two matters related to clothes-- against excessive or gaudy styles and in favor of keeping clothing, particularly for women, "modest." On the other hand, it has long been a custom for Jews to have special clothes for Shabbat and festivals, contributing to the special character of these days.
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