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Ask the Rabbi: Why Do Orthodox Jews Dress as They Do?

The question:

Can you go over the different clothing orthodox (Haredi) Jews wear and why? -- A.R.

The answer:

The Torah makes certain requirements in terms of the way people are to be attired; beyond these requirements, certain other things have become customary depending upon the community one is identified with.

The fundamental requirement is that of modesty, which may be discerned from Genesis II, 7ff, when the first man and woman, deprived of their original innocence, realized that they were naked and made the first clothing.

The second requirement is stated in Deuteronomy XXII, 5:

Lo’ yihye ch ë li gever ‘al isha v ë lo’ yilbash gever simlath isha, ki to‘avath HaShem Elo-hecha kol ‘os é élle.

A male article should not be on a woman, nor should a male wear the dress of a woman, for an abomination of Ha-Shem your G-d is anyone who does this.

In the modern world, this is usually interpreted to mean that women are expected to wear dresses and skirts, and men slacks and shirts. When the requirement of modesty is applied to this, the result is a tendency toward longer skirts and longer sleeves, though standards vary.

The Talmud (cf. e.g. Shabbath 156b and Qiddushin 31a) generally speaks approvingly of covering one’s head, especially during prayer, while engaged in Torah study, or while performing some specific act such as making a blessing. This has led to the general custom of wearing what is called in Hebrew a kippa, also known by the Yiddish terms koppel and yarmulka.

Although early codified halacha, strictly speaking, requires this head covering only during the occasions mentioned (cf. e.g. Rambam, Hilchoth Tëfilla V, 5), the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim II, 6 recommends that one should not walk a distance of four ammoth with one’s head uncovered, and the Mishna Bërura (ibid., notes 9 and 10) rules that it has become the custom to cover one’s head constantly, even when standing or sitting still.

There are many reasons adduced for this custom, such as: it shows respect or submission to G-d; it is a simple sign of the separation between the Jewish people and the rest of the world; it is affirmative affiliation as a religiously observant Jew (this from a responsum of Rabbi ‘Ovadya Yoséf, late Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel).

Kippoth come in numerous styles, depending upon the community one identifies with. Generally speaking, the crocheted versions tend to be worn by religious Zionists or those who consider themselves “modern orthodox”, while black cloth kippoth tend to be favored by those Jews adhering to the traditions of what are generally known as “Lithuanian” yëshivoth, and black velvet ones by adherents of various chasidic groups and religious Sefardim. There are nuances with all of these, but this covers the general run.