Clothing in Judaism
-Rabbi Dr. Moshe Be’eri-
Parashat Tzav highlights the clothing designed for the priests (kohanim) in the Temple, thus eliciting the question of our attitude toward clothing in general. We all share a vision of social equality without class distinction. However, reality is different from the ideal and a class divide is part and parcel of any society. The question that every society must address is what are the basic products and services that every person needs, and what products and services can we reasonably accept as legitimately being unavailable to certain elements in society.
With respect to clothing, this discussion creates a complex dilemma as there are significant dissimilarities between one style of dress and another. The difference between quality brand name clothing and low end cheap clothing is substantial. Must we, as a society, provide the underprivileged with money to clothe themselves in a basic and minimalist way, or must we take care that they are able to dress themselves respectably and in a more socially acceptable manner? We sometimes encounter poorer people who are dressed very properly, and we then proceed to ask ourselves whether such a poor person actually deserves our charity.
Judaism’s attitude toward clothing encapsulates two values. On the one hand, our sources are riddled with expressions regarding the prominence of a person’s inner being over their external countenance. On the other hand, we also find many expressions of the importance one must afford their appearance.
We often find clothing referred to as a basic item that every person is entitled to. While Ya’akov was in the process of escaping his brother Esav, he approached Hashem and said the following: “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear … [then] and Hashem will be my God.” We find a reference to clothing also in connection with our obligation to respect the foreigner: “and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.” The Shulchan Aruch (Jewish code of law written by R. Joseph Karo, 16 century Safed) stipulates certain limitations on our freedom to take collateral from a borrower who has become destitute. In this case, a lender may not take the borrower’s clothing as collateral. The lender must leave the borrower with sufficient clothing for a period of twelve months.
However, all of the foregoing cases refer to the basic uses of clothing, such as warmth, protection and the most basic need for physical modesty. These needs are so basic that it is obvious that each Jewish person has the right to demand that his brothers ensure that his needs in this regard are met. The question is whether we must also ensure that the clothing performs additional functions, such as
providing the wearer with an element of respectability. Must we guarantee that the underprivileged in our areas not only eat, drink and clothe themselves, but also clothe themselves in a respectable fashion?
The Babylonian Talmud states that when two litigants come before a judge, with one dressed in fancy clothing and the other in simple clothing, the judge may not adjudicate the case until both are dressed in fancy clothing. This rule suggests that a judge may unwittingly distort judgment based on the outward appearance of those standing before him. Halacha recognizes that it is very difficult not to create pre-disposed notions of people based solely on their attire. On the 15th of Av, when the women would go to dance in the vineyards, they would ensure that each would dress in a borrowed white dress so that there would be no distinction between those of entitlement and those without.
In the foregoing case of a lender and borrower, in which the lender is limited in the collateral that he may accept from the borrower, a limitation is also placed on the borrower. The borrower may not retain in his possession clothing made of gold, but rather he may only keep simple clothing. A person may not avoid repaying a debt by claiming poverty while dressing as a rich man. Here, though, the issue is only with very expensive clothing, such as clothing made of gold, and it is not at all clear that the poor are expected to dress in rags.
On the other hand, Maimonides explains that in the event of a poor person who is accustomed to footmen running before his horses, even this luxury is defined as a basic need and such a person cannot be expected to deprive himself.
We see from all of this that there is no clear cut answer to the question of how a poor person should dress. What is clear is that the Torah commands us to ensure that everyone has what to wear. Moreover, Halacha allows a poor person to dress in clothing in which he feels respectable, but only to a point. He must not dress in a manner that is overly ostentatious.
In this case too, the middle road is the preferable one.
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Be’eri is the executive director of Tzohar