Clothing for the Soul
Chapter 5, Law 9
"The dress of the Torah scholar should be respectable (lit., 'nice')
clean. There must not be found on his clothes a stain, grease or the like.
He should not wear the clothes of kings, such as clothes of gold or royal
purple that draw people's attention (lit., 'that everyone looks at'), nor
[should he wear] the clothes of the poor which degrade their wearer, but
rather average nice clothes.
"[The Torah scholar's] flesh should not be visible beneath his clothes --
as is the case with the very light linen garments which are made in Egypt.
His clothes should not drag on the ground as the clothes of the arrogant,
but rather [they should extend] until his ankles, and his sleeves should
reach his fingertips. He should not let down his outer garment since this
appears arrogant -- except on the Sabbath if he has no change of clothes.
"During the summer, [the Torah scholar] should not wear shoes patched-up
with cloth, with patches upon patches. But in the rainy season it is
permitted if he is poor.
"He should not go out to the marketplace perfumed -- neither with perfumed
clothes nor perfumed hair. But if he rubs his flesh with fragrance in
order to remove a bad smell, it is permitted. He should also not go out
alone at night unless he has a set time in which he goes to his studies.
All of the above is because of suspicion."
The Rambam in this chapter has been discussing the behavior appropriate
for the wise. Last week we noted a progression in the Rambam's choice of
topics, how he began by discussing the scholar's behavior, then moved on
to the scholar's speech, and finally culminated with his gait and body
language. The Rambam thus progressed to increasingly subtle aspects of the
scholar's psyche. Today the discussion centers on a matter peripheral to
the scholar himself -- his dress.
I'd like to first explain a few surface issues regarding some of the
Rambam's references. We'll then address (bad pun there) this topic on a
more basic level.
First of all, clothes were basically long robes in the Rambam's and
Talmud's day. The Rambam here states that long clothes which reach the
ground are typical of the arrogant. Likewise, letting down one's robe
(from being hitched up at the belt) is a sign of arrogance. The basic idea
is that lengthy clothes were impractical for the working class, as they
interfered with manual labor. The wealthy leisure classes, who needed not
work themselves, typically wore such clothes as a sign of their status.
Thus, anyone who wore such a style was considered to be flaunting a high
social status (whether deservedly or not), in a manner the Sages deemed
ostentatious. The one exception to this was the Sabbath (as the Rambam
mentions), when no one worked, and so everyone had the luxury of dressing
long. (Above based on Talmud Shabbos 113a and commentary appearing in
Another issue the Rambam discusses here is shoes patches. Shoes were
basically a filthy affair in those days. Although paved roads are hardly a
modern invention, until comparatively recent times most streets and
walkways were covered with mud much of the year. A man's shoes were
assumed to be filthy, serving only in the practical capacity of keeping
his feet dry and protected. Thus, as the Rambam states, in the rainy
season shoes had to patched up sufficiently to serve their purpose. During
the summer months when much of the Middle East has no rain, more
respectable shoes were in place.
Now we move on to the Rambam's basic description of the Torah scholar's
dress. As we would expect, the scholar should not stand out -- neither in
showiness nor slovenliness. He should appear tidy and respectable, but
basically unpretentious in dress.
As an aside, I believe an interesting observation immediately presents
itself, namely that Judaism does not appear to believe in canonicals.
Rabbis were not bidden to dress distinctly just to appear different from
the masses or maintain their high reputation. For that matter (to my
knowledge), Jewish law does not enjoin that Jews dress differently from
their Gentile neighbors. (See Talmud Ta'anis 22a which implies there were
only very slight differences. See also Sanhedrin 74b which states that if
the Gentiles are out to wipe out Judaism, we must give our lives even on
account of such minor distinctions.) There may be no reason to conform to
every passing, immodest fad (and many good reasons not to), but the Torah
does not seem to insist we dress differently simply in order to look
foreign and strange.
(We might be familiar with the peculiar dress Jews wore in the Middle
Ages, such as round pointy hats, but that was typically imposed upon them
by the Gentile authorities in order to ridicule and ostracize them.
Further (at the risk of getting myself excommunicated...) Chassidic garb
assumed the form it did more for historical than religious reasons. It was
basically the dress of the 17th Century Polish nobility -- which sooner or
later (quite often later) became the accepted norm in many circles.)
Now I would like to approach the topic of clothing on a somewhat deeper
level. The Torah's first mention of clothes appears quite near the
beginning of Genesis (Ch. 3). Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, they
realized they were naked and as a result sewed clothes for themselves.
(Yes, according to Scripture they were made of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7) --
until G-d provided them with something more durable (v. 21).) We once
discussed that episode at much greater length (see Pirkei Avos 3:4
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/archapter3.html), but for today, I'd
like to offer a much briefer treatment, focusing especially on the purpose
Why after Adam and Eve sinned did they immediately realize they needed
clothes? And how could they have gone about without up until then --
during their very brief stay in the Garden?
The basic answer lies in an understanding of man's Primordial Sin. Adam
and Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of *Knowledge* -- a tree which
provided them with the knowledge of good and evil. Very briefly, before
the Sin man was a wholly good and pure being. He had no inner desire for
evil. The force of evil was an outside force, embodied in a Biblical
Serpent luring man to sin. Man's body, however, was entirely "good": It
had no inner desire to do anything other than the bidding of its soul.
Thus, if procreation was a Divine command (as man was instructed to "be
fruitful and multiply" (1:28)), it was an entirely pure and natural act.
And naturally, any act which fulfilled G-d's will brought the greatest of
After the Sin, however, man acquired the knowledge of good and evil. The
meaning is that man now had an intimate knowledge of -- and desire for --
both good and evil. The desire for sin was no longer the lure of an
outside Serpent. Man himself wanted to sin. The evil inclination resided
within his very bosom. Man became a confused mixture of good and evil,
never again to be entirely sure if the true him was a servant of G-d or
At this point, man's relationship with his body changed entirely.
Beforehand, his body was nothing other than an agent of his soul,
containing no other drive than to follow the dictates of his soul. Now his
body had a mind(?) of its own. It would pull equally strong in the
opposite direction, following its selfish and animalistic desires. Within
man now lay the desire to live for himself. Man would henceforth be pulled
simultaneously in opposite directions, his body and soul battling
perpetually for control and supremacy.
For this reason, at that point in history clothing became necessary. The
purpose was not to enhance man's appearance, to make social statements, or
even (primarily) to keep him warm. It was to properly define just who man
is. Adam and Eve realized they could no longer be totally comfortable with
their sexuality. They could easily view themselves as primarily physical
beings, as ones who lived for the needs and desires of their flesh. And
they could likewise view each other in that same selfish light -- as
bodies to be taken advantage of for their own pleasure.
Adam and Eve realized they had to dispel this notion -- as well as keep
their passions in check. Their flesh would have to be covered as a way of
downplaying their bodies, as a means of stating the flesh is not who they
truly are. Their nakedness was covered so that no one would mistake the
human body as the primary person. It was minimized, deemphasized. It had
to be made clear that the true value of the human being was his soul
This incidentally explains why Judaism places greater emphasis on modesty
for women than men. It is not only because men cannot be trusted (although
that's certainly a very real consideration). It's because there is an even
greater risk of mistaking the true value of women as their external looks.
At the risk of sounding chauvinistic (Gee, I've been taking a lot of risks
this week... ;-) , women are prettier than men. There is a Kabbalistic
notion that women's bodies are a higher creation than men's -- being one
step further removed from the earth. Thus, their bodies are more
attractive -- being an even greater reflection of the G-d who created
them. And so, the need to emphasize that the true value of women is in
what is within is even more essential.
Finally, to wrap up (yet another bad pun... :-) , in the eyes of Judaism
clothes are considered to enhance the soul much more than the body. In the
Talmud, R. Yochanan refers to his clothes as his "honorers" (Shabbos
113a). They are not primarily intended to make us look attractive, and
certainly not to reveal as much of our flesh as we can get away with. They
are to detract from man's focus on his body, making it evident that man,
far more than an intelligent well-clad member of the animal species, is
primarily and ultimately a creature of the soul.
Some of the ideas above are based on thoughts heard or read from Rabbis
Aryeh Kaplan and Zev Leff.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org