What does Judaism say about fashion?

One of Judaism’s most important teachings is that what is inside matters much more than what is outside, yet beauty also has spiritual power. That dynamic tension of focusing more on inwardness than materialism, while also appreciating the beauty of the aesthetic, is how we can understand an approach to clothing in Judaism.

In the Torah, clothing serves many purposes, ranging from covering our bodies, to disguising ourselves and “deceiving” others, to elevating ourselves and even inspiring us to live up to moral ideals.

We project an image through the clothes we wear, and our clothes, in turn, influence us — our mindset, feelings and actions. For many Jewish thinkers, clothing was not merely about what is on the outside. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “A person’s clothes are a sign of that person’s qualities.”

Fashion as deception

The Hebrew word for clothing, “beged,” comes from the root, “bagad,” meaning deception or betrayal. Commenting on this, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

“Garments are used to deceive. Jacob wears Esau’s clothes to deceive his blind father Isaac when he puts out his hand to feel him. The brothers stain Joseph’s cloak with goat’s blood to persuade their father Jacob that he has been killed by a wild animal. Tamar changes her clothes and puts on a veil to hide her identity from Judah. 

Potiphar’s wife uses the robe Joseph has abandoned to bolster her claim that he tried to rape her. And Joseph uses his new-found appearance as a senior Egyptian ruler to hide his identity from his brothers… The Hebrew word for ‘garment’ beged, also means ‘betrayal’ (as in the confession, Ashamnu, bagadnu [‘We are guilty, we have betrayed’]).”

Joseph’s coat of many colors

One example of “fashion as deception” is the story of Joseph and his brothers. They use his “coat of many colors” to betray both Joseph and their father, Jacob (who is also called “Israel”):

Bereshit (Genesis) 37: 3-4:

וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃ וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃

Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a coat of many colors (ketonet pasim). And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.

Later in the story, the brothers strip Joseph of his tunic, throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. Once Joseph is gone, his brothers use the tunic to deceive Jacob, as we read in Bereshit (Genesis) 37: 31-33:

וַֽיְהִ֕י כַּֽאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥א יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו וַיַּפְשִׁ֤יטוּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ אֶת־כֻּתנְתּ֔וֹ אֶת־כְּתֹ֥נֶת הַפַּסִּ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָלָֽיו׃

וַיִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־כְּתֹ֣נֶת יוֹסֵ֑ף וַֽיִּשְׁחֲטוּ֙ שְׂעִ֣יר עִזִּ֔ים וַיִּטְבְּל֥וּ אֶת־הַכֻּתֹּ֖נֶת בַּדָּֽם׃ וַֽיְשַׁלְּח֞וּ אֶת־כְּתֹ֣נֶת הַפַּסִּ֗ים וַיָּבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶל־אֲבִיהֶ֔ם וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ זֹ֣את מָצָ֑אנוּ הַכֶּר־נָ֗א הַכְּתֹ֧נֶת בִּנְךָ֛ הִ֖וא אִם־לֹֽא׃ וַיַּכִּירָ֤הּ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ כְּתֹ֣נֶת בְּנִ֔י חַיָּ֥ה רָעָ֖ה אֲכָלָ֑תְהוּ טָרֹ֥ף טֹרַ֖ף יוֹסֵֽף׃

Then they took Joseph’s tunic (ketonet), slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, “We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?” He recognized it, and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!”

How our clothes impact us

Clothing is also used in the Torah to elevate or sanctify. In Exodus 28: 2-4, God commands the priests (kohanim) to wear distinctive clothing when performing their service in the tabernacle and later in the Temple. These garments were to be woven with gold, blue, purple and crimson threads, and the high priest was to wear a breastplate adorned with precious stones.

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃ וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חכְמָ֑ה וְעָשׂ֞וּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֧י אַהֲרֹ֛ן לְקַדְּשׁ֖וֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃ וְאֵ֨לֶּה הַבְּגָדִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַעֲשׂ֗וּ חֹ֤שֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד֙ וּמְעִ֔יל וּכְתֹ֥נֶת תַּשְׁבֵּ֖ץ מִצְנֶ֣פֶת וְאַבְנֵ֑ט וְעָשׂ֨וּ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֜דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֛יךָ וּלְבָנָ֖יו לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃

Make sacred garments (bigdei kodesh) for your brother Aaron, for honor and for beauty (kavod and tiferet). Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me.

Clothes for honor and beauty

Jewish thinkers have offered different interpretations of the phrase “for honor and for beauty” above. The commentator Sforno argued that the priest’s clothing was primarily intended to honor God and inspire the rest of the Israelites:

לכבוד לכבוד הא-ל יתברך בהיותם בגדי קדש לעבודתו: ולתפארת שיהיה כהן מורה נורא על כל סביביו שהם תלמידיו החקוקים על לבו וכתפיו:

For honor — To render honor to God through the wearing of sacred garments when performing Temple service. For beauty —  The Priest should inspire awe among all those around him, who are all considered his disciples, seeing he had the names of all the tribes engraved on these garments over his heart.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (better known as the Malbim), on the other hand, argued that the priest’s clothing was primarily meant to influence the priest:

ועשית בגדי קדש, הנה הבגדים שצוה לעשות היה כפי הגלוי בגדים חיצונים, שיספר ענינם איך עשו אותם האומנים במלאכה, אבל באמת היו מורים על בגדים פנימים שיעשו כהני ה’ להלביש בם את נפשותיהם בדעות ובמדות ובתכונות טובות שהם מלבושי הנפש, ומלבושים אלה לא עשו האומנים, וצוה ה’ אל משה שהוא יעשה בגדי קדש אלה, היינו ללמדם תקון נפשותיהם ומדותיהם באופן שילבישו הוד והדר את נפשם הפנימית…

כמו שילבש הגוף החיצוני שהוא לבוש אל הנפש מלבושיו החיצונים, כן תתלבש הנפש הפנימית את מלבושיה הפנימים ותתעשר בהם, וכמו שנקראו הלבושים החיצונים בשם מד, שעשויה למדת האדם, כן מלבושי הנפש נקראים בשם מדות, שמדות האדם ותכונותיו ילבישו את הנפש ועל ידם יתראה כחותיה ועלילותיה, וכאשר צוה על מלבושי הכהנים החיצונים היה עקר הכונה להורותם דעת איך ילבישו את נפשם שוב המדות והתכונות לטהרה ולקדשה

And you shall make sacred garments: Behold, the garments that He commanded to make were ostensibly outer garments, since how the craftsmen are to make them is discussed. But they really indicate inner clothes that the priests of God should make — to clothe their souls with thoughts and traits and proper tendencies, which are the clothes of the soul; and the craftsmen did not make those garments. But God commanded Moses that he should make these sacred garments — meaning to teach them how to refine their souls and traits, in such a way they will wear majesty and splendor upon their internal souls…

Just like the external body is clothed [with] its external clothing, so too one should clothe the inner soul with its internal garments and become enriched by them. And just like we call external clothing by the word “measure” (מד), for they are made to the specific measurements of each person, so too the garments of the soul are called “measurements” (מדות), for the attributes (מדות) of a person and his qualities garb the soul, and through them [the soul’s] powers and greatness will be expressed. When [Moses is] commanded on the external garments of the priests, the essence of the intention was to teach them knowledge of how to dress their souls again in the attributes and qualities of purity and holiness…

It’s what is on the inside that counts

Despite the focus on the bigdei kehuna (priestly garments) in the Torah, Judaism is also skeptical about physical appearances. This attitude is illustrated by the story of God choosing David to be the king of Israel in 1 Samuel 16: 1-13. Rabbi Sacks summarizes the story:

“Saul, Israel’s first king, looked the part. He was ‘head and shoulders’ taller than anyone else (1 Samuel 9: 2). Yet though he was physically tall, he was morally small. He followed the people rather than leading them. When God told Samuel that He had rejected Saul, and that Samuel should anoint a son of Yishai as king, Samuel went to Yishai and saw that one of his sons, Eliav, looked the part. He thought he was the one God had chosen. God, however, tells him that he is mistaken:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־שְׁמוּאֵ֗ל אַל־תַּבֵּ֧ט אֶל־מַרְאֵ֛הוּ וְאֶל־גְּבֹ֥הַּ קוֹמָת֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְאַסְתִּ֑יהוּ כִּ֣י ׀ לֹ֗א אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִרְאֶה֙ הָאָדָ֔ם כִּ֤י הָאָדָם֙ יִרְאֶ֣ה לַעֵינַ֔יִם וַה’ יִרְאֶ֥ה לַלֵּבָֽב׃

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does the Lord see]. Man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (1 Sam. 16: 7)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interprets Jewish attitudes about physical appearances this way:

“Civilization always runs the risk of substituting ‘seems’ for ‘is.’ Those who dress like kings may have the heart of slaves, fearful, resentful and vindictive. Those who wear the robes of holy people may…be corrupt. That is why Jewish sensibility is, on the whole, skeptical of official uniforms. God sees, and teaches us to see, the inward person.”

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