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The tradition of Jews is to dress modestly. Over the ages and in different communities, this has had varied expressions in the type of clothing worn but in all instances the common denominator of Jewish clothing was that it enhanced modesty of appearance. Because Jewish clothing was many times distinctive from the clothing of the rest of society, the non-Jewish world took notice of this mode of dress. In the Middle Ages the Church forced the Jews to wear certain colors (black, mainly) and prohibited their wearing bright colored clothing. The Church also forced male Jews to wear ludicrous Jew hats, dunce caps and the like, which were meant to bring ridicule and scorn upon the wearers. Jews were also made to wear cloth patches on their clothes to identify themselves as Jews. Though these were meant to be badges of shame, Jews turned this ban, with the patches and the funny hats, into matters of Jewish pride. In many cases, even when the clothing decrees were no longer rigorously enforced, Jews continued to wear their Jewish clothing with pride and as a sign of their blessed stubbornness. Even though Jews in the early Middle Ages wore maroon and brown clothing, by the late Middle Ages, black clothing for men was de rigueur. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Holland, the Jews dressed as did the Dutch, in black clothing, knickers, wide white starched collars and sweeping hats. Even the rabbis of Amsterdam dressed in these fashions of the times, as evidenced in the famous portrait of Rabbi Yacov Sasportas currently hanging in the Israel Museum. The Sephardic Jews in eighteenth century Holland and England dressed similarly though still much more conservatively as to color and plumes than their non-Jewish neighbors.

In Eastern Europe, however, Jews dressed very distinctively. The Jewish laborers and artisans dressed in plain work clothes with a cap that had a small brim. The rabbis and the upper class wore long black caftans, wide brimmed hats and in winter a peltz - a fur-lined heavy overcoat. Jews typically sported beards and side locks - peyot. In the nineteenth century, the Russian government of the Czars, with the cooperation and even instigation of certain maskilim - "enlightened" Jews - passed decrees that forbid Jews from wearing "Jewish" clothing and untrimmed beards and side locks. These decrees, promulgated in 1853, caused great turmoil in the Jewish world, especially amongst the rabbinic leaders of the time. Privately, all of the rabbis opposed this enforced change in Jewish dress. The first Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, informed his chassidim that he considered the matter to be a life and death issue. However, when it became apparent that the Russian government clearly intended to enforce the decree in this case, and that none of the usual methods of circumventing these laws were working - whether through lobbying or bribery, the rabbis were forced to issue a public proclamation "supporting" the decree. This proclamation was issued in 1857 and signed by Rabbi Dov Ber Meislish, the then chief rabbi of Warsaw, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Rebbe of Gur and Rabbi Yeshayahu Mushkat. But after a period of time, the decree, though never revoked officially, lapsed into perfunctory enforcement. Due to the coercive nature of the Russian government's decree and as a protest against the continuing venomous attacks on Jewish tradition by the maskilim, the stubbornness regarding Jewish clothing returned to large sections of the Jewish religious world, especially amongst the Chasidim. And so it remains even today.

In Lithuania, Germany and later in America and England, religious Jews adopted Western style dress, though again in a somewhat more conservative mode. In the yeshiva world of today, the wearing of dark pants, white shirts and a jacket and hat is fairly universal. Great emphasis is placed on dress in today's religious society so that deviating from the norm in dress is often taken as a sign of rejection of basic Torah principles, even though in fact this need not be the case at all. Yet, in all cases, modest dress remains a Jewish virtue and a hallmark of religious Jewish society. Modesty is the true Jewish uniform.

Berel Wein

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