The Torah’s very first reference to clothing was a response to the nakedness of Adam and Chava. There (Beraishis 2:25), our ancestors, in their state of undress, were referred to as ערומים. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out the connection between that word and ערם (cunning), עור (skin), עִוֵּר (blind man) and ער (wakefulness). Each of these derivations expresses an enhanced sensitivity: a cunning person sees in his surroundings what others don’t; the skin is the organ most sensitive to touch; a blind man “sees” with his skin (hence his Hebrew designation); and we all obviously see more while awake.
Nakedness, therefore, would suggest unrestrained sensitivity. In and of itself, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the first couple were described in their original state as “without shame” (or more accurately, according to Hirsch, “without cause for shame” – the word בוש meaning: a failure to live up to ones own expectations). But when the goal of this sensitivity diverges from God’s, then a man needs to restrain his senses and thereby address his failing. Clothes serve that function perfectly.
Not for nothing is the Torah’s reference to ציצית – which serve as the moral extension of our clothing’s physical function – accompanied by the warning (Bamidbar 15:39): “Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes,” echoing as it does: “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, for it was desirous to the eyes.” (Beraishis 3:6)
Clothing: the power to impress ourselves
If so much of God’s introduction to the subject of human life concerns the the ability of clothing to shape and direct our attitudes, we should expect to find important lessons everywhere halacha and body coverings intersect.
Rabbi Acha bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: what is the Torah source for changing garments (to honor God – Rashi)? As is says (Vayikra 6:4): “And he (the priest) will remove his garments and don other garments” (so that “the special garments in which he will perform the incense and libation service should not be stained” – Rashi) And it was taught in the house of Rabbi Yishmael that the Torah here teaches derech eretz: garments in which a man prepares a meal for his master should not be worn to pour the master’s cup. (Shabbos 114a)
Why not? What’s the difference between “preparing the meal” and “pouring the wine”? Are they not both acts of loyal service? Why should a master – or, The Master – mind if a servant’s clothes became soiled during the course of his efforts?
Perhaps the Master Himself doesn’t mind. Instead, maybe fresh, clean clothes are meant to have a greater impact on the fellow wearing them. For all we know, “preparing the meal” may well be just as important as “pouring the wine”, but we all intuitively understand there’s a difference. Some mitzvos are more focused than others: it’s true that the Torah expects us to build a sukkah (even if we don’t make a bracha at the time), but there is a reason that we’re more likely to dress up for the Yom Tov meals we’ll eat in it.
Fine clothes add to the special atmosphere of an important “meeting” with God. They therefore enhance whatever you do while dressed up.
The idea that refined clothing can inspire refined thoughts and behavior might also lie behind Rabbi Yochanan’s famous characterization of his clothing:
“And you will honor (Shabbos) by avoiding your (normal) practice.” (Yeshaya 58:13) So that your Shabbos clothing should not be like your weekday clothing. Just as Rabbi Yochanan would call his clothes “those which honor me.” (Shabbos 113a)
Appropriate clothing will not only inspire, but can also be necessary for our basic emotional wellbeing – no less a critical pillar of productive life:
(What is the etymological source of the word) levusha (לבושא)? “lo vusha” (i.e., free of shame) (Shabbos 77b)
Levusha. An outer garment that is called “shruk.” Lo vusha. To prevent shame, since it covers all the undergarments which are torn and inferior. (Rashi)
The Torah is perfect not only because it reflects the perfect Will of our Creator, but because (when it is properly understood and observed) the environment it fosters is the very best place to develop healthy Torah personalities. Mitzvos are the “teachers” carried in our hands, Torah study is the teacher found in our minds and, under the Torah’s direction, clothes become the teachers we wear.
Of course, just as clothes can help us define ourselves as healthy human beings and as loyal Jews, they have the equal ability to nurture – or at least express – emotional corruption:
Rav Huna said: If someone has alternate clothes (into which to change for Shabbos) do so. If he has no alternative, he should let his (everyday) clothes down. Rav Safra asked: but does that not appear arrogant? Since he does not do this every day and today (Shabbos) he does, it does not appear arrogant. (Shabbos 113a)
If someone has alternate clothes – Someone who has clothes besides those he wears during the week should change into them for Shabbos. Let his (everyday) clothes down – Towards the ground, so they should appear longer which is the way the rich, who sit idle in their homes without the need to pick their garments up to do work. This (i.e., letting the clothes down) is for the honor of Shabbos. (Rashi)
In other words, were someone of moderate means and social standing to “dress up” without obvious justification, it could well be a sign of a dangerously inflated sense of self. Even dressing piously could suggest similar problems:
Eliezer Z’ira was wearing black shoes (a sign of mourning – Rashi) while standing in the marketplace of Nehardea. Individuals from the Exilarch’s court found him and said: “Why these shoes?” He replied “I am mourning over Jerusalem.” They replied “You are on a high enough level to mourn over Jerusalem?” They assumed it was an act of arrogance and imprisoned him. (Bava Kama 59b)
The fact that, at least until he vindicated himself by demonstrating superior Torah knowledge, Eliezer Z’ira was actually imprisoned for this “crime”, is deeply curious. I suspect that the Exilarch’s court correctly felt themselves responsible for the moral tone of the Jewish community. Seeing a man of apparently average status “pretending” to a religious level he hadn’t reached, they feared that the very process of moral growth would be cheapened. After all, if it became commonly understood that all one had to do in order to reach heights of righteousness was adopt some external mannerism – a particular style of dress, for instance – then others might avoid the intense inner effort required by true Torah observance and adopt instead superficial habits – which are, in truth, the very opposite of God’s will.1 Perhaps, therefore, Eliezer Z’ira was imprisoned in order to make his case – and the consequences of the morally dishonest behavior of which he’d been accused – a matter of the public record.
Clothing: the power to impress others
Whether we like it or not, Orthodox Jews are assumed to be the Torah’s representatives by all with whom they come in contact. The way we talk, work, drive, eat and simply go about our daily business goes a long way to define the society’s general attitudes towards God and His Torah. Since there’s really nothing more visible to the outside world than the way a person dresses, choosing carefully deserves our attention.
And Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: any Torah scholar on whose garment is found (an oily) stain deserves death, as it says (Proverbs 8:36) “All who hate Me love death.” Do not read it “who hate Me” but “who cause (people to) hate Me.” (Shabbos 114a)
Deserves death – Because he must be presentable and dignified in honor of his Torah. Those who cause (people) to hate Me – Because they make themselves disgusting in people’s eyes and people say “woe to them, those who study Torah, for they are disgusting and despised.” This, in turn, causes the Torah to be hated. (Rashi)
Besides considerations of hygiene, our clothes should be generally presentable:
Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: it is a disgrace for a Torah scholar to go in public with patched shoes. But didn’t Rabbi Acha bar Chanina go out (with such shoes)? Rabbi Acha brei d’Rav Nachman said: (the problem is only shoes with) patches on their patches. (Shabbos ibid)
Apparently, it isn’t unreasonable for a Torah scholar to be seen with clothes suffering from minor wear and tear (in the Gemara’s terms: a single patch). Perhaps perfection requires the kind of attention and investment that borders on vanity (not to mention financial excess). But we must also avoid projecting an air of neglect (patches on patches) because of what it suggests about our general approach to life.
And beyond the quality of our clothing, we must ensure that our choices fall within halachic boundaries. Not only must our clothes properly cover us, but there are times in which halacha actually prohibits certain styles.2 Sometimes even seemingly minor changes can cause serious consequences:
When Ravin came, he said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan (concerning the obligation to give one’s life rather than transgress Torah law): ‘Even if there is no organized religious persecution, the obligation to give one’s life is only limited to the three cardinal sins3 when the sin is to be performed in private. However, if a coerced sin is to be performed in public, (one must give one’s life rather than transgress) even a light commandment. What is a “light commandment”? Rava bar Rav Yitzchak said in the name of Rav, even changing the color of one’s shoelaces. (Sanhedrin 74)
…that if the non-Jews tied their shoes one way and the Jews another, in a way that had some religious overtone and it (reflected) the Jewish sense of modesty, then even for this slight change which isn’t really a mitzva at all – but instead is a simple custom – a Jew must sanctify himself before his fellow Jews… (Rashi)
Clothing: the power of habit
How are fashion trends born? More often than not, they spread as a expression of some social need: prominent members of a community create or adopt a particular style, others, enjoying the newness of it, follow with their own imitations and, once enough people have picked up on it, everyone else, sensing something missing in their own lives, join in.
Sometimes a new style has real advantages (healthier eating habits, for instance) and attracts intelligent imitators eager to share in the benefits. Other times it’s all about a thirst for that vague and fleeting (not to mention, false) sense of importance (like choosing wide-brimmed men’s hats over the older, narrower brims – at a significant cost increase).
Nevertheless, once you’re used to a particular practice, not only is it difficult to stop, but you’re likely to agree to increasing costs just to stay “in the game”. The positive side of this last aspect of human nature is interestingly illustrated by Rav Chisda:
Rav Chisda, while carrying two portions of beef, announced “I will give this (beef) to anyone who will come and tell me a new teaching in the name of Rav.” Rava bar Machsiya answered “Thus taught Rav…” Rav Chisda (upon hearing the teaching) gave (the beef to Rava bar Machsiya) who then asked (Rav Chisda) “Are the statements of Rav really so precious to you?” Rav Chisda replied that they were, to which Rava replied “Thus said Rav: a coat is worth a great deal to one who is used to wearing it.” (Shabbos 10b)
A coat is worth a great deal of money to someone who is used to wearing one – That is to say, because you are a student of Rav and used to hearing his teachings, you seek (more of) them. (Rashi)
Since it can be so difficult to assess and healthily manage one’s own susceptibility to fashion trends, here’s an objective rule of thumb that, along with a little self-analysis, can help:
Rav Avira taught, sometimes in the name of Rabbi Ami and sometimes in the name of Rabbi Asi: Why is it written (Tehilim 112:5) “Good is the man who is kind and lends; his words proceed with judgment”? (This teaches) that a person should always (purchase) food and drink worth less than he can afford, dress according to what he can afford and honor his wife and children with more than he can afford, for they depend on him while he depends on the One Who said: ‘Let the world exist.'” (Chulin 84b)
Less than he can afford – Less than his ability. And dress… And cover himself according to his ability so he should not be embarrassed… (Rashi)
1See Yeshaya 1:11-15
2ע’ שו”ע יו”ד סי’ קע”ח ס”ק א’ ברמ”א
3Murder, sexual immorality and idolatry.