Clothing & Appearance
Generally, Talmidis do not dress any differently to the other members of the societies in which they live. What general guidelines that do exist, apply equally to both men and women – that we should dress modestly; and when in a religious setting, we should not dress in a way that is sexually provocative – this applies to both men and women.
However, there are certain clothes and forms of appearance that one can generally recognise as being ‘Jewish’ or Israelite, which Talmidis will also sometimes adhere to, such as prayer-shawls and beards for men.
An Israelite in ancient times was expected to avoid dressing in the same way as his or her pagan neighbours; this is the ruling principle behind how we as Talmidis and as Followers of the Way of YHVH should dress.
In the Massorite sect of Talmidaism, as a sign of devotion to one’s faith, and piety towards God, the choice exists to dress as a native Israelite, especially when one is in the Land of Israel. It can be a very powerful statement of witness for YHVH, both to other Jews and to non-Jews alike.
What Talmidis don’t look like
We don’t grow pe’ot (side-curls), we do not wear tefillin (prayer-boxes or phylacteries), and we don’t wear kippot (skullcaps or yarmulkes).
Firstly, we don’t grow pe’ot (Ashkenazi pronunciation: peyos). The Hebrew word merely means ‘sides’, but in modern Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism, it has come to mean ‘side-curls’. The commandment in Lev 19:27 should be read in conjunction with the verse which follows it. The commandment has to do with forbidding a pagan mourning practice, whereby pagans would actually shave off the sides of their head and clip the edges of their beards to show that they were in mourning. The Orthodox say that the commandment means ‘not to make the side of the hair even with the rest of the hair of the head’, but this is a forced interpretation; it actually means what it says – not to shave the hair off completely when in mourning like the ancient Canaanites did.
Secondly, we don’t wear tefillin (prayer-boxes), small leather boxes worn on the forehead which contain parchment inscribed with certain verses from Torah. The Pharisaic practice is based upon a literal reading of an idiomatic phrase in Hebrew, with regard to God’s commandments: “you shall bind them like a sign on your hand, and wear them like frontlets between your eyes.” (Deut 6:8).
The fact that this phrase occurs in other contexts where it cannot possibly be taken literally, proves that it is a Hebrew idiom. For example, in Ex 13:16 it says that the sacrifice of the firstborn of kosher animals is to be ‘like a sign on your hand, and like frontlets between your eyes, for with a mighty hand YHVH brought us out of Egypt’. If we were to take this literally, are we supposed to wear sacrificed lambs on our hands and forehead? No – it is supposed to be a Hebrew idiom, not to be taken literally; in both cases, with regard to God’s commandments and the sacrifice of the firstborn animals, the phrase means that these things are to be an eternal, unforgettable and indelible reminder to us, and precious in our sight.
Thirdly, we don’t wear kippot (skullcaps) because they are a reminder of Muslim practice, which was adopted by Jews. We don’t object to head-coverings, just specifically skullcaps. Good alternatives are the Hebrew turban or any decent hat or cap.
It is almost comical when you see films set in biblical times, when all the Israelites are wearing side-curls, prayer-boxes and skullcaps; in fact only the Pharisees wore side-curls and prayer-boxes, and skull-caps weren’t even invented until Muslim times! The prayer-shawls in the films have no fringes on them, and there are no blue cords on the corner fringes.
General commandments that pertain to clothing and appearance in Torah
There are some general laws in Torah that relate to cloth and clothing:
Not to mix cloth or thread of two different kinds when making a garment of any kind:
‘Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together’ (Deut 22:11)
‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ (Lev 19:19)
To wear a cord of blue on the corner fringes of any garment that has corners:
‘Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them to make themselves tassels on the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the corner fringe a cord of blue. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commandments of YHVH, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the desires of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all My commands and will be consecrated to your God.’ (Num 15:38-40)
‘Make tassels on the four corners of the covering you wear’ (Deut 22:12)
Not to practice pagan mourning customs, like shaping the beard, or shearing the sides of the head, or wearing tattoos:
‘You shall not shave off the sides of your heads, nor shape the sides of your beard, nor cut your bodies for the dead, nor put tattoo marks on yourselves; I am YHVH.’ (Lev 19:27-28)
Not to tear out or shave our hair in mourning, or cut ourselves to remember the dead:
‘You are children of YHVH your God. So do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.’ (Deut 14:1)
Men’s and women’s clothing to be different, and not to wear each other’s clothes:
‘A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, YHVH your God detests it when anyone does this.’ (Deut 22:5)
General list of men and women’s clothing
The two basic items of clothing for a man were the tunic (kutónet) and the mantle (either a salmah or the larger simlah). Wealthier people would wear more garments:
Under-garment – mikhnesim: usually short pants made of linen, and worn under the tunic
Tunic – kutonet: full body garment that goes from neck to ankle, with sleeves
Mantle – salmah: shawl that sits on the shoulders or covers the head; has fringes on the two shorter ends
Cloak – simlah: large shawl, usually worn draped over the left shoulder, flowing diagonally down he back, and brought up again a second time over the left shoulder. It can also be wrapped round the whole body if needed; has fringes on the two shorter ends
Over-tunic – me`il: knee-length oblong cloth, folded to form a tunic without sleeves; the bottom edges have a row of fringes
Coat – ma`atafah: ankle length garment like a coat, with short elbow-length sleeves, but no buttons, worn over the me`il
Hebrew turban – pe’eir: white or light coloured cloth placed over the head and tied at the back
Belt – avneit: made of pleating cloth or leather
Sandals – na`al: usually made of leather
Money-pouch – kis: usually made from leather and tied to the belt
When working, the poor would have worn a knee-length, sleeveless tunic, which would have allowed freedom of movement. It would have been tied at the waist.
In the rich, the sleeves of the tunic and coats only reached down to the elbows; the forearm being covered with a metal armlet.
Women usually had three items of clothing, the dress, the apron or skirt, and the over-shawl. Wealthier women would wear more items:
Under-dress – sedinim: under-garment made of fine linen
Dress – shit (pronounced sheet): full length woman’s garment with sleeves
Over-robe – malbush: a long, oblong cloth with a hole in the middle for the head to go through, without sleeves, often highly embroidered; similar in function to a man’s me`il, but longer; has fringes on the lower ends
Apron – chagorah: this is like half a dress, the lower edge folds upwards to enable a woman to carry things in it
Head-scarf – tsa`if: oblong scarf that is put over the hair and then tied under the hair at the back. According to ancient tradition, only married women were required to cover their hair in public
Over-shawl – mitpachah: large spreading garment, a woman’s simlah (large mantle); has fringes on the two shorter ends
Girdle – chagor: a belt made up of a long fold of cloth into which could be stored money or other items
Purse – tseror or charit: usually made of leather, used to carry valuables
Israelite women only wore a veil (re`alah) over the face at their wedding ceremonies. Veils were never worn in everyday life.
In Isaiah 3:18-23, there is a description of some of the kinds of things a rich woman would have worn in ancient times:
‘In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, the ear-rings and bracelets and veils, the head-dresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings, the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.’
The appearance of Hebrew cloth
The design of Hebrew cloth was very distinctive. It was made of bands of colour of varying and irregular widths. Examples of this type of cloth have been found at Eyn Gedi and Masada. The commonest colours were various shades of red, brown, green, black and white. Expensive cloth could even have blue or purple bands. In Abraham’s time, the bands had wavy or dotted lines woven into them. Joseph’s coat of many colours would have been a very colourful banded cloth of many more colours than would normally have been woven into one piece of cloth.
Rectangular cloth always had fringes on the two shortest ends, usually at the start and finish of the weave. Both men and women’s clothing had rows of fringes or tassels, as well as the cord of blue on the corner tassel. The design of women’s clothing would have been more fanciful and ornate.
Each tribe also had its own range of colours, and it is possible that at one time, mantles or coats may have been designed to reflect one’s tribe.
Here are the tribal colours, listing the dominant colours in each design:
Reuben scarlet red
Simeon pale green
Judah sky blue /white
Issakhar dark blue /white
Dan orange /gold
Naftali wine red / red-brown
Gad black, purple & white
Asher aquamarine, yellow-green
& Manasseh black & grey
Benjamin red & brown
In the late Second Temple Period, Jews wore vertical lines on either side of their tunics; this was a reflection of Roman fashion, so if we take to wearing tunics, in my opinion we should shy away from this practice.
Fashion Among Men:
In biblical times, men generally wore their hair short. Only the Nazirites allowed theirs to grow uncut for religious reasons. It was never shaved; the High Priests and the priests were forbidden to have theirs shaved. They were neither to shave their hair according to heathen custom, nor to allow it to grow uncut like that of the Nazirites (see Ezek 44:20). In the late Second Temple Period, it was the custom to welcome guests by putting a small amount of cooling oil on their head.
The ancient Hebrews did not follow the Egyptian custom of wearing wigs. Various peoples surrounding the Israelites had distinctive ways of wearing their hair, by implication indicating allegiance to various pagan gods; Israelites were therefore advised not to copy them.
Fashions Among Women:
According to biblical custom, both married men and married women kept their heads covered in public. This is in contrast to Muslim custom where only women have to cover their head).
For women, long hair was considered a sign of beauty and womanhood. Women gave much thought to the care and decoration of their hair (2Kings 9:30; Songs 4:1, 6:4, 7:6; also Judith 10:3). Josephus mentions the custom of sprinkling gold-dust on the hair in order to produce a golden shimmer (“Ant.” viii. 7, § 3).
In the Song of Songs, a man says of the woman he loves:
“Behind your veil, your hair is like a flock of goats, streaming down Mount Gilead” (Sgs 4:1)
“Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel; your hair is like royal tapestry” (Sgs 7:6)
The prophet Isaiah however warned against vanity and haughtiness with regard to their hair (Isa 3:16-17).
Just as enemies cut a man’s beard to humiliate him, so also a woman’s hair was cut as a sign of humiliation to her. In Deut 21:12, a woman taken as a slave was to have her hair cut short. Short hair was also seen as a sign of mourning:
“Shear your locks and cast them away; take up lament on the heights” (Jer 7:29)
Just as the beard contributed to the dignity of an Israelite man, so also a woman’s long hair contributed to the dignity of an Israelite woman.
There is nothing to say that you actually have to have a beard. It’s just that in ancient times it was considered the ‘ornament of a man’s face’; it contributed to a man’s overall dignity (see 2Sam 10:4); and it became a sign of a man’s allegiance to Israelite tradition. The stipulations in Torah state that the beard should not be mutilated or shaped, not necessarily that a man should grow one. However, because men of the neighbouring nations where Jews were exiled did shave, it eventually became a sign of Jewishness.
In our community, there is no pressure to have one, and growing a beard is a personal choice for those who feel that it helps in their personal piety. Sometimes in meditation, a Jewish man will stroke his beard pensively. Speaking from personal experience, I find it helps to remind myself of my heritage, and of the spirituality I aspire to.
If you do grow a beard, the beard is not shaped in any way. However, one may trim the moustache. In 2Sam 19:25 (19:24 in some bibles), Mefibosheth is described as dishevelled because he has NOT trimmed his moustache; one can assume from this that it was a normal practise to at least trim the moustache.
It was also apparently important to keep the beard well groomed. From 1Sam 21:14 (21:13in some bibles), where David dribbles down his beard to feign insanity, we can infer that neglect of the beard was seen as a sign of madness. In ancient times, they even used to anoint the beard (see Ps 133:2).
The prohibition against mutilating or shaping the beard (Lev 19:27) comes from warnings against copying pagan mourning practises. According to which people you belonged to, when a relative died, then it was variously the custom to shave the sides of the head, or trim the corners of the beard, or alternatively to shave off the entire beard and hair on the head (see Isaiah 15:2 and Jer 48:37). Israelites were forbidden to do any of this. Priests were especially forbidden to copy these pagan practises (Lev 21:5, Ezek 44:20).
Rabbinic style prayer-shawls are very distinctive, with their stripes of black or blue along two opposite sides of the garment, and white fringes. However, this is not what ancient prayer-shawls looked like. The lines or stripes on the shawls were marks of the Pharisees; Jews of other parties did not have these stripes.
Most prayer-shawls were completely white, although they could in fact be any colour. Remains of shawls have been found at Eyn Gedi which are mostly red with black and white stripes throughout. These bands were typical of Hebrew style cloth (see above).
It also has to be remembered that shawls were a normal part of one’s clothing in ancient times, not just something used for prayer. It may be that there were two different types of garment. The mantle (salmah, plural salmot), possibly the coloured kind, was used in ordinary everyday life, and the prayer-shawl (tallit), possibly the white one, was only used for occasions of prayer.
There was a larger mantle, the simlah (plural simlot) which was draped over the shoulder, was also used to cover oneself in at night. This was the garment one had to return to a poor person if it was taken as a pledge or security for a loan.
It was the custom for married people – both men and women – to cover their heads in public, either with a turban (men), a headscarf (women), or a mantle (both). Unmarried people were not expected to cover their heads. In the Temple and synagogue, both married and unmarried men and women were expected to cover their heads.
Talmidis do not wear kippot (yarmulkes or skullcaps). This is because it is a practise borrowed from the Arabs; Muslims wear skullcaps, and as result, Jews from Muslim countries began wearing them – in some cases, they were forced to wear them to cover up the fact that there were non-Muslims in the population. In films, it is an anachronism to see ancient Israelites wearing skullcaps (like Moses and even Abraham), because they didn’t have them then. In drawings of ancient Anatolians, you will find them wearing felt skullcaps; it was always a non-Israelite item of apparel.
Instead, men can wear a pe’eir (Hebrew turban), and women can wear a tsa`if (Hebrew headscarf).
The pe’eir is a square cloth of any colour (if coloured, preferably of Hebrew design). To put it on, one takes the two upper corners, twirls it round a couple of times to form a thicker strip of cloth on the upper portion, puts the cloth on the head and then ties this upper portion around one’s head, tying the knot at the back.
The tsa`if is an oblong cloth, which goes over the head, tying the knot underneath one’s hair. One normally leaves the front of one’s hair visible. A mantle can be worn over this.
The clothing of meshartim (ministering clergy)
The Ebionites tend to wear western clothing. In the Massorite sect of Talmidaism, ordained clergy wear the same clothing worn in ancient times. Ministering scribes will wear a light brown tunic with a cloth belt round the waist, with a medium brown mantle; ministering Nazirites will wear a white tunic and belt, a white over-tunic, white turban, and white mantle; a ministering priest will wear similar clothing, with the exception that he will wear a priest’s turban, and a larger mantle.
What we can learn about clothing and appearance from the traditions of ancient times, was that the way you dressed was a definitive statement of identity. Israelites were instructed by God not to copy the ways, styles and fashions of pagan nations, because those styles were so inextricably linked to identification with the worship of pagan gods. The whole point was ‘not to dress like the pagans’.
In Western countries, I think it is sufficient in everyday life to dress in keeping with the local style, since with Western attire there is no identification with a specific religion. In Eastern countries, it does become an issue because one’s mode of dress is very much connected with one’s religion. In those countries, when it is safe to do so, one could wear a simplified form of Israelite clothing. If it is not safe – for fear of anti-Semitic violence – one could wear clothing which is not identifiable with any particular religion.
However, if one is able to, especially in the Land of Israel, dressing as a native Israelite is a very powerful statement of witness to the holiness and distinctiveness of YHVH and His ways.