I have always felt very strongly that Judaism is caught more than it is taught. Children learn very early on what is important by the way their parents model their lives. This applies both to negative and positive behavior. If parents use coarse language in the house it will be imitated. If fathers don’t help mothers with dishes or cleaning, that too will resonate. On the other hand, if children see that it is important to be in shul on time, or that it is important to learn and attend shiurim, or daven mincha and ma’ariv, that too influences how a child behaves and what he/she internalizes as an important value. One area is especially important. It relates to how some individuals today dress in public on Shabbat.
As we navigate further into the 21st century, we are experiencing more and more of a relaxation of standards in all areas of societal comportment including how we dress on Shabbat. In general, there is a tendency for men and for women to adopt present-day fashion, even if inappropriate and immodest, in both formal and informal settings. Not so long ago there were standards even in the general population of what was acceptable attire. Everyone “dressed up” when going to the theater, to the opera, to the movies, to a restaurant, even to the ballpark. Even the most non-observant Christian or Jew, male or female, followed the norms of how to dress when attending religious services, a wedding, a funeral or any formal event.
Today, even at some Orthodox Jewish functions, one finds people inappropriately attired. How one should dress in general and how one must dress during davening are subjects that have been addressed elsewhere at length. Our focus here is on the special nature of appropriate Shabbat attire.
The sartorial laxity that has affected American society in general has seeped into our holy Shabbat as well. There were times when not everyone had a separate set of clothes for Shabbat. That is why the Shulchan Aruch ruled that at the very least one’s everyday clothes—if that is all one has to wear—should be neat and clean. Today, however, almost everyone has at least one good set of clothes for special occasions, and Shabbat is one of them.
Our Shabbat attire does not merely reflect our reverence and appreciation of the sanctity of Shabbat. Rather, it also signifies that we are ready to be enveloped by the holiness of Shabbat. Most people set aside special clothing for Shabbat. We have Shabbat dresses and Shabbat suits; we have Shabbat sheitels; we have Shabbat hats and coats. The question is—what is the actual halachic obligation? What was the obligation during the time of the Gemara? Does the obligation change based upon what people are doing?
The Talmud (Shabbat 113a) cites the verse from Isaiah 58:13: “…and you shall honor it [Shabbat] by not doing your daily ways,” to teach us that our Shabbat clothing should not be like our clothing during the week. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 8:7) cites Rabbi Chanina that a person must have two atifin (the suits/cloaks of ancient times), one for the week and one for Shabbat, as it is written (Ruth 3:3) “And you shall wash and anoint and place your garments upon yourself.” This refers to special Shabbat clothing.
All Rishonim concur and rule that special Shabbat clothing is mandatory, and it is codified by the Shulchan Aruch. Today most people do have dressy outfits/suits for weddings and other special occasions. Since Shabbat is the special occasion par excellence that is the standard to follow:
One should wear nice clothes and rejoice at the onset of Shabbat in the manner that one does on formal occasions [greeting a king] and at a wedding (S.A. O.C. 262:3).
The issue of Shabbat robes or hostess gowns is a delicate one. There is a distinction between what one wears in the privacy of one’s home and what one wears in public on Shabbat. On the one hand some robes are quite fancy and expensive, and worn with jewelry. Many women entertain wearing them. Some women will wear them outside the home on occasion. However, if they are not worn to weddings, or business meetings, despite their comfort and practicality, it probably does not meet the Shulchan Aruch’s standard for Shabbat attire.
In Judaism, Shabbat, and its attendant holiness, commences on Friday night. Therefore, it is necessary to be appropriately dressed when Shabbat begins. Obviously this necessitates getting home early enough prior to Shabbat in order to change into Shabbat attire. The Sefer Chasidim castigates those who only “dress up” on Shabbat morning and compares them to Christians who go to services only on the morning of their Sabbath. The sin of implying by our manner of dress that our Shabbat only begins during the day—because then people see how we are dressed—is quite serious. Tosafot (Bava Kama 37a dibur hamatchil harei) say that even animals recognized when people were dressed for Shabbat.
The general tenor of how we approach Shabbat is that as much as possible we distinguish it from the regular weekday. “…and you shall honor it by not doing your daily ways” (Isaiah 58:13). Not only do we dress differently, we eat differently, we walk differently, we pray differently, we behave differently and everything we do is geared to honoring Shabbat. Many are accustomed to recite “l’khvod Shabbat kodesh” (in honor of the holy Sabbath) when eating special Shabbat delicacies.
One need not look only to the ultra-Orthodox world for examples of special Shabbat attire. The concept of special clothes for special occasions is well entrenched in most societies. That is why tuxedos and formal wear were invented. So, if Shabbat requires our best special clothing, then reason might dictate formal wear. Thus in many Orthodox synagogues in the New York area during the early and mid twentieth century and even today in some places, the clergy and officers wore morning suits and in some cases top hats.
The special sanctity of Shabbat exists from before the moment Shabbat actually begins, so that we can properly prepare to greet Shabbat, until after Shabbat ends with Havdalah. However, in some communities/homes it is common for children to change after shul or after lunch on Shabbat into play clothes. Similarly some men come casually attired to shul for mincha as if the Shabbat holiness is somehow lessened later in the day. The Magen Avraham (O.C. 262:2) and Mishnah Berurah (262:8) rule very clearly that one should not remove one’s Shabbat clothes until after Havdalah.
We are taught that those who observe the Seudat Melaveh Malka—a meal after the formal conclusion of Shabbat—are to remain in their Shabbat finery until this ritual is concluded. The clear implication is that people should remain in special Shabbat clothing all Shabbat long.
Now that it has been clearly established that Shabbat requires a higher level of adherence to an objective dress code, we need to address the issue of Shabbat informality that exists in many communities nowadays. It is true that local customs play a part in determining acceptable attire. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 5:5) writes that it depends on what people in that place consider respectful. For example, the Gemara (Megillah 28a-b; Berachot 62b) lists disrespectful actions that are incompatible with the honor due a synagogue. Tosafot (Shabbat 10a sv. rami) rule unequivocally that one must wear shoes while praying, except for Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av when we are restricted regarding footwear.
The Rashbash (Responsa no. 285), writing in 15th-century Algiers, explains that there are two kinds of respect and disrespect. The ultimate, true type is entirely spiritual. However, even the apparent kind, which is subjective, must be maintained. The definitions of this kind of respect and disrespect are bound by time and geography. Proper behavior depends on contemporary attitudes, what people consider respectful and not. Therefore, Rashbash concludes, in Muslim countries (e.g., Egypt where the Rambam lived) one may not enter a synagogue while wearing shoes. Since people in those places consider entering a home while wearing shoes disrespectful, and certainly when appearing before a king, they must accord even greater respect to a synagogue. In Christian countries, however, one must wear shoes in a synagogue because, in those places, that is considered proper behavior. At one time Jews wore white on Shabbat. In some places Jews wore turbans or other headgear to distinguish that special day.
In North America and in Europe, acceptable attire on Shabbat, especially in the synagogue, means a suit and tie, or at the very least a jacket and tie for men, and a dress for women, and shoes with socks.
In Israel it is accepted in dati-leumi circles to wear white open-collar shirts without a jacket or tie on Shabbat. According to the definition of the Shulchan Aruch, it would not seem appropriate, however, for Americans to follow this practice and come to shul without a jacket and tie. If the standard is dressing the way one dresses for a wedding or for an important meeting, the conclusion seems obvious.
Seasons should not matter, nor should location. Shabbat is still Shabbat regardless of the calendar or the location. Shabbat is still Shabbat at home, at a conference, or on vacation, at a bungalow, or in Israel. The poskim specify that you must wear your Shabbat clothing even when you are among non-Jews, or even if you are celebrating Shabbat alone. In fact a number of responsa specify the wearing of nice Shabbat clothing even in inclement weather. Similarly, the preponderance of opinions also rules that Shabbat clothing is worn on Shabbat Hazon prior to Tisha B’Av.
Women who attend shul still dress appropriately. However, there is one area that is open to some scrutiny. Our mothers and grandmothers walked to shul in an era that for the most part did not have eruvim. Many of them walked in heels, medium heels to be sure, but heels nevertheless. Granted that high heels are attractive and more formal, and granted that walking in them any distance is difficult. That is probably why working women decided some two to three decades ago to wear sneakers as they walked from the subway to their offices and change there to their shoes. Similarly many women today do the same on Shabbat. Perhaps it might be more appropriate on Shabbat to wear nicer flats instead of sneakers in keeping with the Shulchan Aruch’s definition of proper Shabbat attire. Occasionally some women find it more convenient just to wear sneakers to shul and keep them on. Some women wear flip-flops to shul, surely not appropriate, even if they change there to shoes. What has happened as a result is that in the warmer months, younger women and girls simply just wear the flip-flops, period. It would seem that footwear designed and worn at the beach or at the gym is not in keeping with Isaiah 58:13: “…and you shall honor it by not doing your daily ways.”
“… the Halakhah is a sweepingly comprehensive regula of daily life…it constitutes a way of life. And a way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school” (Haym Soloveitchik, Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy, Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 [Summer 1994]).
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but women always wore stockings to shul.
It’s not just during the warmer months, or “in the mountains” or on vacation, nor does this just apply only to men or women. The sartorial laxity that has affected American society in general has seeped into our holy Shabbat as well. Our children learn from our behavior. Shabbat needs to be kept special and honored by dressing appropriately.
A Hasidic rabbi once observed, somewhat tongue in cheek, that instead of praying for a new month devoid of shame “chayyim sh’eyn bahem busha,” perhaps we ought to amend the text to wish for a new month in which people might recognize that which is inappropriate “chayym sh’yesh bahem busha.”
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran Jewish educator, fundraiser and administrator. He is currently the Executive Director of the Shulamith School in Brooklyn, the oldest religious girls school in the US.