This week’s Torah portion is largely given over to describing the various garments the kohanim (priests) were required to wear when performing their holy service. Back in the day, there was a corresponding expectation that congregants dress up when attending Shabbat services. Nowadays, many would prefer to dress more comfortably, and so it has become common to see a wide range of sartorial choices in the synagogue.
Clothing sends a message. It is well known that our choice of attire influences how others see us. More recently, researchers have studied a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition;” that is, how our clothes influence us, because what we wear also reflects how we see ourselves. For example, at Northwestern University, study participants were asked to wear plain white lab coats. Some were told it was a doctor’s lab coat and others were told it was a painter’s smock. In performing directed tasks, the former group was found to be the more focused and conscientious (no mention of what this says about painters). On the other hand, formality creates distance and more casual attire promotes conviviality and intimacy.
The Talmud instructs us to have clothing we’ve especially designated for wearing only on Shabbat, as a way of honoring the holy day. Having a garment reserved for a single day of the week was a great expense back then, so the Shabbat garment had to last a long time. The Talmudic injunction was observed so faithfully it became the butt of a Roman joke. One Roman would ask his fellow, “How long do you want to live for?” and his friend would reply, “As long as the years of a Jew’s Shabbat garment!” (Romans were known more for their engineering skills and military prowess than for their sense of humor).
Even amongst those who persist in dressing up for Shabbat, it has become prevalent to dress down a bit for Shabbat afternoon. The source for this custom seems to be a medieval practice of Jewish women, who would take off their fine jewelry in accordance with the slightly more mournful tone of Shabbat Mincha. The guys evidently took this as a green light for anything goes. My own practice has been to wear a tie on Shabbat. With this single tie, I fulfill two mitzvot: I put it on l’kvod (to honor Shabbat) and take it off after services for oneg (Shabbat joy).
Rabbi Mitch Levine