Why do Orthodox Jews wear black?
The short answer to your question is this.
Now, I would love to link to that and be done but, unfortunately, while Allison is cool enough to let me include it, she’s not cool enough to let that be my answer in its entirety. (Actually, on second thought, that’s probably pretty fortunate.) It should be noted that not all Orthodox Jewish men dress in black and white but for those who do, I can think of three reasons.
The first is tzniyus (generally translated as “modesty,” although “propriety” might be better). We tend to think of tzniyus as a “women’s mitzvah” but such is not the case. While the details may differ, tzniyus is also for men. The Talmud in tractate Shabbos talks about modes of dress for men and it includes such details as not to be overly concerned with fashion (except when it comes to wearing one’s best for Shabbos – p. 113a) and that it is shameful for a scholar to wear stained or patched clothing (p. 114a).
From a tzniyus perspective, men wearing black jackets and pants is both simple and formal. It’s not flashy like stripes, plaid or bright colors, and it’s not casual like jeans and a T-shirt. The message it sends is that the person wearing it is both dignified and humble.
There’s another reason. We have previously discussed the Biblical prohibition against copying other nations’ ways (Leviticus 18:3). As I mention there, if I were to wear a black shirt with a white collar to signify clergy status, we would all agree that would constitute copying other nations’ ways. But there’s a lot of gray area here. Is wearing a suit and tie copying other nations’ practices? How about jeans and a T-shirt? There are going to be different opinions but it’s a safe bet that the way our ancestors dressed in Eastern Europe represents an acceptable “Jewish style.” (Of course, not everyone’s ancestors came from Eastern Europe but that’s to whom the “wearing black” thing generally pertains.) Some communities go further – long coats, knickers, fur hats, buttons on the opposite side – but black-and-white is a common baseline of an established Jewish look.
Finally, there are those who dress that way simply because it has become a recognizable look for certain Orthodox communities. When we affiliate with a community, we dress in a way that shows it. For example, if you see someone wearing a large colorful yarmulke, a small knit yarmulke, an oversized white crocheted yarmulke, or a black velvet yarmulke, you could probably make some educated guesses about with which community they affiliate. In such a case, it’s not from a sense of obligation so much as from a desire to show that one is part of the team.
Ultimately, the way one dresses is a matter of personal choice. One’s reasons can range from “this is the way my grandfather dressed” to “I like the way it looks.” Like the clothes themselves, there’s not necessarily one size of answer that fits all.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent