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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Dear Reader, Fall 2005

Rabbi Eric Yoffie's column in Reform Judaism magazine

Jacket or Jeans?

Dressing Right for Shabbat


A little-acknowledged struggle is being waged in the Reform synagogues of North America: Shabbat worshippers who want to dress up are arrayed against Shabbat worshippers who want to dress down.


When I was growing up at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1950s and 60s, formal dress was the standard for Shabbat worship. I don’t remember ever being in synagogue without a sport jacket and tie, and girls my age wore dresses or skirts. Most congregations in our Movement followed a similar dress code in line with societal patterns––Jews dressed up for temple just as their Christian neighbors dressed up for church. There was also a religious rationale: We added to the majesty of Shabbat worship and created an air of dignity when we dressed up for God. In doing so, we also respected the biblical teaching in Exodus 28, which states that the holy clothing of the high priests, the bigdei kodesh, was intended to bestow special status and honor both to the priests and to the sacred rituals they performed.


Today, while certain congregations have maintained the tradition of “dressing up” for Shabbat, the opposite trend is more common. Informal dress is increasingly acceptable in the workplace, at the theater, in fine restaurants—and in temple. In fact, proponents of informal dress at services make compelling religious arguments of their own. Dressy synagogue clothes, they say, may easily lead to preening and competitive dressing; emphasis on dress may promote worship as show business; and they ask, does God really care what outfit we are wearing? They too can cite scripture to support their position: When Samuel is examining each of Jesse’s sons, God tells Samuel to pay no attention to their outer appearance or stature, because “man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart” (1 Samuel 16).


While this is surely a matter for each congregation to decide on its own, I offer two thoughts. First, I would encourage those who favor informality to set limits as to what is acceptable attire in our sanctuaries. Short shorts or midriff-baring halters for women and girls and torn jeans or T-shirts with suggestive slogans for men and boys are always inappropriate, distracting, and disrespectful of the sacred character of the occasion.


Second, as one who has long advocated a more participatory, community-building, user-friendly worship experience, which is now becoming the norm in our Movement, I welcome the move toward comfortable and informal dress in such congregations. For many Reform Jews, it seems, formality of dress is associated with a cold, distant worship style. If dressing in a more casual manner––within reasonable limits––opens us to warm, enthusiastic prayer that both touches our souls and brings us closer to God, then it is a blessing for us and for Reform Judaism.



Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

President, Union for Reform Judaism

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