This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Dressing for Success*

The midrash teaches us that in their long years of slavery in Egypt, our Hebrew ancestors retained very little of the national identity that had been defined by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. When the time came for their redemption, the spiritual flame had been all but extinguished by their dehumanizing labours.

And yet the rabbis found clues that some traces of the sacred Jewish spark still burned in their hearts and minds. In several passages in the midrash, they listed qualities by virtue of which the Israelites were found worthy of redemption.

The virtues that are mentioned in this connection include the following: They were not suspect of sexual impropriety, and therefore their pedigrees were beyond reproach. They did not gossip or betray secrets, including the divine assurance that they possessed of their eventual redemption. They kept their Hebrew names. They continued to speak the Hebrew language. Even though most of these qualities were matters of ethnic solidarity rather than moral achievements, they were the necessary condition for their survival as a holy people.

One of the most respected nineteenth-century experts on midrashic literature was Solomon Buber, the grandfather of Martin. This Galician savant, who was also a prominent businessman, scoured the libraries of Europe for Hebrew manuscripts, from which he published dozens of ancient rabbinic midrashim, each supplemented with erudite scholarly annotations and introductions that testify to his encyclopedic knowledge of Hebrew and classical literature.

Hidden away among his copious footnotes to one such text is a brief comment concerning the tradition about the virtues of the ancient Hebrews: "However the widely quoted saying 'and they did not change their garb' is not found anywhere.'"

After pausing to wonder at Buber's abilility--unassisted by concordances or CD-ROMs--to make such a categorical pronouncement that something is not found in the vast sea of rabbinic literature, we might note the peculiarity of his comment. What indeed is the point of discussing a non-existent source? And how did a non-existent source come into circulation among Buber's contemporaries?

Buber himself noted that the misquote had an earlier history. He mentions that it is to be found in the writings of the celebrated philologist and writer Elijah Levita (c. 1468-1549). The German-born Levita spent most of his career in Italy where he taught Hebrew language and literature to Christian Humanists. Although he remained loyal to Jewish tradition, several of his descendants converted to Christianity, and even assisted the church's attacks on the Talmud and other Jewish religious works.

Another prominent scholar who had "misquoted" the midrash was Rabbi Yom-Tov ben Abraham Ishbili (known by his acronym as the "Ritva"), one of the foremost talmudic commentators of 13th-14th century Spain. Unlike several of his teachers, the Ritva was an enthusiastic supporter of general scientific and philosophical studies, and composed a work in defence of Mamimonides.

The misquote also appears in an eleventh-century midrashic compilation called Lekah Tov composed in Bulgaria by Rabbi Tobiah ben Eliezer. At that time, Bulgaria held liberal attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, and the Orthodox church had taken a favourable attitude towards its Jewish roots. One of Rabbi Tobiah's students, Leo Mung, later achieved distinction as a Christian, becoming an archbishop and Primate of Bulgaria.

In his commentary to the Passover Haggadah, Don Isaac Abravanel also embellished the rabbinic tradition, stating that the ancient Hebrews did not change their language, their names, their garb or their religion. Abravanel, of course, was another figure with strong connections to the host society. He was a statesman and financier who served as treasury minister under Ferdinand and Isabella until the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, and he subsequently continued his diplomatic activities in Naples and Venice.

Thus, the statement about the Hebrews not changing their garb seems to surface under similar circumstances: in societies where the lines between Jew and gentile were very flexible, and where it was possible to cross those lines with relative ease. It was in such a historical context that Jewish religious leaders became especially conscious of the need to maintain visible indications of their distinctiveness. Even so, the earliest texts that cite this tradition explain it with references to specific Jewish laws, especially the requirement to wear ritual tzitzit. They do not seem to have in mind a peculiarly Jewish style of dress.

In several respects, the situation in which Solomon Buber lived was similar to the ones faced by those earlier rabbis. From the beginnings of the European Jewish Emancipation, especially after the time of Napoleon, the Jews of central and eastern Europe were subjected to strong pressure to assimilate to the majority ethos. These pressures usually included official edicts against the wearing of traditional Jewish attire. The promise of civil rights was held out to the Jews, but it was often made conditional upon relinquishing their distinctive dress.

Buber himself stood at the crossroads of these conflicting movements. He was equally at home in the traditional Judaism of Poland and Russia (it was he who kindled his grandson Martin's fascination with Hasidism) as he was in modern European society and general culture (as may be learned from the ease with which he cites Greek and Latin sources in his commentaries to midrashic texts). It is likely that the popularization of the statement about the Hebrews' not changing their garb originated among the Hasidim, whose well-known commitment to distinctive Jewish clothing became an effective defense against the inroads of alien culture.

No one knew better than the sages of the Talmud that you should not look at the container, but at the contents. Nevertheless, there are times when people's choices of attire speak volumes about their values and self-image.

Evidently some people believed that this truth is so momentous that if it is not actually found in the midrash, then it ought to be.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 22, 2001, pp. 12-13.

  • Bibliography:
    • Solomon Buber, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana (Lyck: L. Silvermann, 1868)
    • Eisenbach, Artur. The Emancipation of the Jews in Poland, 1780-1870. Trans. Janina Dorosz. Jewish Society and Culture. Ed. David Sorkin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell in association with the Institute for Jewish Studies, 1991.
    • Kasher, Menahem. Torah shelemah (Complete Torah): Encyclopedia of the Pentateuch. New York: American Biblical Encyclopedia Society, Inc., 1927-81.