Sunday 11 October 2020


Guest post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton:

Why Black Hats?

This essay is part of the Finding Tradition in the Modern Torah World project.

Every now and then I try to understand the thinking behind various policies enforced by modern Torah schools. Here, I’ll discuss some educational and social implications related to the rules governing hats for bar mitzva boys. That's not to say that such policies are objectively harmful or wrong. Rather, that it’s always worth assessing them with fresh eyes.

First of all, so we can start off with a clear baseline, let me present some possible benefits of such policies:

  • Wearing yeshivishe hats is part of an important mesorah and it's valuable to get boys into the habit of following such practices.
  • Wearing yeshivishe hats promotes an elevated self-image that should lead to better behavior.
  • Yeshivishe hats are key elements of a kind of yeshivishe uniform that expresses discipline and loyalty to community standards.
  • Wearing yeshivishe hats is in itself a higher halachic standard.

Now I'll explore each of those benefits individually.


While maintaining loyalty to a genuine mesorah is important, I find it difficult to understand how wearing black, snap-brim fedoras qualifies. My own rebbi, HaRav Naftali Friedler זכרונו לברכה, once told me how upset he was that the yeshiva world felt themselves so dominated by chassidim that suddenly only black hats were acceptable. In fact, just fifty years ago you would not have seen anyone wearing anything remotely similar to what's currently popular - the material, crown shape, and brims from those days would be ridiculed today and, of course, back then all colors were accepted.

Something this new that's so deeply dependent on fast-changing fashion trends can hardly be called a mesorah.

Perhaps it could be argued that there is, indeed, a mesorah to wear any kind of respectable head covering. But I doubt that's how it's commonly understood: how many yeshivos would allow a clean, logo-free baseball cap?

Ok. So maybe it's the fact that a black, snap-brim fedora is so easily identifiable as a Jewish levush. But then so is a yarmulka.

Self image

There's no doubt that dressing a bit "fancy" can inspire a more restrained and respectful relationship with the world around you. But the downside is that the chillul haShem consequences of misbehavior are much, much higher when ones Jewish identity is more obvious. Confidently weighing the risks and benefits is difficult without access to some kind of reliable historical data.

But here's one more "data point" that should also be considered. Clothes most definitely affect those wearing them. As an example, Chazal seem to feel that the color red could lead people to arrogance. So let's not ignore the possible damage caused by encouraging young, maturing bochurim to indulge in an overpriced, fashion-conscious, and hyper-materialistic clothing choice.

I suspect that the possible damage to a young boy's midos can be greater still when he absorbs the unspoken message that those boys and men who don't dress this way are defective in their Torah observance (because that is a clear unspoken message in many circles).

Sure, when it comes to halachic observance, we have no choice but to tell our children that Jews who don't keep Shabbos are wrong at least in that respect. But as we'll soon see, there are no halachic implications associated with hats.

By the way, I used the term "overpriced" with care. The fact that so many boys continue to insist on purchasing $250-300 hats when comparable versions can be bought from a fine Jew in Rochester for $55 (see tells me a lot about what's driving the fashion. I don't see any differences between this kind of consumerism and the social forces that drive sales of overpriced brand name eyeglasses and, while we’re on the subject, cars. And I don't consider either to be particularly healthy.

Those forces - along with the crippling financial pressures they place on families that cannot afford it - should be part of the conversation.


Discipline and loyalty to community standards are certainly valuable but, like "self image" above, their benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs. Ideally, of course, children would happily choose to follow their parents' minhagim and practices, as their parents happily chose those of their parents. But in the real world, it's not always like that. Peer and social pressures exert formidable power over communities and families, and there’s no guarantee that the pressures won't do more damage than good.

Here's another thought: I'm not currently aware of any source in chazal or rishonim recommending that all Jews dress identically. I do, however, know that Rav Hirsch finds a reflection of the importance of intelligent individuality in Jewish observance in the halachic principle that the tzitzis should be tightly tied for only one third of their length (hinting to our complete loyalty to halacha), but loose for the other two thirds (hinting to the need for independent thought and action).

I also recall once being told by Rav Aharon Feldman (in a very different context) that:

"When sheep have no leader, they huddle together and imitate each other out of fear. And I'm not talking about sheep."

Widespread blind imitation isn't the hallmark of a healthy community.

A higher halachic standard

I think that this one is flat out wrong. I don't believe that there are any halachic arguments for wearing hats. In fact, The Gra (שו"ע או"ח סי’ ח סע' ב) concludes that there is no halachic obligation of any kind to cover your head at all (except when in the presence of תלמידי חכמים), and it’s only מדת חסידות when davening. Here's how he concludes that piece:

כללא דמילתא אין איסור כלל בראש מגולה לעולם רק לפני הגדולים וכן בעת התפלה אז נכון הדבר מצד המוסר ושאר היום לקדושים שעומדים לפני ה' תמיד

And I doubt that the קדושים mentioned by the Gra would have worn our modern hats, as they don't completely cover the head in any case. They would more likely have done עטיפה of some sort.

That's not to say that the Gra’s is the only opinion out there, but he doesn't exist within a vacuum. And I feel that imposing a public policy on maturing children that encourages them to imitate קדושים in the name of halacha would be dangerous.


  1. I don't know much about the custom to wear such outfits, especially if one is in Israel, to only wear a European like black and white suit seems out of place. Why can't people wear modest, yet simple fashion? Muslims of every degree of religious observance, reserve traditional clothing for only prayers or some religious event. These hats and suits cost hundreds of dollars, and I have heard some people from the non-Jewish world saying that when they see Jews wearing Yeshivas suits, it "odd". The reason they might think this way is that the stereotypical image of "religious people" is modest and bare clothing, not $600-1000 suits.

  2. Regarding the GRA's view on head covers, the Maharshal in his Shut (S. 72) criticizes those that are overly strict regarding head covers. Rabbi Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger in some of his lectures has mentioned that in Germany, until the late 19th century, it was the minhag for Jewish men to cover their heads, whereas in Eastern Europe it was less common. He also mentioned that at least for praying, it was the minhag to have two head covers - primarily the Tallis over the head cover and at later times by wearing two head covers - Yarmulke and hat or yarmulke and Tallis.

  3. MMAA500: good point.
    EA. In addition, this is an interesting source:
    In #56 of שו"ת מלמד להועיל, R' Hoffmann recalls his first day teaching in R' Hirsch's school in Frankfurt. When he went to greet R' Hirsch, he was told to remove his hat. Apparently the custom was to never stand before someone of higher status than you with your head covered. R' Hirsch was worried that other teachers might see R' Hoffmann with his hat and conclude that he was being rebellious.
    R' Hoffmann used that as a proof that issues of חוקות הגוי (as he characterized head coverings for Jews) could be ignored to avoid conflict.
    By the way, I only know about that teshuva because a recent edition tried to censor it. :)

  4. Very surprised you didn't bring the mishna berura which talks about everyone wearing kishketelach, that you don't go out without wearing something. Think that's where the "minhag" came from.

  5. I have a vague memory of that reference to kishektelach, but I can't find it right now. It might be related to the Mishna Brura (91:12) that discusses the contemporary dress standards of gentlemen of that century. But, of course, that's only a reference point for determining the way they should dress for davening rather than an objective standard for outside wear.
    ובזמנינו צריך להשים בעת התפלה כובע בראשו כדרך שהולך ברחוב ולא בכובע הקטן שתחת הכובע כי אין דרך לעמוד כן לפני אנשים חשובים

  6. I thought you were talking about davening wear. Not what you walk with. Very few wear hats while walking. Think it's more a convenience than halacha.