Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages

For the most part, Jews dressed like their neighbors. But some trends were outlawed by rabbis.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Muslim Style: Fancy Duds, Paper Restrictions

Under the spread of Islam (seventh‑-eighth centuries), when the majority of the Jews of the world came under its cultural influence and political con­trol, Jews easily adopted the new styles of dress and were in no way distinguishable from their Muslim neighbors…There is, however, evidence for a require­ment that Christians (Jews are not mentioned) wear a distinctive sash (zunnar) and distinctive sign or mark on their headgear and that of their animals. In 850 the caliph al‑Mutawakkil did, in fact, order both Christians and Jews to wear the taylasin, a shawl‑like head covering, and the zunnar. 

In Muslim Spain, however, such restrictions were not generally en­forced. A particularly fanatical Muslim judge in Seville in the twelfth century attempted to enforce regulations that included, among other things, that Jews and Christians may not dress in the clothing of people of position and must wear a distinguishing sign "by which they are to be recognized to their shame." Nevertheless, we have certain contemporary evidence from Seville that indicates that these regula­tions remained theoretical.

In fact, people of the upper classes (and this included most Jews) dressed elegantly in fine silk and linen clothes. These in­cluded the jubba, a flowing robe with large sleeves and of various colors depending on taste, such as green, orange, or rose. Women as well as men wore this, and women also wore the qamis, a fine tunic of transparent gauze.

Veils were not common for women, and in fact in the early Muslim period were worn more by men. This is incidentally confirmed by ibn Ezra, who wrote that the veil is a long, thin piece of cloth covering the head and is worn by women only in a few places; "for in the land of Ish­mael [Arabia], Spain, Africa, Egypt, Babylon and Baghdad [!] it is worn on the head by distinguished men and not by women" (commentary on Ex. 29.36). [Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) was a Spanish poet, philosopher and biblical exegete.]

Caps and Colors, Bells and Calves

In Muslim Spain until the thirteenth century the turban was customarily worn by men, including Jews, but was abandoned after that except for certain provinces. The turban was gradually replaced by a woolen cap, usually green or red, and the Jews often wore yellow. The Jews of Muslim North Africa gener­ally continued to wear turbans. In Egypt, ca. 1005, the fanatical caliph al‑Hakim ordered Jews and Christians to wear black robes, and in the public baths Christians had to wear iron crosses around their necks, and Jews bells (in the street they were re­quired to wear a wooden image of a calf, in "mem­ory” of the biblical golden calf). This obligation with regard to wearing bells while in the baths had earlier precedents. However, these rigid ordinances were not strictly enforced and were apparently soon forgotten.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.