Tzitzis and Uniforms

I was speaking to an old friend earlier tonight, we were catching up and he described the yeshiva he’s currently learning in. He described it as a small place with a strongly analytical style of learning. He described the rosh yeshiva as having a moustache. I had to ask him to confirm he meant just a moustache. Turns out he’s clean shaven except for what is apparently a magnificent moustache. Then he told me the dress code was anything you want, something I’d never heard of in a yeshiva catering to guys at his level. (He’s 24 and will probably always be in full time learning.)

Naturally that led into a discussion of dress codes, or more specifically, white-shirt-and-black-pants-dom. My take is simple; in theory dress codes make sense, people of certain professions are expected to dress to a certain standard. In practice the yeshiva dress code is flawed. It attempts to create perfect homogeneity based on a single ideal of how someone should look. After all, a lawyer is expected to wear a suit, but he’s not told to only wear a three button navy with pinstripes and a white shirt with a red tie. He’s expected to wear a suit and from there he can use his discretion and express himself through his choices. The yeshiva dress code is meant to be anti-choice, which my friend claims is against Jewish values, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I went to a Chofetz Chaim branch, which meant almost any color or fabric went fine as long as the pants weren’t too light and the shirt too dark. The white shirt system never affected me and I’m not even sure I was aware of it. My brother went to a different school, one that required white shirts and black pants. This killed him in a way, but not in the way you might think of. See, he went to a school with some very wealthy kids. Since your color and materials are all laid out for you, the kids expressed themselves in the only way they could; the labels they wore. The big thing was always who was wearing what, and the more expensive something was, the more shtark it was. (Possibly “schticky” as well. I’m not really up to date on my semi-fake Yiddish. Also, I’m aware this ironically sounds like a girls school with all the attention to clothes.) My family, is not well off at all. Pretty much the opposite, I grew up on hand me downs and thrift stores. But my brother who just wanted to fit in started badgering my parents for Hugo Boss shirts and Kenneth Cole shoes. He pretty much spent all his Bar Mitzvah savings on stuff from Saks so he wouldn’t feel so bad about himself in that school. He left after that year. His abiding memories of a white shirt yeshiva are the superficiality of it. And that’s the failing with the attempted homogeneity of white shirt-dom. There are white shirts, and then there are white shirts. Kids just want to fit in. When wealthy parents are buying their kids Versace, the poorer parents suddenly have kids who want the same. That’s the failing with the system. For it to truly work, they should use the British school uniform system. Everyone wears the same thing from the same supplier. As far as school goes, everybody’s equal.

Now for my main point. The only beged mentioned specifically in the Torah are tzitzis. According to the Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis the strings have to be the same color as the garment, and the garment may be any color. The strings are called white, because we’re not commanded to dye them (besides techeles) but you may, and if you do, the strings must be the same color. So according to my friend, the only garment mentioned in the Torah is also allowed to be any color we wish. Tzitzis are a form of personal expression and he claims that the basis of our garments in the Torah is that of a personal expression of the wearer.

I’m not convinced of this argument yet, because I can easily counter that the fact tzitzis are dioraissa implies a certain level of conformity, clothes wise. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to finish this conversation. If anyone can shed some more light on this Rambam I’d appreciate it.

I will be flying to New York this Sunday, so the blog will probably be on hiatus as I’m not bringing my laptop so I don’t know if I’ll have computer access. I’ll be in Brooklyn then Forrest Hills all week. If anyone wants to suggest something I simply must do/eat/see while I’m there please feel free to give me activity recommendations. I’m heading to Chicago after that, so same goes for you Illinois readers as well.

16 Responses to “Tzitzis and Uniforms”

  1. What’s funny is that I also went to a CC yeshiva and my bother is currently going to a yeshiva yeshiva and I make fun of him for caring about the whole penguinism thing he’s got going.

    As for tzitis, God forbid you do anything with them in the color department and people will think you are reform, or worse a Na Nach.

  2. Well as a frum punk, I like the idea of my tzitzis color coordinating with my liberty spikes. Caring about penguinism is a sickness, it detracts from what should be important, which is the quality of your learning and brings attention to what you wear. Ironically, thats the opposite of its original intention.

  3. make way for techni-colored fringes (or rather-fringe holders)

  4. The coolest explanation that I ever heard suggested for tzitzit was based on the fact that Yehuda gives Tamar his “petil”, among other things, as a sort of identifying item, along with his seal and staff. This seems to mean that every person, or perhaps family, had their own little insignia on their clothes, and thus that tzitzit- the little blue string bit of it, that is, are intended so that the nation identifies and is identified as one clan- with a national insignia. If that is the case, I guess it’s a certain level of uniformity. But it would also imply that other than that, everybody kind of looks like themselves.

    In a post-Biblical perspective, I seem to remember there being something in the Talmud talking about a certain color shoelaces that non-Jews would wear and Jews wouldn’t (changing then being part of chokot hagoyim). Which again implies a certain level of uniformity, but certainly not penguin level.

    I was amused by the brand-craziness at the penguin school. My beis ya’akov high school also had uniforms, and it was nevertheless incredibly clear who was rich, cool, stylish, and/or frum. Of course, girls have more leeway with hair, socks, and shoes, but nobody ever had a problem slipping personality into things.

  5. Having suffered through a uniform pretty much all my life until college, I am very against them. As for being a penguin, a very yeshivish relative tried to explain it to me as everyone identifying with each other and claiming themselves as part of a group. Of course, the conversation came up because he walked by a menswear store and exclaimed how much he wished he could buy a colored shirt! (This was a grown man).

  6. Hey, men have a lot of freedom of choice with their…ummm…umm….socks and ties!

  7. EndOfWorld: Are you kidding? Chassidim especially have very strict rules about socks. I heard a chassid say that he always found it funny that a baal teshuva who joined his community and in the 10 years had completely assimilated into chassidus, still hadnt realized that everyone knew he was a ba’al teshuvah because he wore the wrong color socks.

    I have 3 pairs of the same sock design because I like it. They’re brown with blue skulls and crossbones all over. I’d like to see a frummer yid get away with those. I believe ties have rules as well.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I never had a problem with a uniform in high school, since I didn’t grow up in a well-to-do family, either. I still don’t. I understand that there is somewhat of a loss of expressing one’s individuality, but I do think that the pros far outweigh the cons, especially in the frum world where so much about making it socially and fitting in is about how you look. Enough kids have a hard time as it is. The frum world can be a harsh place to a kid that is a little bit different.

    Then again, when I was in high school (and this will date me), as long as a girl had Keds sneakers and a Biz skirt (for Sundays), she fit in okay.

  9. I never though of white shirts causing such a problem. It would be smart for them to make all students use the same supplier like Oxford. But then again they will always find some way to stand out. Guys don’t have the ability to accessorize as much as girls. But they still have their belts, glasses, yarmulkas I suppose.

    I’ve never heard about the tzizis color thing, it sounds ridiculous to me. When you mentioned it before, I thought you were gonna say the Jewish value that uniforms are against is Bechira, because you can’t choose which clothes to wear, but that’s ridiculous too.

    I had a guy in my class who wore a black t-shirt with blue stuff on it, I was trying to figure out what it was, then I realized the blue stuff was a skeleton, it fit the t-shirt perfectly so that it looked like it was his skeleton, I was sitting and staring at it the whole time since he was sitting in front of me, and it started getting freaky. I don’t get what the whole thing with skulls and crossbones are.

    Now about the concept of uniforms, I actually like the idea, it normally would lead to less competition. Much more so in a girls school, because a girl finds it so much harder to find stuff to wear. There are actually mothers in Public school that want the school to enforce some sort of uniform.

  10. Could you post a picture of those socks? They sound great!

  11. “As for tzitis, God forbid you do anything with them in the color department and people will think you are reform, or worse a Na Nach.”

    I don’t think Na Nachs where colored tzitzit. At least I’ve never seen them.

    If you’re going to Chicago, most people will tell you to eat at Ken’s. I’m not a huge hamburger person myself, but if any kosher resteraunt is noteworthy, that would be the one. In terms of things to do, you should definitely check out the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Art Institute. They rock. Is there any other particular activity you’re interested in?

  12. anonymis Says:

    Which chofetz chaim branch did you go to?

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  14. Says:

    What seems fishy to me is that in “Gold From the Land of Israel”, a book containing many of the writings of Rav. Kook, discusses explicitly this mitzvah from this Rambamite perspective, and seems to treat it as the obvious halacha. Surely some orthodox Jews are in posession of this book. I think it may have something to do with the yeshivas and what not excercising their mental dominance over their subjects. Thats what I’m starting to think.

    What really vexes me about this particular set of rules is the techelet thread. for generations there’s been nothing but controversy over what the real “source” of the the thread is. It would seem there is a definite answer, at least as far as orthodoxy goes, as the source is identified in Tosefta as a snail called the “chilazon”. But, for me, there are two problems with this as well: not only, as Aryeh Kaplan points out in the countless cliff notes of his “Living Torah” (which I found to be more like the “floundering Torah”) is it likely that the reason this snail was lost for a while (assuming we believe its been rediscovered) was because of overharvesting, but the only people that really knew how to make this dye were the Egyptians, Phoenecians (caananites), and I think maybe the Babylonians. Two of those are peoples the Torah specifically tells Klal Yisrael not to emulate!

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