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The classic image of an Orthodox rabbi is of a man with a long beard and black clothes. To be sure, that image is common enough, but certainly not the only one. Speaking personally, while I do have a beard, it’s not so long, and I don’t wear a black suit, or at least not very often. Bottom line, there are many kinds of rabbis, even many kinds of Orthodox rabbis, and we dress in many ways.
Normally, I would not be writing about this kind of thing unless someone asked a specific question, but a new post on FailedMessiah.com, one which features picture of now famous Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) rabbis has provoked a discussion of whether or not the stereotypical rabbinic “look” is a very new invention (last 50 years) or something far more established in Jewish custom.
While the site in question would like people to believe that it is the former, and that rabbis only dress this way now because it has become fashionable among the Haredim to reject the larger culture of which they are inescapably a part. It’s actually not so simple.
In truth, rejectionism is one of the defining features of Haredi culture, but in this instance, the supposedly new look in rabbinic fashion was well-established a century and more ago.
All of the pictures on the FM site, which shows young men dressed in the style of the day, are of students of the Mir, and Hevron yeshivas. Yes, Rav Moshe Soloveitchick was pictured also (from student days), but were that not his last name, he would not have had the freedom to be in the Brisk yeshiva (founded by his family) and look that way. In the case of the other two yeshivahs, the fact that those pictured were students, not rabbis, when the pictures were taken, is key.
In each institution, it was common for students, before they were married, to grow out the the front of hair, go w/o beards and where modern clothing. After marriage, and certainly for those who became rabbis, they dressed in what is called rebbeshche style i.e. long beard, balck clothes, etc.
It actually has logic: different careers have different uniforms e.g. doctors in white coats, lumberjacks in red, and rabbis in black. Obviously, I don’t think it’s necessary, but neither do I think the pictures demonstrate what Failed Messiah thinks they do. In fact, the tradition still holds, for the most part, in those same institutions, as it does in other American Haredi yeshivot such as Lakewood. Just a bit of history for those who may be interested.