The Bespoke Robe
BS"D About 15 years ago, the Balcover Rebbe, z”l, suggested to me that I should start wearing a shtreiml for Shabbat. The idea had never occurred to me, particularly since I had been a Lubavitcher for most of my frum existence, and Lubavitchers do not wear shtreimlach. Besides, who had $2000.00 to buy one? I mentioned it to my chavruta at the time, Rabbi Yehuda Dov-Cohen, a Karliner Chossid, and he said, “I have two and one I don’t like. I will let you have it cheap.” I asked him, “How cheap?” And he said, “Give me a hundred dollars every now and then when you can, and I will tell you when it is enough.” “Deal,” I said, and that is how I got a shtreiml, the one in the photo. For the record, over the course of a year, I gave him four hundred dollars and he said, “Enough.”
How I got my Yerushalmi robe is another story. Once I had the shtreiml, I could not wear a black Lubavitcher kapota any longer, so I had to get a garment that fit according to some prevalent tradition, not that these Chassidic traditions are all that old. I was told that the black bekesha robe for Shabbat started to be worn in the middle 1800’s. The early Chassidic Rebbes never wore black. They wore embroidered robes with gold or silver leaves or some other design, and some of them wore white, but never black. Today almost all Chassidim wear black. A Kabbalist would never wear black on Shabbat as per the Arizal’s dream in Shaar Kavanot at the beginning of Shabbat. And Yerushalmi’s generally do not wear black, but robes with gold and blue stripes and in Tzfat, many wore white robes.
I mentioned this to my long time friend and my expert on Torah weights and measures, Rav Tzvi Rogin. And he said, “I must take you to a store in the Moslem quarter. It is run by an Arab from Damascus and he has all the different cloths that are worn. You have to get the material for your robe there. It is the real stuff. And it is not so terribly expensive.” So, of course, I went with him. This shop was fantastic. He had dozens, maybe hundred of bolts of material for beautiful robes. They were all made of silk and cotton. On one shelf he had the cloth that the Jews wear and on the other shelf he had the cloth that the Arabs wear. I said to him that I never saw a Jew wear any of those stripes, amazing color combinations, fabulously beautiful colors. Jews wear black. He shrugged and said it used to be. So I was standing there with Tzvi Rogin and we are scanning the shelves to find something for me, when suddenly I saw the cloth that I had to have. At the very same moment Rav Rogin said, “Now, there is one no one would wear.” And he pointed at the very one I had just set my heart on. It was alternating green and yellow stripes with fine red stitching running through the yellow stripes. I wanted it, but I chickened out. After he said that no one would wear it, I could not buy it and I chose something else, a blue and white stripe. When I got home, my wife looked at the material and said, “For that you went to Jerusalem? It’s nothing. It’s boring.” And she was right. She had freed me. Like at the end of The Bodyguard, I ran back to Jerusalem and went alone to the cloth merchant and bought the not boring cloth. And I told Rav Rogin what I had done and he laughed and said, “Now, I have to take you to the tailor who makes the real Yerushalmi robes.” And back again I went to Jerusalem and he took him to Mea Shearim and a Parsi chayat, a Persian tailor, a religious Jew, who makes the classic robe and sews cabalistic secrets into the stitching and the robe is made of exactly 26 pieces. And when I gave him the material, his eyes widened, but he was cool. It took two weeks and I got my robe. And I put on my shtreiml and robe l’cavod Shabbat. But then two things happened. We went to Jerusalem for Shabbat and it was Friday night at the Kotel and I was in my robe, and a very well known Kabbalist, attacked me for wearing such a robe, hollering, “No one wears a robe like that!” I had nothing to say. It never occurred to me that people would react that way. Of course, my eleven year old son refused to be seen in public with me. But you know kids. The Rav in Bet Eliyahu Sefardi shul where I davened on Shabbat loved it and complimented me as an Askenazi Jew with courage. And then it happened, a learned friend of mine who shall go nameless asked me to come over to his house and when I got there, he opened up a book of Mussar or maybe it was even halacha and read to me that it says that one who wears a garment that no one else in town wears it is considered, hilalus, haughty pride, gaiva, a very bad character trait. So I took it off and put it on a hangar and brought one of those off the rack gold and blue polyester Yerushalmi robes, a very pleasant garment, but an impostor.
I had many other experiences because of the green robe, and until I caved in I wore it everywhere on Shabbat, mostly in the Chernobyl shul in the old city of Tzfat. Everybody looked at me in the robe with the amused smile of seeing a fool. But they did not consider me a fool, so they did not know what to make of it. And the truth is today, if I were the one to establish a dress code. I would forbid the wearing of a uniform. “Rather a harlequin than a penguin be,” William Shakespeare, the lost folio, Act III, Scene IV.
So here is what is happening and now I will reveal my plight. Some ten or twelve years ago, we went to live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a year and a half and I left my green robe and my gold and blue robe in Tzfat because we do not wear Yerushalmi garments outside of the Land. And we were in Florida so long, that when we returned I was uncomfortable wearing the shtreiml and robe, so I wore a western cut suit. And I davened in a more modern shul. And for ten years, my clothes became more and more casual clothes like the people around me, but I never felt part of them. And now, on Purim I put on my old green and yellow with red stitching robe and I liked it and I am wearing it now because it is my robe.
So here is the problem. I have been given a mission that will take me outside the Land. And I want to wear my robe, but I cannot because I respect the tradition. To me, a Yerushalmi minhag is at least as binding as any halacha. The view of Levitical Judaism is to place Jerusalem above all else. According to the Rabbis (B.M. 59b), the Torah is not in Heaven, but Jerusalem definitely is in the heart of the Creator, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Now, all of this might sound silly and vain, but I assure you it is not. It is taught in Kabbalah that there are five aspects to the soul. The lowest three are connected to the body with food and drink; stop eating and drinking and the soul goes out. The fourth level of the soul, corresponding to Chochmah (Wisdom), is connected to the body by garment. This is why so much attention is paid to one's garments in the religious Jewish world. The clothing of the Cohanim in the Temple takes 43 verses to describe, more than three times as many verses as the entire Ten Commandments. It is possible to judge a man's wisdom by his garments.
The fifth and highest level of the soul is connected to the body by house. According to the Torah, a man without a house is not a man. And "house" in the codes of the Torah refers to a man's wife. She is the house, the highest part of the soul.