Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Skip to content

Do Clothes Really Make the Man?

Masechet Shabbat, Daf 114

In modern terms, clothes make the man, or so we’re told.

Let’s take a walk back through time, on our daf today, to remind ourselves what the people of the First Temple period wore, or didn’t wear. We are told that people certainly cared how they looked back in those days, adhering to strict fashion standards. They had, we are told on amud aleph,聽one outfit to wear while stirring a pot of stew, another for pouring wine for their teacher. A mindset, if you will, for proper behavior, as dictated by appropriate clothing.

And what did the prophet Yishayahu, or Isaiah, wear while walking the streets of Jerusalem, in the seventh century BCE — Why would he, as we are told in chapter 20 verse 3, walk ‘naked and barefoot’ for three years, risking mockery and worse? Why this emphasis on outer appearance, here in Masechet Shabbat?

A person, especially a prophet, was considered ‘out of their mind’ if they walked around barefoot. And normally, robes were a status symbol, kept clean and pressed, if not new. Rabbi Yochanan and others try to reconcile this seeming conflicting report by saying that he wore dirty, old clothing. But the literal reading remains (Abarbanel, Rambam), and it’s possible that this brave prophet had received a vision of himself 聽and knew he must present the image and its repercussions with the people of the time – to teach them a lesson. Perhaps the challenge of that time included chastising for lack of modesty, or to teach the need to look beyond appearances, to strengthen or recognize a person’s internal values.


This reading gains strength in the next segment on the daf, seemingly unrelated at first but immediately following. Our sages are asked to rule on whether a piece of cloth is ‘chotzetz’, or acts as interference with mikvah immersion, specifically the small rug usually placed under the saddle of a donkey.

Rashbag says this piece of clothing isn’t large enough to interfere until it’s the size of an ‘Italian Issar‘ coin.聽According to Prof Yaacov Meshorer, the ancient coin looks like this:

The size of the coin is assumed to be the purpose of its inclusion here, as the traditional reading goes. However in this case, upon closer look, one might want to postulate a connection with clothes, by the figure on the back. Roman culture emphasized the person, the body, personal achievement through strength. Humility on the back burner, clothing took center stage and became the window through which the soul was viewed. Perhaps a minimum of cloth provided a modicum of tzniyut, inside and out…
Our sages chose a different emphasis and remind us that the minutiae of the commandments provide us with both halachic and moral guidelines.聽Unearthing the past might just give us insight into human nature, then and now.

Ruth Lieberman

Ruthie Lieberman is an Israeli-based political consultant and licensed tour guide, combining her love of Israel with political acumen to better Israel's standing both at home and in the eyes of the world. She has consulted for political leaders in Jerusalem and in Washington, from work on election campaigns to public advocacy and events. Her tours in Israel connect Biblical history to modern realities, to highlight Israel's achievements and promote its policies.
Scroll To Top