CORR 123-126



The historic congregation in Curacao is constantly visited by vistors from American cruise ships. Many of the ladies, as is the modern custom, wear pants suits. Some of the traditional-minded members of the congregation object to this type of clothing as a violation of the Biblical prohibition of women wearing men’s clothing. Rabbi Malcolm Stern, to whom they spoke, reminded them that in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa, pants suits were the traditional garments of women. However, Rabbi Stern suggested that the status of the law be more fully discussed.


IT IS EXTREMELY difficult to discuss the matter of modern women’s clothing on the basis of Halachic precedent. After all, the social situation and the social mood have changed so drastically since ancient times that it is difficult for a modern man to grasp the relevance of these ancient laws. Nevertheless, the laws had a most worthy intention and deserve our understanding and even our acceptance, whenever that is possible for us.

The law stems from Deuteronomy 22, verse 5, which states: “A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on woman’s garments, for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Now, why should men’s clothing on a woman or women’s clothing on a man be, as Scripture says, an “abomination?” Rashi explains it quite clearly. He says the change of clothing was in order that a woman could mingle among men, and that could only be for the purpose of adultery. Of course when one thinks of the complete separation of men and women in the earlier centuries, certainly a woman circulating in men’s disguise among men might be justly suspect.

But can we truthfully say that today? It is true that there is a great relaxation of moral standards nowadays. But in spite of that, can we truthfully declare that a woman who wears a pants suit wears it with an immoral intent? If that were the intent, surely many of the modern mini-skirts and other such garments are much more provocative of sexual looseness.

We must therefore judge this particular garment on the basis of intent. As a matter of fact, this approach is justified by Jewish law. The oldest Halachic source, after Scripture itself, is the Sifre, and the Sifre on this passage (paragraph #226) says: “Does that mean that men may not wear colored cloth because women wear it? Certainly not. The key word is the Biblical word ‘abomination.’ If the garment is worn for the abominable purpose of secretly moving among the other sex, that is the ‘abomination,’ and that is the prohibition.” So, too, the Talmud (Nazir 59a) says there is no “abomination” in the wearing of the garments, but only if they wear them in order to mingle in each other’s groups. In other words, we must judge by the intent.

A further proof that we judge by intent was the relation of the Rabbi to the masking and hilarity of Purim. On Purim often men would dress in women’s clothes and women would dress in men’s clothes, and Rabbi Judah Mintz of Padua, in his responsum # 17 says that there is no objection to it on Purim because there is no other intention involved but rejoicing. So Moses Isserles, the great Ashkenazic authority, discussing the dressing up on Purim in Orah Hayyim 696:8 says, “As for the custom to wear masks on Purim and men wearing garments of a woman and a woman wearing garments of a man, there is no prohibition in this matter since the intention is only joy.” See also Ozar Dinim u-Minhagim, page 337, column 1. So the purpose of the type of clothing must always be taken into consideration.

There is also another way to consider the modern problem. The law forbidding a man to wear a woman’s garments was extended to forbid a man to use any of the feminine devices of beauty culture. The Shulchan Aruch in Yore Deah 182:6 says that a man may not even pluck out one white hair from his black beard and he may not use a depilatory on his arm-pits. All these are forbidden because they are cosmetic devices of women. Nevertheless, the Shulchan Aruch itself says that where it is the custom for men to remove the bodily hairs, there is no objection to it.

In other words, we must judge these matters by what has become the prevailing custom. Rabbi Stern, therefore, was quite right in calling attention to the fact that wearing pants suits was the established custom of the North African women. Similarly, might we not be justified then in saying that the pants suit is no longer an exceptional garment worn by some bold woman to attract attention, but by now has become established as a normal type of women’s garments, and therefore may be considered as no longer violative of the law in Deuteronomy?

As we said at the beginning, the whole mood of modern life is so different from the life in ancient times that it is hard to apply a law which was so deeply rooted in vanished moods and social attitudes. But this much we can say: If the garment is not for the purpose of, as Scripture says, “abomination,” and if, also, it has become established as a woman’s garment, then I believe that we can no longer object to it on Halachic grounds.

A similar decision on this question was arrived at by Obadiah Joseph, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He says it is “better than miniskirts.” (Published in Or HaMizrach, Tishri 5733, p. 37. He cites the Schach and the Bach to Yore Deah 182.)