“What Are We to Put On?”
Clothing in Old Testament Times
By Timothy S. Wilkinson
The Torah spends considerable time discussing rules about clothing and yet manages to give us few details as to what they actually looked like. In the first century of our Common Era, Pharisees made a list of clothing in order to specify which garments could be rescued from a burning house on the Sabbath (I wonder if they stood by with a checklist to make sure no rules were being broken). This provides us with some of the Greek names of garments at the time, as well as their relative values. How well this list applies to the garments of Israelites in earlier centuries, we do not know. Archaeology and non-Biblical source material have filled in some of the gaps, but assumptions are often made on the basis of clothing in Greek times (recorded in more detail by Alexander the Great’s scribes). It seems likely that clothing styles did not change too drastically, but it should be remembered that the following information can be confirmed only by time travel.
The Torah makes it clear that wearing the clothing of the opposite sex was strictly forbidden. There may have been several reasons for this, not the least of which were the religious practices of the Canaanites. Among their priests were kurgaru, whom we would call castrati—eunuchs who dressed in women’s clothing. Assinu were homosexual priests who likewise wore women’s clothing and make-up, and sinnishat zikrum (literally “female males”) were lesbian priestesses who dressed like men.
Basic Israelite men’s clothing, though, began with the kethoneth, something like a loose miniskirt. While laboring in the sun, it was all that men wore, and they would pull the skirt between their legs and tuck it into their belt, or girdle, to keep it out of the way. (I find it interesting that men wearing miniskirts did not, at the time, constitute a violation of the restrictions against wearing women’s clothing).
A woman’s undergarment (klanidja) was more like a long nightshirt or dress. It was worn by itself during hot weather and while sleeping. Ancient Hebrew women did not wear underwear as we know it. (Neither did men, except for the Priests while serving at the altar).
Men and women also wore a girdle, or wide belt—known as the abnet for men and the pirzomath for women. It was sometimes made of folded wool and sometimes of leather. A slit was cut in it as a money pouch, or pocket. A leather girdle could also be used to hold swords and daggers or provide protection to the abdomen during battle.
The outer garment could take many forms: cloaks, robes, ponchos, capes, aprons, and mantles. Some pictures of them can be found on the so-called “Black Obelisk” of Shalmaneser III, which depicts Israelites paying tribute. Sometimes it was a tunic of wool, linen, or sackcloth (goat’s hair). It might have been sleeveless and be worn over one shoulder like a Roman toga, have short sleeves and be left open in front to reveal a second tunic beneath it, or have long, voluminous sleeves and a hood like a monk’s robe. It was typically made of two pieces of material seamed at the waist (looms of the time could not weave cloth wide enough to make it out of one piece) with a v-shaped opening for the head. Embroidery patterns on the borders might identify the region from which the wearer came. For men and women, these garments were decorated with a blue fringe along their lower edge as required by the Torah.
This outer garment was used as a rug and a blanket when needed—and as a rag, pot holder, washcloth, and (by holding out the bottom hem in front of the wearer like a little girl bringing home berries) a pouch to carry things. The wealthy wore fancier versions—silk gradually made its way to the Middle East during this time—as a sign of status.
Men often went bare-headed, but they might wear a cap (pjilon), helmet, turban, or headband. Women did wear head coverings—turbans, scarves, or veils. For at least some of the Biblical period, an unmarried woman would only lift her veil for her husband—a practice that has been adapted by some Muslim nations today.
Men and women wore sandals for footgear, or went barefoot if particularly poor.
The Bible also speaks of special “robes of honor” worn as a sign of rank, wedding and mourning garments, and a detailed list of garments worn by the priests when they were serving at the Tabernacle or Temple.
Israelite men and women loved to accessorize. Women commonly wore a circlet of dowry coins around their heads, over their veil. In Isaiah 3:18-24, the prophet gives us a breakdown of other common jewelry: anklets, headbands, crescents, pendants, bracelets, scarves, headdresses, armlets, sashes, amulets, rings, earrings, nose rings, handbags, and more. Of course, he was listing them to condemn their usage, or at least the vanity and intercultural influence that had made them popular.
I wonder what he would have thought of our clothing today.
For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.