Illustration depicting Jews and Ottomans defending the city of Buda together against Christian attackers shortly after the Ottomans’ recapture of the city in 1541. One of the banners held by the Jews bears the Judenhut, the conical hat imposed on them by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)

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Sumptuary Legislation

Although the earliest known sumptuary regulations from the world of East European Jewry date from the late sixteenth century, such regulations were promulgated, albeit in limited form, among medieval Ashkenazic Jews as early as the twelfth century. “Beginning in the fifteenth century,” as Salo Baron has written, “more and more communal organs, regional as well as local” issued detailed ordinances stipulating “articles of clothing that might be worn by various individuals on certain occasions, the number of guests and musicians who might be invited to certain functions, and the amount and type of food that might be served at such celebrations” (Baron, 1942, vol. 2, pp. 301–302). The fifteenth century was also the turning point for sumptuary legislation in Renaissance Italy, where in that century alone, 83 different sets of sumptuary laws were enacted.

The earliest known sumptuary laws among East European Jews are the Kraków statutes of 1595. An important feature of these regulations was that they sought to control not only such public forms of ostentation as dress, but also such domestic items as tablecloths. Moreover—and more significantly—explicit distinctions were made between members of various economic classes. Those who paid at least 10 zlotys in annual taxes were entitled to use gold and silver embroidered tablecloths in their homes, but only at such special occasions as Passover, the Sabbath after a birth, and a circumcision meal. Similarly, female household members of those who paid annual taxes of at least 5 zlotys were allowed to wear gold chains in public, albeit beneath their outer garments.

About 30 years later, in 1628, the council of Lithuanian communities passed a series of regulations about clothing. All velvet garments were prohibited for both men and women regardless of economic status. Silk garments, by contrast, were prohibited only to brides whose fathers had received financial aid from relatives in order to marry them off, or were the recipients of communal charity. Nine years later a new series of clothing regulations was promulgated that added, among other prohibitions, using sable for men’s hats. Furthermore, the wearing of gold rings was strictly regulated. The Moravian statutes reconfirmed in 1650 by representatives of the region’s communities permitted women to wear gold and pearl necklaces only if these were concealed, as was the case earlier in Kraków, but did not distinguish between the tax brackets of their respective families. Those statutes also prohibited new dresses to be made out of velvet or damask, although old dresses made of those luxurious materials could be worn. One particular garment, the glittering scarf known as the glintser, could be worn only on special occasions such as circumcisions, or when (as on special Sabbaths) two Torah scrolls were taken out for prayers.

At the 1697 meeting of the Moravian communities it was decided that, as in Kraków earlier, the wearing of luxury items by women would be determined by their family’s wealth. Only those whose (publicly announced) dowries had been at least 200 gold Rhenish coins were permitted to wear dresses embroidered with gold or silver. Even these women, however, were limited in the amount of embroidery they were allowed, although the limit was extended for holiday dresses.

The leaders of the Poznań community were also concerned, in 1699, about the wearing of luxurious fabrics such as silk and the use of gold and silver embroidery. The leaders explained that these constituted an unnecessary provocation for gentiles, and also served as a means—by concealing liquid assets—of evading communal taxes and other payments. In 1713, a long list of prohibited garments was published, including those made of silk. Among the specific garments mentioned was the brusttukh, a vertical strip of decorative material worn (originally for modesty) in front over a blouse or dress, and typically made of silk, velvet, or brocade. Later in the eighteenth century it was decided that not only the rabbi and his wife would be exempt from these regulations, but also the communal physician and his wife.

The statutes of Tykocin, in the early eighteenth century, prohibited grooms from wearing embroidered garments—unless the marriage was with a family from “one of the large and famous communities.” These same statutes also limited the number of participants in wedding and circumcision feasts to 20 people, other than immediate relatives, and the community’s rabbi and officers. By 1705, however, the numbers had quickly doubled to 40 participants (plus one cantor, one syndic, one servant, and close relatives). Moreover, the 20 members of the community who paid the highest taxes were allowed to invite “as many as they wish.” Those same statutes forbade women who had given birth to send a casserole (known as gemakht), honey cake, or liquor to anyone in the community except the rabbi’s wife and the midwife.

The community of Prague included bar mitzvah celebrations in its sumptuary regulations of 1767. No musicians were permitted to perform, and the only women who could be invited, beyond the boy’s nuclear family, were his grandmothers and sisters-in-law (not aunts). The only fish that could be served was carp. Beef could be served, but not veal, and either chicken or goose but not both. Wine was also prohibited. On the other hand, those who were in the community’s highest tax bracket could serve whatever food or drink they wished.

Suggested Reading

Salo Wittmayer Baron, The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1942); Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (New York, 1924); Edward Fram, “Hagbalah motarot be-kehilah ha-yehudit be-Krakov shilhe ha-me’ah ha-16 uve-re’shit ha-me’ah ha-17,” Gal-Ed 18 (2002): 11–23; Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley, 2004).