Joseph’s coat of many colors. Sara Netanyahu’s controversial black dress. All the way back to Adam and Eve's arboreal apparel, clothing has revealed family and social structure, religion, commercial and cultural ties.
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The ancient texts, including the Bible, the Talmud and New Testament abound in fashion tidbits, often confirmed by archaeological findings.
Many scriptural references to clothing are symbolic. Clothing came to symbolize the human being in a literal way, in the custom of tearing a garment to indicate grief – Jacob tore his garment when he saw Joseph’s coat of many colors drenched in blood; David rent his clothes when he heard of the death of King Saul. Scholars say this act was meant to replace cutting one’s flesh in mourning, as other cultures apparently did (Deut. 14:1–2).
Kashrut: Never mind lobsters, don't mix fabrics
Among the ritual requirements in the Bible involving clothing are two that observant Jews today still follow: a prohibition on combining different types of natural fabrics (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11), and the requirement for men to wear ritual fringes on their cloaks (Deut. 22:12, Num. 15:38) to remind the wearer of the commandments. In other words, kashrut isn't just about shrimp and bacon – it applies to apparel as well.
Country folk and the poor mostly wore garments woven at home from sheep and goat wool and hair. Weaving was quintessential women’s work, done at home by women of all social classes.
In ancient Israel, the rich could also afford linen, manufactured from flax, sometimes imported from Egypt but also produced in Galilee. Ezekiel 16:13 mentions "silk" but because some scholars believe Ezekiel could not have known the silk we know of today, they think this may refer to some other rare and expensive textile.
Poor were sheep-colored, rich were rainbows
The wealthy could afford to expand the repertoire of colors in their closet from the earthy tones of the original sheep and goat coats to a rainbow of raiment.
The most costly dye was purple manufactured from the murex snail. But imitation purple for clothing could come from the hyacinth flower, for example. Textiles discovered at Masada included cream, pink and purple, and other colors mentioned in Roman sources include gold, walnut and yellow, all of which came from plants. Scarlet dye came from an insect, the kermes vermilio.
“Costly garments” (Ezekiel 16:10) are mentioned in the Bible – Queen Esther had one (Esther 5:1), and so did Tamar, Amnon’s ill-fated sister (2 Sam. 13:18). The noblewoman mother of the Canaanite general Sisera wore colorful embroidered garments (Judg. 5:30). A wedding dress, according to Psalm 45:13–14, was "embroidered with gold.”
Killer bling and workaday ponchos
Just as today, fashion can make, or unmake, the man. A fashion mishap involving one wealthy ancient clotheshorse is described by Josephus and the New Testament: King Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, appeared in public Caesarea wearing “a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture” that so sparkled in the morning sun in Caesarea one day that people shouted his praises as a god. Because Agrippa didn’t bother disabusing them of the notion, he was struck with a fatal illness and died five days later.
Among lesser folk the basic garment was the tunic, a kind of poncho, consisting of two squares sewn together with an opening for the neck. Pieces of a tunic with a “Scottish”-pattern that may have belonged to a Roman soldier were found at Masada. (Though what else exactly happened at Masada remains controversial.)
Over the tunic both men and women wore a cloak, or mantle. Virtually everyone had one of those (unless your creditor took it and kept it illegally after nightfall – Exodus 22:26–27). It was so ubiquitous that almost two millennia ago in the days of the Mishnah, the sages hammered out rules pertaining to oath-taking based on none other than the scenario that: “Two lay hold of a cloak...This one says it’s all mine and that one says it’s all mine. This one takes an oath that he possesses no less than a share of it than half, and they divide it up.” (Baba Metzia 1:1-2).
Mantles could be fastened at the shoulder, held in place by a pin as simple as a thorn, or elaborately designed, of course, for the wealthy, of a type found quite frequently in Israeli digs, including in a salvage dig in excavation in Nahariya recently, dating from the Persian period.
The cloak also had its symbolic side. The expression “mantle of prophecy” comes from the story of Elijah’s ascension to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-17) where the prophet’s mantle becomes a miraculous instrument in the hands of his disciple Elisha. And when Ruth asked Boaz to spread his mantle over her (3:9) as a widow in need of protection, she was also asking for him to watch out for her.
White for the well-to-do
White garments – in ancient Rome that advertised that you were a politician by profession – were particularly difficult to manufacture, not to mention keep clean. Some things don't change, do they.
Making white cloth involved bleaching it in the sun and ancient Woolite, which probably contained vinegar and caustic soda (mentioned symbolically in Proverbs 25:20) as well as urine, which apparently sudsed up nicely when it came into contact with wool’s natural oils. Roman clothing manufacturers even kept pots outside their doors for passersby to pee in.
Farmers, hunters and shepherds usually wore short tunics – just the outfit for labor-intensive tasks you need your knees free for, from planting to killing the occasional marauding lion.
Why veils make men suspicious
Jewish men did not ordinarily wear head coverings in Bible times. Women, however wore a “cap” (one component of the outfit a groom had to provide his bride (Mishnah Ketubot 4:7).
Women wore veils, but what that meant is unclear: Judah thought his daughter-in-law Tamar was a prostitute because she wore one (Gen. 38:15) but other ancient Near Eastern cultures, the veil was the one piece of clothing prostitutes were not allowed to wear because it signified modesty – as when Rebecca saw her groom Isaac for the first time she covered her face with it (Gen. 24:65).
In the story of that star-crossed biblical threesome Jacob, Leah and her sister Rachel, Leah used her veil to disguise herself as Rachel on her wedding night, leading to the Jewish custom to this day under the marriage canopy of the groom placing the veil over the bride himself – after he’s made sure she’s really the one.
It’s amazing that something as delicate as a hairnet could survive from antiquity. Yes, such nets, made using the ancient sprang technique that allowed for elasticity were found at Masada and at Qumran.
Mincing was the province of women then
And finally as we move from head to toe, Roman statuary frequently features thong-type sandals for both men and women, of a type in modern day Israeli fashion still known as “biblical sandals.”
Such sandals were found in the excavations at Masada. But closed shoes are also known from antiquity. The sages of the Talmud said the women Isaiah critically depicted as “mincing” as they walked (3:16) meant that they had put fragrant myrrh and balsam in their shoes and kicked when they spotted young men, to spread the fragrance.
Ezekiel 16:10 describes Jerusalem as a woman shod in the mysterious tahash, variously translated as sealskin, dolphin or badger.
The footwear of Roman soldiers had nails on the soles – the mere glimpse of which or sight of whose shoeprints in the dust could send a woman hiding from the Romans into a miscarriage during the second-century Bar Kokhba Revolt, according to the ancient commentary Deuteronomy Rabbah.
The writer is the author, among other books, of Women at the Time of the Bible, Food at the Time of the Bible, Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days, and The Scroll.