The topic of the attire of Hasidim has been a subject of curiosity for many people. Their distinctive black hats and garments have always been a point of interest for those unfamiliar with their customs. During a recent discussion with my congregants, I was asked to explain why they chose this clothing. I provided a simple explanation rooted in the Torah’s teachings.
The Torah says Jewish people should not follow the practices of the nations around them: “And in their statutes, you shall not follow.” This distinctive choice of attire is one way to practice this rule. Maimonides writes that a person is recognized by his speech, his garments, and how he conducts himself, so it’s important to be recognized for our special identity and not dress like everyone else around us. Also, black is a subdued color, not a show-off color, which is how we should conduct ourselves. Humble. “You shall go modestly before God, your God.”
Given my interest in science, I offered, at the spur of the moment, what I believed was a clever explanation. I suggested that the choice of black is not only due to its ability to absorb all the color wavelengths of the electromagnetic field; looked at from the other angle, the color black is an expression of a sign of sorts to anyone looking at this color that it contains all the different color wavelengths, making it ironically the color with more energy inside it than any of the other colors, which merely bounces off that specific color wavelength that one sees with their eyes.
However, this particular fellow countered by referencing my past statement equating wisdom with light as the Torah says, “Torah is light,” and connecting forces of impurity with the color black, “in it swarm all the creatures of the forest…” where cockroaches and negative forces dwell. This prompted a discussion on the apparent contradiction. Does black represent a good trait or not?
In response, I acknowledged his very perceptive question and drew a parallel. I explained that much like the paradox of being proud and self-confident can often exhibit itself outwardly as arrogance, which is to be avoided, the difference lies in subtle nuances.
While pride and confidence are vital positive traits, “And I will walk in expansive paths,” and may seem akin to arrogance, the distinction is fundamental. Arrogance is at the expense of others and leaves little room for others. Arrogance is ego, which makes us angry and divisive and is no good. Arrogance is the appearance of substance, but in truth, that’s all it is the mere appearance and no substance. Pride and self-confidence, on the other hand, are internally directed; they are real self-worth and do not negate others. They are good catalysts, portrayed by helping and working for and with others.
Once, a Hasid came to his Rebbe and complained that everyone seemed to be “walking on him.” They constantly challenge him, not allowing him room for self-expression and opinion. Said the Rebbe, “If you would not have so much arrogance and spread yourself over the entire space of the synagogue and you allowed others, as well, some room to move and express themselves and say and do what they want to, perhaps you wouldn’t feel every move of theirs is over you and at your expense.”
When a person internalizes wisdom and light in their proper form, the darkness on the exterior is one of modesty and humility and is unpretentious. As the saying goes, “The more I know, the more I realize how little I really know.”
On the other hand, when someone looks too intently at the sun, i.e., takes in the lights of the sun incorrectly, their eyes turn black from absorbing light the wrong way, and then the black is a sign of not seeing and no light, an actual place of darkness and negativity.
It is interesting that when the Hasidic movement started, they were accused of being a negative “black.” Only years later, everyone today appreciates the light that is truly within the beautiful teachings and ways of Hasidism.
It is written that Baal Shem Tov had an extraordinary affinity for light because, with light, the depth and the secrets are revealed. Light helps us reach the depths of truth. True wisdom, our eternal Torah, is all the light necessary to see and experience all that is a blessing.
Hasidim wear black to represent the Godly light in our minds and hearts from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidus, and all his successors, which we carry around modestly. When all “this” light is absorbed, the result is humility, which is the key and vessel for the highest, most profound levels of holiness and blessings.