As an ethno-religious group, Jews are both a people and members of a religious faith. Slightly less than half the world’s Jews live in Israel, while most of the other half reside in the United States. The name ‘Jew’ comes from the ancient kingdom of Judah, while Jews were also known historically as ‘children of Israel’. Over the millennia, Jews were divided into different groups according to origin and practice.
Today, the most common designations refer to rite and visible religiosity. The main current prayer rites are Ashkenazi (from the medieval Jewish name given to Central and Eastern Europe), Sephardi (from the medieval Jewish name given to Spain and Portugal), Yemenite and Ethiopian. In the US, Jews are divided into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, while in Israel they are Hiloni (secular), Massorti (traditional), Dati (religious) and Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox), without clear dividing lines between them. Haredim are further divided into Misnagdim (opponents) and Hassidim (devotees). The latter are further organized in different ‘royal courts’. There are many languages traditionally associated with the Jewish community, including several types of Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic, while Aramaic is used extensively in the liturgy
Jews are required to wear ‘humble’ clothing (tzniut). This has led to many interpretations over the years affected to a great extent by the surrounding non-Jewish communities. Both men and women are expected to wear long clothing and a head covering, especially as adults. For Haredi women this typically entails sleeves to the elbow combined with conservative skirts over the knees and stockings.
Men are further required to wear a garment with tzitzit (special tassels) at their four corners, as ordained in Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12. This is done by wearing an everyday tallit katan and by wearing an additional tallit (gadol) during prayer. The former is a poncho-like garment worn under or over ordinary clothes, while the latter is a large shawl draped over the shoulders or the head. They are often white among Sephardi Jews and white with black or blue stripes among Ashkenazi Jews.
Men wear a small skullcap, called a kippa or yarmulke (probably from the Aramaic phrase ‘fearful of the King’) with an additional hat among Ultra-Orthodox Jews. According to the Talmud, holy words may not be spoken in the presence of a tefakh of hair (a palm’s width). This has led to interpretations ranging from partially covering the hair with a scarf (shavis or tichel), to covering all the hair with a snood, to Hassidic women shaving their hair upon marriage and replacing it with a wig (sheitel), itself sometimes covered by an additional head covering.
During prayer, men wear two types of tefillin (phylacteries), for the head and the arm. The tefillin containers enclose specific verses from the Torah and are made of animal hide. The black leather straps are wrapped seven times around the arm, signifying the Sabbath, and around the hand in the shape of the Hebrew letter signifying the name of God. Hassidic Jews also wear a gartel, a cord belt, during prayer to separate the head from the loins.
Ultra-orthodox men’s clothing
Hassidic men (and some non-Hassidic Haredi Jews) stand out because of their traditional, East European inspired outfits, beards and long sidelocks (peyot). They wear a black suit with a white shirt and a long black coat (rekel). For the Sabbath and other festive occasions, the weekly coat is replaced with a kaftan or bekishe, a silk (or polyester) coat, combined with a fur head cover, typically the wide shtreimel. Some groups from Jerusalem wear a gold-coloured kaftan instead. A white over-robe, called a kittel, is worn by Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews on their wedding, for certain holidays and eventually as a burial shroud.