It is interesting to do a short study on the clothing that Jewish men would have worn during Jesus’ day and then to ask ourselves if the mental pictures that we have of Jesus matches our findings. What did Jesus and the other Jewish men in Israel wear and look like and how does that add to our knowledge of Bible stories when we understand the Jewish customs of that time period? As usual, the more we know about the culture of the Bible the more alive the Scriptures become.
Jewish men during the time of Jesus wore two garments for every day use. The first one, a linen undergarment or undershirt, was called “haluk” (or chaluk). It was long, like a night shirt and fell halfway between the knees and ankles. You wore this garment at home, or to work in, but not in public. Mark 14:51-52 describes a young man (probably Mark) escaping from the soldiers and having his haluk ripped off, making him naked. The fact that he only had his undergarment on suggests that the disciples were sleeping somewhere nearby when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Also, in John 19:23, the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ haluk, his linen tunic, at the crucifixion.
The second garment that they wore was an outer garment that went over the haluk. This garment was called “tallit” and was usually white, made of wool, and had holes in it for your arms and head. This was the garment that was worn out in public. Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:40 to give someone your haluk as well as your tallit, takes on new meaning as Jesus would have been saying, “Give them everything you have!”
Because of Numbers 15:37-41, Jewish men always wore tassels on the corners of their tallit. The tassels were called, “tzitzit” (pronounced seat-seat) or “tzitziot” (plural). There were to be four tzitzit, one on each corner of your robe, and each tassel was to have a blue cord in it. The blue cord represented royalty. The tassels were to be a visual reminder of God and His commands and His authority. The corner of the robe with the tassels on it was called, “kanaf”or “kanafim” (plural). This Hebrew word also meant, “wing”. Two Bible stories come to mind that involve the corners and the tassels on them. The first one is the story of David and Saul in 1 Samuel 24:1-4). David cut off the corner of Saul’s robe in the cave where David was hiding. David was not just cutting off a piece of Saul’s robe. By cutting off the kanaf and the tassels (tzitzit) that symbolized God’s authority and protection, David was saying, “God has taken His hand off of you and you no longer have His authority on your kingship.” The second story concerning the tassels is in Matthew 23:1-7, where Jesus criticized the Pharisees, not for wearing tzitit, but for making them extra long.
It is interesting to note the effort to which Jewish people would got to tie their tassels in a certain way. There were were eight strings on each tassel and five knots were tied in the cords. The five knots represented the five books of the Torah and the four spaces between the knots represented the four letters in God’s unspeakable name. Also, the Hebrew language attaches numeric value to each letter in their alphabet (e.g. echad, the first letter in the alphabet corresponds to 1). The numeric value of the Mishnaic spelling of tzitziot is 600, and if you add to that the 8 strings and 5 knots, you get 613, or the total number of all the oral laws in the Mishnah, or all the laws of Moses. The detail to which they went is an example of their devotion to their God.
During New Testament times, tzitziot took on and additional and more important meaning. As the Jews began to look for the Messiah, prophets began to give clues as to what attributes the “coming one” would have. In Zechariah 8:23-24, it was prophesied that the Jews would take hold of the Kanaf of the Messiah’s robe because they had heard that God was with Him. Also, in Malachi 4:2, it declares that the coming Messiah would have healing in his Kanaf (wings), which, if you will remember, is the same word as the corners of His robe. The Jewish people knew that the Messiah’s tallit and tziztit would be special.
Now, let’s fast forward to Jesus’ day and read these scriptures: Matthew 9:20-22, Matthew 14:35-36, Mark 5:24-34 and Luke 8:42-48. The common people believed that when the Messiah came he would have special powers in the corners of His robe. In the story of the woman with the bleeding disease, she would have thought, “if I can just get to touch a tziztit or if I can just touch the corner of His robe, I can be healed.” She was totally convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and demonstrated her faith by grabbing the corner of His robe. Jesus then acknowledged that He was the Messiah and did have healing powers by saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
One other subject that we could discuss would be the phylacteries or boxes (called, “tfillin”) that the Jews of Jesus’ day put scriptures in and then wore on their foreheads to remind them of the command that God gave them in Deuteronomy 6:8. Would Jesus have worn a tfillin? Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus that had him wearing tassels or tfillin?
The main conclusion that we can draw is that Jesus would have dressed like the other men of his day and would have fit into the customs of His Jewish peers. He was Jewish to the core and did what the Scriptures and His traditions told him to do. Because we look at the Bible from a 21st century perspective, and because our mental picture of Jesus often comes from a Middle Ages era European artist’s depiction of Him, our ideas of what He looked and dressed like are skewed. Once again, learning about the culture during Bible times doesn’t necessarily change the story, but it sure gives it more depth and meaning and this study of Jewish custom and dress is a perfect example.