Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Beged Ish

I don't know how it happens, but the phrase "beged ish" pops up in the most random of contexts. Perhaps that says something about the people saying it, but I'll leave that to you.

Beged ish is Hebrew for "a man's garment." In short, men and women aren't supposed to wear the clothing of the other sex. It's not tznius. The arguments in "polite conversation" tend to be about women wearing pants. Of course, aside from being a d'oraisa prohibition, there are also issues of tznius.

The source is Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5, "A masculine accouterment shall not be upon a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman's garment, for all those who do these thing are an abomination to Hashem, your G-d."

The problem is how to define gendered clothing. It certainly can change over time, based on community custom. However, in our modern world, how do we define community? And how do we deal with a change in the times? These are questions that rabbis disagree on vehemently. Even more complicated, rabbis may allow an item of clothing as permissible under one theory but prohibited under another halachic theory. For instance, my understanding is that Rav Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"tl-if you don't know him, you should) held that women's pants are not beged ish, but the crotch split violates tznius. So even when you get around a beged ish issue, there are tznius issues to consider. On the other end of the spectrum, some groups would (loudly) emphasize that pants are beged ish per se. Therefore, they are not permissible in any context, even as pajamas in the privacy of your own home with no men around.

This is an area where my favorite quote applies: "Everyone who is more lenient than you is a heretic. Everyone more stringent than you is a fanatic." Whenever you have this conversion, unless you agree, the other person is going to think you're a heretic or fanatic, and you will feel the opposite.

Yet there's a twist here: what about all that cross-dressing on Purim? Didn't I see the rabbi dressed as a mermaid?? (True story: I met my first rabbi's 2 year old son on Purim, and he was dressed as a girl. For several weeks, I thought the rabbi had a daughter.) Apparently, cross-dressing is allowed on Purim because everyone knows that the intent isn't to be lewd; we presume it is for the joy of Purim.

The most interesting beged ish question I encountered: I heard swords are beged ish. Does this mean that guns are beged ish today?

As a last thought, my "research" brought me to this gem of a quote: "Modesty is a characteristic that has no Hashkafa."


  1. In my opinion, there are many more interesting issues of beged ish/beged isha than women wearing pants (especially since, even if that's not beged ish, it's not tzanua, so it's out either way), such as a woman wearing a tzanua shirt purchased in the men's department, or a woman borrowing her husband's sweatshirt, or men's jewelry... I'd love to see a post on men's wedding bands, in particular.

  2. The Curmudgeonly israeli Giyoret says:

    Actually, I recall a discussion about a discussion of that question some 25 years ago, related by a young female graduate of an Israeli religious secondary school. She was serving in the Intelligence Corps of the IDF at the time, and this had been one of her halachic inquiries before deciding not to take a draft deferment. Answer? Some rabbanim say a personal weapon IS considered Beged Ish, some say it ISN'T. Her rabbis held that it was not.

    Anyway, after basic training, she rarely "carried", she wore a skirt through most of her service, which was in an office in the center of the country, and she knew an amazing amount of crrent events, sometimes evenbefore they came into public domain, but she wasn't allowed to talk about them.

    I haven't tspoken to her in a few years; she may well also be a grandmother by now. Nothing new under the sun.

  3. This is interesting, particularly as a lot of women's clothing today is inspired by men's fashions. Most blouses for work are modeled after tailored men's dress shirts. Most women's hats have a nod toward older men's hat styles. Heck, even the corset, arguably one of the most feminine symbols of dress there is...was originally designed for European cavalry officers and later taken in to women's fashion.

    I wonder if perhaps the main idea behind beged ish might be more of intention. If something doesn't violate tznuis and has become acceptable women's fashion, then perhaps the origination of it no longer matters, particularly if men have commonly stopped wearing the same?

    Of course, this doesn't address androgenous clothing at all, such as t-shirts and polo shirts that are often designed to be worn by either gender. Are those then to be worn by both genders or neither?

    You always make me think, which is why I enjoy your blog so much! ;)