The Repercussions of the 1960’s on Frum People in Shuls Today. Origin of the “Black Hat.”

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

No.  The associated picture was not photo-shopped.  It was taken at president kennedy’s inauguration – and then, he did wear a top hat.

Which brings us to the topic under discussion. Last night, I received an interesting email:

“Did you ever discuss the Inyan of former Yeshivaleit who now daven without hats and jackets?”

Without being judgmental on anyone – let’s tackle the subject matter.

In the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and all the way through early sixties – everyone wore a hat. It is a debate among historians as to whether or not it was President Kennedy, whose example as president, caused the nation to stop wearing hats or whether it was just the non-conformity in the 1960’s and he was just part of it.  The issue is discussed in Neil Steinberg’s book Hatless Jack: the President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style.

To paraphrase the nomenclature of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l [and lehavdil as well], was President Kennedy a siman or a siba? Regardless, nowadays most people, with the exception of Yeshivaleit, have stopped wearing hats.  Is there still an obligation to do so for someone who once studied in yeshiva – but is now, say, a slightly different person?

And there is another question too.  Reuvain, who normally wears a hat and jacket for Tefilah, visits a client at a location with difficult parking. He has to bring along equipment into the client’s office. Reuvain decides to leave his hat and jacket in the car. Shimon greets him and responds that he cannot meet with him now. Reuvain is early, and he, Shimon, is going to Mincha now.

Should Reuvain daven with Shimon without his hat and jacket? Or should he daven later with the proper dress?


The Gemorah in Shabbos 10a indicates that there is an obligation to wear a hat as one should daven in a manner that one greets a king. Certainly, when we daven, there is no greater facing a King.  The halacha is codified in Shulchan Aruch Siman 91.

The language of the Shulchan Aruch is that chachomim and their students should dress like this. Could it be that it doesn’t apply to people that are not chachomim per se, or to those who view themselves as not exactly students of Chachomim?  The Kaf HaChaim (91:26) writes that it applies to everyone.  No other Posaim seems to disagree.

The Sefer Chasidim #57 explains that the pasuk in Amos (4:12), “Hechon likras elokecha, Yisroel – Prepare to meet Hashem, Oh Israel” teaches us the obligation to dress properly before one davens in front of the King. Indeed, the Sefer Chassidim has strong words for those who wear a hat only on the Shabbos.

The Mishna Brurah (91:12) writes that in our times, one must wear a hat for davening and a yarmulkah would not suffice, because it is not proper to stand in this manner in front of important people.  This ruling is found in the first volume of the Mishna Brurah, which was published in 1884.


If he has no hat and jacket and if he were to wait until he received one he will miss davening with a minyan, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (Halichos Shlomo 2:15) ruled that the Mitzvah of Hechon – preparing oneself to stand before the King – does not set aside Tefillah b’Tzibbur – davening in a minyan. Likewise, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein Shlita ruled that he should daven without the hat and jacket (Chashukei Chemed Bechoros 44b).

However, Rav Zilberstein qualifies this ruling as only when it was on account of an accident. But one who purposefully goes somewhere, and he know that he will have to daven but does not take along his hat and jacket, he should not daven. The reason is that he is showing that he is mezalzel in the honor of Hashem. Rav Zilberstein explains that this was also the position of Rav Elyashiv zt”l.


Some people therefore argue that the Mishna Brurah only applies in a time and place when people wear formal dress. However, in modern times, no one greets the president of the United States while wearing a hat – so this would no longer apply. One of my Rebbeim zt”l counter-argued that if there was a law that one must keep their head covered, no one would be using a yarmulkah to fulfill this law. Since we do have such a law, it is proper to perform it while wearing a hat.


Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvos v’hanhagos Vol. IV #26) argues that even though in Israel it is common practice to stand before important people without a hat and jacket – this is irrelevant. He explains that they learned this practice from the other nations of the world who picked up the practice from the Communists. It is a communist ideal of everyone being absolutely equal that gave birth to the idea that one does not need to dress formally in front of important people.


On the other hand, Neil Steinberg claims that it was the actresses who started the trend – all the way back to the 1890’s.  Why?  It seems that the stages were in the middle, and they needed to take off the hats so that people could see all parts of the stage.  At least that is his theory.

There is another aspect that one must dress like a Ben Torah. Indeed, the Talmud in Brachos 6b tells us that Rabbi Yehudah would take care to ensure that he was always dressed fittingly before davening.


If Reuvain could have davened later in a minyan with a hat and jacket (and he normally does so) then it would seem that he should daven later. Although there is a concept called Zrizin Makdimin l’mitzvos, people who are fastidious jump to perform Mitzvos early, we do not see that this sets aside the Mitzvah of davening in proper attire.

As far as former Yeshiva students go, the Kaf HaChaim says it applies to everyone.  It is also true that people should try to dress like a ben Torah. Finally, the last question.  Was it Kennedy or the sixties or the communists, or the actresses?  For what it is worth, this author feels that it was a combination of the first three.

The Repercussions of the 1960’s on Frum People in Shuls Today. Origin of the "Black Hat." 1

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