Kids Corner

Moses Maimonides


Sardar Baltej Singh



When Jews Wore Turbans

by E.L. SEGAL [The Jewish Star]

It would seem that most Canadian Jews were pleased with the Supreme Court of Canada decision, a few years ago, upholding the Sikhs' right to wear turbans in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ("RCMP"). After all, many of us also have vested interests in keeping our heads covered as part of our own traditional religious observances. A skull-cap is of course easier to accommodate than a turban, as it may be discreetly placed underneath a Mountie hat.

But some of our ancestors were also turban-wearers. As with many items in Jewish history, this fact continues to affect us in some surprising ways.

To take a rather simple example: the daily prayers recited by observant Jews include a benediction praising God "Who crowns Israel with glory."

Though the common practice currently is to recite this blessing in the synagogue, the original custom was to say it as one was getting dressed. The Talmud says clearly that one was to say it while wrapping the turban around his head. In fact, the commentators make a special point of noting that it is appropriate to make the blessing over other types of headgear as well...

Newcomers to Hebrew have to learn that the Hebrew word for "to wear" (labash) can be used for most garments, but a different verb must be used to indicate the wearing of a hat: habash. The verb actually means "to wrap" (and is the root of the word for "bandage", for example). Its origin dates back to a time when the only thing a well-dressed Jew would be likely to be wearing on his head was a turban, a long piece of cloth that would have to be wrapped around the head.

It appears that among the Jews of Babylonia, the turban was felt to have special spiritual efficacy. It is told of one rabbi for whom the astrologers had foretold a life of crime, that as a counter-measure his mother insisted on his wearing a turban at all times. Once during his childhood, when it accidentally unraveled, he found himself unable to resist the temptation to take a bite at someone else's dates.

In general it seems that the turban was viewed as the distinctive mark of Torah scholars, who saw their wearing such a head-covering as a sign of special piety.

With the rise of Islam, the turban came to be considered the "crown of the Arabs" and the "badge of Islam." The honorable status that attached to the wearing of a turban created problems for the Jews of Muslim lands.

Officially, Jews were considered a tolerated minority (dhimmis) whose social inferiority was to be enforced by law. In the 17th Century "Pact of Omar," which defined the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, the Jews and Christians agreed "not to attempt to resemble the Muslims in any way with regard to their dress, as for example with the...turban..."

As with similar dress restrictions that were often imposed upon their brethren in Christian Europe, this kind of law would often prove difficult to enforce, since Jews frequently developed amicable personal relationships with individual Muslims. The official authorities often responded to such social mingling by insisting that the Jews don identifiable apparel that would visibly indicate their inferior social position.

The Jewish turbans became a frequent target of Muslim reformist zeal. At times Jews were required to wear distinguishing marks on their turbans; on other occasions a limit would be set to the length of winding cloth that could be used for the turban (10 ells maximum, according to a decree of the Mamluk Sultan al-Malik al-Salih in 1354). The 16th century Sultan Murad III forbade the Jews altogether from wearing turbans.

Historians take the view that the frequency with which such regulations had to be repeated indicates how ineffective they probably were in real life.

Perhaps the most familiar turban in Jewish tradition topped the head of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the noted 12th-century rabbi and philosopher. The same traditional portrait of Maimonides' stern, bearded visage has been appearing on the title pages of his works since the beginnings of Jewish printing.

In spite of the portrait's widespread acceptance, it has always seemed to me somewhat suspicious. It did not appear until many centuries after the Egyptian sage's lifetime, and it is doubtful that such a picture would have been commissioned by Maimonides himself, who shared his society's rigid disapproval of representational art.

My suspicions seemed to be confirmed a few years back when I visited Jerusalem's L. A. Meyer Museum of Islamic Culture. There among the many fascinating artifacts was sitting a copy of the familiar portrait of Maimonides--except that according to the caption on the exhibit, it was a 16th century Turkish merchant!

It would seem that the early Hebrew printers in Venice or Constantinople, eager to supply their readers with a tangible likeness of the Egyptian Jewish scholar, had simply pulled out an available piece of "clip art" that conveyed a rough image, of what he might have looked like. That picture has defined our conception of Maimonides ever since.

And to think: If he were among us now, he could join the RCMP...

[Courtesy: The Jewish Star]

[Images:  Top of this page  -  Detail from portrait of Rabbi Maimonides, by Peter Kovachev. Bottom image, and Thumbnail  -Photo of  Sgt. Baltej Singh of the RCMP.]

Conversation about this article

1: roopinder (surrey), March 24, 2007, 4:01 PM.

my understanding was that all the semitic prophets wore turbans and i am glad that e.l. segal acknowledges this.

2: R.G. (Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada), February 09, 2009, 4:08 PM.

I never knew how similar the religous symbolism of the turban was between the Sikh and Jewish faiths. This is something the schools should be teaching children. So children realize how similar we are, even though we may dress differently.

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