When Rabbis Wore Dog Collars

Rabbi Raymond Apple, former minister of Hampstead and Sydney's Great Synagogue, recalls the days when Orthodox rabbis sported canonicals in this extract from his memoirs

January 10, 2011

To Be Continued
Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
MandelbaumPublishing, Australia, £16 (plus postage)

They sent me to a clerical outfitter in London's West End to get a ministerial cap and gown. Now I could look the part when I stood in front of a congregation, though some of my fellow students suspected that there was sha'atnez in the robes supplied by this particular shop.

There was a Sha'atnez Research Laboratory to which suspect garments cojld be sent (charge: ten and sixpence for making the checks), but in those circles caps and gowns were already highly suspect from an ideological point of view.

Being young and clean-shaven, I also ordered a clerical collar (we called them dog collars) in order to visit hospitals without having to prove my credentials every time. Many senior rabbis including the Chief used such collars; it was said that one or two wore them to bed, maybe because these collars were so hard to do up and undo.

A chazzan I knew burst his collar stud every Friday night when he reached a high note at the end of L'chah Dodi. One day when I was in a hurry to meet my fiancée at Piccadilly Circus I had no time to replace my dog collar with an ordinary one leaving a hospital I had been visiting, and Marian was not impressed.

To officiate outside the synagogue I took my cap and gown (aka canonicals) with me. Any other way I would be regimentally undressed. The kit came with me to Sydney, though there the weather required lightweight garb. I had the uncharitable view that some of the rabbis were lightweights, but they didn't wear caps and gowns anyway.

I never agreed with the view that canonicals were Chukkat Hagoy, aping the gentiles, After all, the Temple in Jerusalem had priestly canonicals, and histories of Jewish costume depict rabbinical garb of many centuries. If academics, professionals and the military can wear distinctive garb, then why not rabbis? Note the Sephardi Chief Rabbis of Israel have gorgeous robes, and Charedi rabbis have distinctive kapotes.

In Hampstead, the chazzan and I wore dog collars with our caps and gowns on Shabbat and festivals. We abandoned the dog collar on Friday nights but attendance was so poor that no one noticed. We gave up the collar for good from first day Pesach and found the shul full of mutterings, not of prayer, but amazement at ministerial effrontery. That summer was hot and the man who was painting our house complained that his neck was getting burnt. I said, "I have just the thing for you", and I never saw my dog collar again.

I wore canonicals in Sydney throughout my years there, though for state occasions outside the synagogue, I put on the ultimate Jewish uniform – a big tallit. I left my black canonicals in Australia. I still have my High Holyday white cap and gown but as a back-bencher I now use a kittel. When I glance at the portrait of myself in white canonicals that hangs at the Great Synagogue with a copy in our home in Jerusalem, I not only see the canonicals but the look on my face that says, "What do you want of my life?" For that portrait I did not wear black robes because the artist, Robert Hannaford, said they made me look like a magpie.

Last updated: 10:19am, January 13 2011