How should I dress for a Zoom synagogue service?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: What is the religious etiquette when I am at home watching a live-streaming of a service. For instance, can I have a cup of coffee during the service or still be in my indoor slippers?

Rabbi Brawer: Years ago, I was in a synagogue where an altercation took place over the dress code of a prospective prayer leader. It was a Friday afternoon on a hot summer’s day and the individual who was about to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service was attired in shorts and sandals. 

Some in the congregation took strong acceptation to what they thought was an unsuitable dress code for a prayer leader. In the shouting match that ensued, the shorts and sandal wearer defended himself on theological grounds: “God will listen to me any old way!” he asserted.

I, for one, was convinced by his argument. Why should it matter to God how one is attired? 

The truth is that from God’s perspective it does not matter. But it matters greatly from our perspective. What we wear affects the way we think and feel. It is for this reason that a particular dress code is expected when, say, attending a wedding or a formal event. A wedding would just not feel the same if guests were sitting in tracksuits and sneakers. 

There is an evocative verse in Amos (4:2) that states “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” It from this verse that the rabbis determined one must be sartorially prepared before encountering God in prayer. 

So, what specifically is considered halachically acceptable attire?

The Shulchan Aruch list several critical details (Orach Hayim 91). They include not praying bare-chested and if one finds oneself in a culture where it would not be acceptable to take an important meeting bare-legged, one mustn’t pray with uncovered legs. 

The rule of thumb is that one should avoid in prayer, any mode of dress one would not be found in when meeting an important person. This of course is culturally relative and so, for example, wearing Bermuda shorts in Bermuda would be halachically acceptable, while it might not be acceptable in London. 

When praying at home, the same framework applies. It could be argued that one should make an extra effort to dress carefully and appropriately when praying at home to compensate for the absence of other factors that add to the ambience of prayer in a synagogue.  

I would add that one should, to the best of their ability, ensure that the home prayer space be set out to facilitate quiet and dignified contemplation. If the weather permits, I highly recommend praying outdoors where the sights, sounds and smells of nature positively can contribute to a most uplifting prayer experience. 

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: This is a great example of why Jewish law constantly needs updating, as situations never envisaged arise and require a response. It also means that we have to both refer to what tradition says and (because tradition was not designed for unforeseen events) use modern thinking, marrying the wisdom of the past with the reality of today.

It is noticeable that the question does not specify when the service is taking place. For Orthodox Jews it could only be midweek, as turning on a computer is forbidden on Shabbat, being designated as a form of “work”. 

For Reform and Liberal Jews, live-streamed prayers could well take place on Shabbat, for we would argue that such a definition of work is no longer appropriate; on the contrary, watching a service online is a religious act and it enhances Shabbat, not detracts from it.

I appreciate that Orthodox rabbis have to operate within certain parameters, but I do wonder why, in these extraordinary circumstances, they have not allowed live-streaming if the computer is turned on and pre-set before Shabbat. 

But whatever day of the week you are attending an online service, two issues arise: first, getting yourself in the right mood, so that you create an atmosphere conducive to prayer, as distinct from all the other reasons you use the computer, be they business or leisure pursuits.

Secondly — especially if it is via Zoom, Teams and other platforms by which you can see fellow attendees, as opposed to a webinar, where you only see the prayer leader — to consider their needs and not appear in an off-putting or discourteous way. 

This includes munching food or wearing a dressing gown, which you would not do if you were actually in synagogue.

Suggestions are: put your computer in a room that is calm and tidy (rather than messy or a through room); put a white cloth on the table; add a vase of flowers; ensure you are facing a pleasant view, not something annoying or distracting; turn off the phone.

Put on clothes you would have worn had you come to synagogue; wear a kippah and tallit as you would do normally. If you are watching with someone else, act as if you are in synagogue and do not chat during the service; sit in an upright chair rather than a sofa or armchair, so you feel more engaged (and look less sloppy).

Now daven away happily.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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