Rabbis in Top Hats: An Early 20th Century Cultural Phenomenon


Why did so many Orthodox rabbis wear top hats?

Rabbi S. M. Silber, who led Kenesseth Israel during the first part of the century.

Rabbis Papermaster, Silber, and Hurvitz were all trained in Lithuanian Yeshivot, where no one wore such headgear. It seems funny to us to see the rabbis wearing top hats because today most of us equate top hats with comic-book plutocrats.

The Building Committee of Kenesseth Israel celebrating the completion of their synagogue on 6th and Lyndale in 1913. Rabbi Silber is in the front, middle.

To the rabbis, and to the building committee of Kenesseth Israel wearing a top hat was a way of signaling that they understood and were comfortable with American clothing styles. Perhaps more important, the hat signified that the wearer had achieved great status.

Rabbis owned their top hats and wore them to important events. The building committee probably rented theirs.

Americanization, however, went just so far: Note that the men in the photos were not yet ready to shave their beards and mustaches.