On any given weekday, walk into just about any Hasidic synagogue, and you’ll see a rabbi bending over a lectern, dressed in a well-pressed sports jacket for shacharit (morning) prayers. His jacket has been scrupulously tested for shatnez and deemed kosher to wear, but something still seems off — his black buttons are twisted so that the right side overlaps the left. The result? It comes across as sloppy. But in fact, the way he has fastened his jacket is purposefully Hasidic — not haphazard.
Just like women, most Hasidic men button their jackets, shirts, and rekels (long frock coat) with the right side over the left, but it’s not to emulate female clothing styles or to hop on the unisex fashion bandwagon.
Those who can afford bespoke tailoring with buttons on the left side do so, but it can get pricey pretty quickly for a man to move the buttons on all his store-bought clothing. For weekday dressing, most men make do with what they have, implementing special tricks for buttoning, while others splash out on cheap and cheerful factory-made options in the Hasidic-owned shops and stalls that dot many observant neighborhoods.
Although there isn’t any one agreed-upon reasoning behind the custom of fastening right over left, there are several explanations that are regularly cited by those who choose to follow the tradition. The first (big surprise — it’s Judaism!) is rooted in text. The Torah repeatedly cites a partiality for the right side of the body, or actions that are initiated on the right — one of these being dressing the right side of the body first, from socks and shoes to the sleeve of a shirt.
In addition, popular Kabbalistic teachings offer related justification for the custom, with the right side of the body being associated with chesed (kindness) and the left side corresponding to gevurah (judgement), and the placing of right over left when fastening garments to suggest a upright character that prioritizes goodness over might. Leave it to the Jews to find a way to make the act of buttoning — a seemingly mindless ritual — into a spiritually demanding deed.
Danna Lorch is an American arts & culture writer based in Boston. She recently relocated back to the US after seven years spent covering the emerging art, fashion, and design scene in Dubai. Recent work has appeared in Vogue Arabia, Architectural Digest Middle East, L’Officiel USA, ARTnews and elsewhere. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard and is interested in the intersection of art, fashion, and faith. Find her on Instagram and Twitter