Q. Why do some synagogue presidents – such as in the Great Synagogue – still wear top hats (tzylinders) during Shabbat and festival services?A. A historic people such as ours always tends to cling to old habits – and old hats. The 18th century tricorn was retained by English synagogue officiants well into the 19th century. It was replaced in Ashkenazi congregations by what a contemporary observer called “a species of cap”. This was one of the effects of the arrival in London of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, who regularised the canonical garb of ministers and readers in order to enhance the dignity of the service. The Sefardim, some time later, replaced the tricorn by the top hat.
The late Raphael de Sola, a Sefardi champion of correct dress and headgear, explained the adoption of the top hat by synagogue officials thus:
“It is said that on a Shabbat afternoon one very hot summer’s day, during the latter part of the last (i.e. 19th) century, the Chazan, who was robing prior to reading Minchah at Bevis Marks, thought that the wig was too uncomfortable to wear in such hot weather: and being in a temper as a result of the weather, threw the wig out of the window into Heneage Lane.
“This reverend gentleman, however, found that his three-cornered hat, made to fit over a wig, was far too large, so he was obliged to officiate in his ordinary silk hat; and this was the origin of our clergy’s wearing the hat that they do today.”
Haham Moses Gaster did not wear a top hat but a high velvet cap. Haham Solomon Gaon wore a top hat, to which he had become accustomed as a chazan.
English congregants, both Ashkenazi and Sefardi, wore the 19th century top hat in Shule as they did in the street. The tzylinder was widespread in continental Europe, too, until the Holocaust destroyed synagogues, congregations and historic traditions.
As hat styles changed, the synagogal top hat was seen less and less, and in England was maintained only by the honorary officers and, in some places, the shammas.
But on great occasions like Kol Nidre night and Yom Kippur there were still some congregants who, even in recent decades, wore top hats. The London Sefardi synagogues, however, continue to see a sprinkling of toppers, and the synagogue maintains a special room surrounded by shelves of hat boxes which contain the top hats of congregants living and (in some cases) long dead.
Those who mock the pomp and ceremony of the old Anglo-Jewry, including its top hat penchant, are not entirely wrong. The outward show was ometimes empty and the head that so proudly wore the top hat did not always worry about tefillin, Torah study, Shabbat or kashrut. But Judaism believes in not appearing before God in slovenly or disrespectful fashion, and dressing up for synagogue does symbolise dignity and awe in the present of the Almighty.
Nor should anyone scoff at top hats as goyish and assimilatory. Supposedly Jewish styles like the shtreimel and kapote (and the sheitel) are also imitations and survivals of the usages of the non-Jewish gentry in the eastern Europe of a past age.
In Australia the colonial cringe has gone, and so, in most places, has the formal wear. Only two out of about a hundred Australian synagogues maintain the old style: one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. How long they will maintain the top hats no one can be certain. It may be that one day in the height of the hot Australian summer an exasperated synagogue president will throw his top hat out of the window and sit in Shule in his yarmulke. (But I cannot be certain; a top hat is an expensive investment!)