Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1

If he is a man overwhelmed by poverty, you must not lie down with his pledge. You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah, and he will bless you, and you will be righteous before God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:12-13)

Semites, tomb of Knumhotep II, painted circa 1900 BCE

simlah (שִׂמְלַה) or salmah (שַׂלְמָה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak (two variant spellings).

The Torah assumes everyone has at least one simlah or salmah. At night one sleeps in a simlah instead of a sheet or blanket. By day one might wear it over other clothes to provide protection from cold, sun, rain, or blowing sand—or to dress formally in public. But a man takes off his simlah to do physical labor.

What does a simlah look like? Around 1900 B.C.E. a simlah was a single rectangular cloth wrapped around the body, leaving one shoulder bare.

Three men from Israel wearing simlahs over tunics; Assyrian relief, 850 BCE

By 640-610 BCE, when most scholars believe the book of Deuteronomy was written, a man’s simlah was an ample cloak or caftan. One common pattern was to sew two long rectangles of cloth together up the back, but leave the front open, and belt the whole thing with a sash.

Assyrian woman, 700 BCE

All we know about a woman’s simlah is that it looked different from a man’s, and that she wore a tunic under it. So far, archaeologists have found neither art nor text describing the clothing of women in Judah. But clothing styles might have imitated those in Assyria, the empire to which Judah paid tribute.

The simlah or salmah appears in five of the laws given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go out”). In the three laws under discussion in Part 1, the difference between justice and injustice hinges on whether a person gets to be home with his or her personal simlah.

  1. Uncompromising or compassionate?

You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah(Deuteronomy 24:13)

salmah appears in this excerpt from the passage opening this post as a typical item used by an impoverished man as security for a loan.

The poor had to repay loans with labor. One repayment method was to give a wife or child to the creditor as a temporary slave. Then that family member also served as security for the loan. Another method was for a man to work as a day-laborer for the lender. In this case, he generally gave the lender his simlah as a pledge; he not have any other item of value.

But the lender is obliged to return the cloak every night, so the borrower has something to sleep in.1 He may be impoverished, but he is still a human being with a right to protection from the elements. A minimum level of compassion is a legal part of the justice system.

The verse immediately before the rule about returning a poor man’s salmah at night declares:

If you make a loan to a poor person who gives you something as security, do not enter his house to seize it. Stay outside and let the debtor bring the pledge to you. (Deuteronomy 24:11-12)

And later in the Torah portion, a creditor is forbidden to take any garment belonging to a widow as a pledge.2

Considered together, these laws about pledges for loans assume that all citizens (including temporary slaves) are entitled not only to food, clothing, and shelter, but also to human dignity.

  1. Loot or person?

The requirement for granting human dignity to an impoverished citizen also applies to a woman forcibly brought into the country as a potential wife. The Torah portion Ki Teitzei opens with the instruction:

Women of Midian Led Captive by the Hebrews, by James Tissot

If you go out to battle against your enemies, and God, your God, gives [them] into your hand … and you see among the captives a shapely woman, and you desire her and you would take her as a wife, then you shall bring her inside your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails and remove the simlah of her captivity. And she shall stay in your house and cry for her father and mother for a month, and afterward you may justly come into her [have intercourse] and you may marry her as a wife. And if you do not like her, then you shall let her go free; you definitely may not sell her for silver, since you have violated her. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 21:10-14)

Female war captives are often raped, enslaved, and/or killed in the Torah. (For example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) However, this week’s portion prescribes a more humane treatment. The soldier who wants a captive as his concubine must treat her as a mourner; after all, she has lost her parents (either when they were killed or when she was forced to move to another country). He must give her food and shelter in his house as she goes through the rituals of head-shaving, fingernail-trimming, and weeping for a full month. Moreover, he must replace her simlah of captivity.

We can only guess the meaning of “simlah of captivity”. Maybe it is a torn and bloodied garment, the simlah she was wearing when the Israelite soldiers captured her town and dragged off the women. Or maybe she was stripped of her own clothing and given a cheap cloth to wrap herself in.

Either way, the change of clothing is important because when someone wears a captive’s garment, she is seen as a captive, a foreign slave. If she wears other clothing, she can be seen as a person, an individual who will either become a full-fledged wife or be set free.

  1. Finder or keeper?

The Torah portion Ki Teitzei also mentions a simlah as a lost and found item.

You shall not watch an ox or a lamb belonging to your brother [fellow man] going astray, and hide yourself from it; you must definitely return it to your brother.  And if your brother is not in your vicinity, and you do not know him, then you shall hold it inside your house, and it shall be with you until your brother inquires about it. Then you shall return it to him.  And thus you shall do for his donkey, and thus you shall do for his simlah, and thus you shall do for any lost item of your brother’s that goes astray and that you find.  You shall not dare to hide yourself!  (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

This law defends the right to personal property. If you find a stray farm animal or a simlah, you may neither keep it for yourself nor leave it abandoned. You must guard it until you can return it to the owner, even if you have to wait a long time.

Keeping a stray animal safe includes feeding it, though the Talmud notes that one can also use its labor until the owner shows up.3 I would argue that keeping a simlah safe includes not wearing it yourself. The practical reason would be to avoid tearing it or wearing it out. The psychological reason would be to avoid the appearance of theft or of impersonating the owner of the simlah. Garments are expensive in the Torah. Only kings and their chief advisors could afford large wardrobes. Anyone else might be recognized from a distance by their simlah. Just as you must respect the owner’s personal property, you must respect the owner’s identity and reputation.

These three examples of laws involving a simlah or salmah recognize the rights of people who are otherwise powerless: the impoverished, the war captive, the person who has lost something valuable. The other two examples in the portion Ki Teitzei, about cross-dressing and about a bride’s virginity, are more problematic. I will discuss them in next week’s post, along with the salmah in next week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo.

Meanwhile, may we all be inspired to extend the ethical principle of these three laws in Deuteronomy, and grant every human being the right to respect and dignity, as well as health and safety. May we view all people as if they are wearing their own inviolable simlah.

  1. An earlier version of this law is given in Exodus 22:24-26.
  2. Deuteronomy 24:17. Perhaps it would shame a woman to be seen outside wearing only a tunic, without a simlah.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 28b, which also says that the finder of an animal that does no productive work can be sold, and the money set aside to return to the owner whenever the owner is discovered.



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