I was once praying in an Ashkenazi shul in the United States. That morning, the person who had been chosen to be the shaliach tzibbur was wearing knee-length khaki shorts. The congregants in that particular shul were very liberal and accepting, and no one seemed to have a problem with his attire or lack thereof.
However, a few minutes after the prayers had begun, a Sephardi congregant walked in. This man, a product of a different generation and culture, saw the prayer leader wearing shorts, and he was furious. He vociferously protested what was going on, but his pleas were disregarded by the rabbi and the other congregants.
After tefillah, the angry congregant came up to me with the following reproof: “Rabbi, how could you let that man pray? This is a shul, and that man was dressed like he was on the beach!”
Let us not allow this man’s passions to go for naught, and try to understand the proper attire for prayer.
Chazal tell us, “One may not recite Shemoneh Esrei until he covers his chest” (Berachos 24b). During tefillah, one must view himself as if he were standing and speaking before a king. Therefore, he may not dress in a disrespectful manner (Rashi, ibid.).
From the Gemara, it would seem that it is sufficient to cover one’s chest. However, no sane person would stand in front of a distinguished person not fully clothed. Therefore, the halachah is that one must have his arms and legs covered when praying Shemoneh Esrei (Bach 91,3).
Even someone who regularly wears shorts should make every effort to put on pants that cover his legs entirely, for tefillah. In very hot climates where men regularly wear shorts, a person who always wears shorts should consult with his rav (see Responsa Hillel Omer 29). If he is serving as the shaliach tzibbur, as in the incident described above, it is forbidden to pray in shorts (Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as cited in Halichos Shlomo 2,15).
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org