In this week’s Parashat Tetzaveh, we read about the special garments worn by the Kohanim (Priests) when serving in the Tabernacle. It is clear that these vestments were designed to make their wearers feel special, unique and holy. Consider the underlined phrases below:
1: Moses is instructed to consecrate Aaron and his sons by dressing them in special priestly garments.
2: The Torah describes the making of the High Priest’s ephod – a reversed apron which covered the back – and its precious-stone-studded shoulder straps.
3: The High Priest’s Choshen Mishpat – Breastplate of Judgment – contained four rows of precious stones.
4: The me’il was a blue robe that was adorned with golden bells and cloth pomegranates.
5: The tzitz was a golden band worn on the forehead, which was engraved with the words “Holy to God.”
6: As Aaron and his sons were brought to the door of the sanctuary, they were immersed in a mikvah (ritual pool), then dressed in the priestly garments.
“Clothes make the man (and woman),” the old saying goes. Many pieces of clothing carry a symbolic meaning. For example, the robe of a judge signifies justice, an expensive suit signifies power and a white lab coat signifies a scientific focus. Well, clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing tells us more about a person, or makes a greater first impression, than how one is dressed. It is remarkable that our entire character can be summed up by someone who does not know us – simply by how we are dressed (or are over or underdressed). Polonious in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 3) proclaims, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
It may be challenging to understand the commandments regarding the garments of the Kohanim. Judaism typically focuses on our inner qualities, and frowns on such outward materialism as clothing. So how then are we to discern the underlying meanings of these instructions?
It seems that the Torah is reminding us that clothing helps to identify the role in which we serve. Aaron is well-respected and loved among the Israelites and thus “should” be outfitted as would be appropriate for a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest. The holy garments added dignity and honor to his special services. In a way, this can be considered as a “hiddur mitzvah” – enhancing the fulfillment of a mitzvah. This is why we say kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both fulfill the requirement of the mitzvah, but by adding beauty, we add to the holiness of the act. Add to this concept wearing a nicely embroidered kippah, donning shiny black tefillin, wrapping ourselves with a tallit, etc.
Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for kavod (glory) and tiferet (splendor) is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God. He writes that in kabbalistic teachings, kavod and tiferet are understood as emanating characteristics of God.
And so, through these specialized garments, a special relationship with God is established, thus reflecting God’s presence among the people. Ramban adds that the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and reflected on the outside with his clothing.
A golden crown and royal garments help command respect for a king or queen, and the position they hold among their subjects. Similarly, bigdei kodesh (holy garments) enhance both the ones who wear them, and the God whom they serve. Wearing the holy vestments, the Kohanim were constantly reminded of their special role and the holiness of their calling.
We must remember, however, that the bigdei kodesh are merely symbols, emblematic representations – traditional insignia if you will. Bigdei kodesh are only holy when they cover an ish kodesh – a holy person. To be an ish kodesh one does not need to be a Kohen. We all possess an ability to become holy; perhaps we just need to learn how to dress and act the part!
ETHAN ADLER is rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett.