“Clothes: A Reflection of the Divine Image”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Tetzaveh, we read of the big’dei k’huna, the priestly garments, with very precise descriptions concerning the garments and their manufacture.

The priests could perform the service in the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash only when they were wearing the garments. The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, usually wore eight garments, sometimes called Big’dei Zahav, gold vestments, since some of the materials contained gold, whereas the ordinary kohanim wore only four, mostly linen, vestments. The lay priest’s four garments consisted of: (1) The ku’tonet, a robe made of white linen with a checkerboard design on it. The white, of course, represented purity, and stood for the kohain‘s opposition to social transgressions and murder. (2) A second garment worn by the kohain was the av’nait, which was a belt made of multi-colored woven threads. The belt was worn to separate between the upper part of the kohain‘s body and the lower part of his body, to place a “barrier” between the heart and the mind and the sexual organs, and stood for opposition to alien thoughts, especially during prayer. (3) Both the lay priest and the High Priest wore a hat, a mitz’neh’fet. Made of a long linen ribbon, the High Priest’s hat was designed to be a little more elaborate than the lay priest’s, and according to the commentators the hat represented opposition to conceit. (4) Mentioned briefly are the pants, the mich’na’sa’yim, which the priests wore. They were more like britches, covering the torso and reaching to the knees, representing sexual modesty.

The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional garments: (1) On top of the robe, he wore a meh’eel, a poncho-like garment, made of t’chei’let, blue thread. On the bottom of the meh’eel was a series of pomegranates and bells, both woven and made of metal. The meh’eel represented the mantel of duty for those who serve the Holy Nation. The bells would tinkle as the Kohain Gadol walked, representing the Kohain Gadol’s opposition to gossip and loshon hara. (2) On top of this meh’eel, the Kohain Gadol wore an ay’fod, an apron with shoulder straps onto which was attached the cho’shen, the breastplate. The ay’fod was similar in appearance to a garment which was commonly used by idolaters, but in this instance it represents the priest’s fierce opposition to idolatry, and the Jewish people’s dedication to holiness . (3) The cho’shen the breastplate, woven of threads of many colors, had four rows of three precious stones set in to it, one stone representing each tribe. There were letters etched on the stones, and, according to tradition, the High Priest was able to receive messages from G-d concerning the People of Israel by having the letters light up. Tradition maintains that inside the cho’shen, was the Urim V’tumim, the sacred name of G-d, which gave the breastplate its great power. The breastplate is generally considered to represent the firm commitment to law and legalism in Judaism. (4) The final, eighth garment that the High Priest wore was the tzi’tz, a gold plate that the priest wore on his forehead. This gold plate had the words Kodesh L’Hashem, Holy unto G-d, inscribed on it. The tzi’tz represented the priest’s opposition to azut panim, obstinance, and firm commitment to service of G-d.

The materials with which the garments were manufactured were also unusually symbolic. The colored garments were manufactured of four threads, each of which had six strands. The white linen represented purity. The wool dyed purple, ar’ga’mam, represented royalty. The to’laat sha’nee, the wool dyed crimson, represented the animal world since the color came from the blood of a worm. The wool dyed blue, t’cheilet, represented the heavens. So we see that we have the animal and vegetable world represented. There was also a 25th strand, of gold, a substance which is found pure in nature, and represented the mineral world.

The rabbis tell us that B’zman sheh’big’dei’hem a’lay’hem, k’hu’natam a’lay’hem, as long as the garments were on the priests, their priesthood was on them. If they were not in their garments, however, then their priesthood was not on them-– essentially defrocked. Just as representatives of royalty wear royal garments, so these garments, in effect, represent the royalty of the priesthood. They serve to enhance the dignity and prestige of the priests in the eyes of the people.

Clothes have played an important role in Judaism and in Jewish history. Just think for a moment how important clothes were in the life of Joseph: the coat of many colors, the cloak that Mrs. Potiphar tried to rip off him, the royal garments that he wore.

Attentive students of the Bible should realize that clothes are extraordinarily important. The commentator Benno Jacob points out that all the accessories of the early human beings were self-discovered–fire, the wheel, but not clothes. We are told, Genesis 3:21: Va’yaas Hashem Ehlokim la’adam ul’eesh’to kut’not ohr, va’yal’beeshaim, And the Lord G-d made for the human being and his wife leather robes and he dressed them. Clothes distinguished the human being from the beasts. The human being, who was created in the image of G-d, cannot suffice in the natural created state. Humans must raise themselves above the other creatures, and it is with clothes that the human being is ordained as the priest in the “Sanctuary of Nature.”

We know that in society today clothes reflect the person. The chef, the butcher, and the baker all have unique uniforms. The student in school, the plumber, the taxi driver, the basketball player dress in a particular manner. Often priests, rabbis and Moslem clerics have unique dress. We have the formal clothes of the tuxedo and the elegant evening gown, and the informal dress-down days of sweaters and slacks. We have the hat of the policeman, the fireman and the naval captain, the shoes of the marathon runner, the boots of the fisherman, and the footwear of the construction worker. We have turtlenecks and strapless. We have saris and bikinis. All these fashions represent the personality and the function of the wearer.

As Benno Jacob writes so insightfully in his commentary on Genesis:

“Clothing is not merely against cold or ornamentative. It constitutes the primary and necessary distinguishing mark of human society. In the moral consciousness of the human being, it serves to set that human being higher than the beast….clothing is a symbol of human dignity, nakedness the essence of the beast. The nakedness of the human being symbolizes immorality.

“The fact that the Lord Himself gave Adam and Eve garments and clothed them, indicates that clothing is not just a societal convention, but an extension of the work of creation, a kind of second skin given to the human being, a nobler material encasement.”

In her commentary, Nechama Leibowitz summarizes Benno Jacobs’ position, arguing that G-d clothed the man and the woman as if, through that act, to consecrate them as the parents of human society. The human being, argues Leibowitz, who was created in the Divine image, must strive to raise himself/herself higher and higher and not be content with what nature has endowed. The human being, the priest in the “Temple of Nature,” by donning the garments, shows that those garments symbolize that the human being is investing himself with good moral qualities.

Who would ever imagine that a few pieces of clothing could have so much meaning?

May you be blessed.