“Clothes Make the Person”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, we read about the priestly vestments–the clothes that the kohanim wore when they served in the Temple.

Every priest in the Temple was required to wear four basic garments while performing the service: mich’nah’sah’yim, pants or britches, a koo’toe’net, a linen robe, a mitz’nefet, a mitre–a linen ribbon wound around the priest’s head to form a hat, and an ahv’nayt, a belt woven of many colored threads. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional garments. On top of the robe he wore a m’eel, a poncho-like garment entirely of blue wool. At the bottom hung golden bells and pomegranates made of multi-colored woolen threads. On top of the m’eel, the High Priest wore an ay’phod, an apron-shaped garment with shoulder straps connected to the choh’shen, the breastplate. The final item of the High Priest’s attire was the tzitz, a gold plate, which was fastened to the forehead of the High Priest and was inscribed with the words “Kodesh La’Ha-shem,” Holy unto G-d.

The Talmud in Zevachim 17b, tells us, “Biz’man sheh’big’day’hem ah’ley’hem, k’hoo’nah’tam ah’ley’hem,” as long as the priests were clothed in their garments, their priesthood was upon them. Without these garments however, they were not permitted to perform priestly duties in the Temple.

The aforementioned rule is a bit surprising. We would expect the Torah to value the inner character of a person far more than a person’s external garments. There are, after all, many who dress in the finest and most expensive clothes and are far from noble. Likewise, there are paupers, covered with rags, who exude goodness and nobility.

Long before the wise men of the world suggested that we not judge a book by its cover, our rabbis in Avot 4:27 taught, “Ahl tis’takel bah’kan’kan, eh’lah b’mah’ sheh’yaysh boh,” Look not at the outside of the vessel, but rather at what is in the vessel. Jewish tradition has long valued the inner spirit of a person over the often false externalities.

Why then is a priest not only judged, but actually empowered, by his outer accouterments? The difference perhaps lies in the fact that priests play the role of public functionaries. They are out to impress people. Priests who want their words to be heard and their messages heeded must make every effort to present themselves properly and attractively. And clothes do impress the masses!

While we may not relish the fact that people judge others on the basis of external appearances, the reality is that they often do. Those who have an important mission to fulfill frequently find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having no choice but to play a public role. These roles often place people in the unenviable position of trying to effectively communicate an important message, without compromising their inner values.

Sadly, our society is riddled with values that are often false. Overweight people find it hard to get dates, or to find jobs. Audiences find it hard to listen to stutterers, although the lessons they articulate may be extraordinarily valuable. We frequently purchase garments that are of lesser quality, only because they are the latest design. This “fashionable” clothing may often be much more costly, and of far less value than last year’s garments.

Performing in the public spotlight is far different than private behavior. Public figures are frequently judged harshly. The Talmud in Shabbat 114a says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan “Kohl tal’meed chah’cham sheh’nim’tzah rih’vav ahl big’doh, chah’yav mee’tah,” A scholar who has a stain on his clothes is worthy of death. A Torah scholar is expected to be dressed neatly and properly because his outer appearance reflects on the Torah that he represents.

If some of this appears to be rather arbitrary, it is–and it will be getting worse before it gets better. This is especially true in instances where clothes are worn that make a political or religious statement. Muslim women who wear chadors are often denigrated by westerners who find these face coverings rather unseemly. In the Jewish world, men who wear black hats and black suits are immediately pegged as chareidi or yeshivish, and are often regarded as unlearned and uninformed in the ways of the world. Wearing a kippah serugah, a knitted yarmulka, as opposed to a black velvet yarmulka, also brands a person as part of a particular religious stream. Would a chareidi or chasidic synagogue consider hiring a rabbi who sports a knitted yarmulka?

All these are questions that we seem to be facing more and more frequently today. How are we to prevent ourselves from acting in an arbitrary and judgmental manner toward other people and particularly about the way they dress? First, we must be certain to give all people a chance to prove themselves for who they are. Then, perhaps by examining the laws of the vestments of the High Priest more carefully, we will recognize their profound sagacity and wisdom. We may not find solutions to all our dilemmas, but we will certainly find many valuable insights that will help us deal with these challenges as they arise in our daily lives.

May you be blessed.