“Do Clothes Make The Man?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, we learn about the four basic priestly vestments that were worn by all priests, and the special four additional vestments that only the High Priest wore.

The Torah, in Exodus 28:2, introduces the guidelines for the priestly vestments with flourishing verbiage: “V’ah’see’tah vig’day kodesh l’Aharon ah’chee’chah, l’chah’vohd ool’tif’ah’ret,” And you shall make sanctified vestments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for splendor.

The Ramban notes that, in order to inspire the people to honor the priests, the clothes that were worn by them were similar to clothes of royalty. On the other hand, the Sforno argues that the garments were primarily intended to enhance the glory of G-d, and only incidentally to lend splendor to the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). It was assumed that the tribes of Israel would respect the High Priest, and that he, in turn, would pray for the people since the names of the tribes were inscribed on the High Priest’s breastplate and on his shoulder stones.

The Malbim notes that, on the surface, the instructions of the Torah seem to apply to outer clothing that provide protection and warmth for those who wear them. But, says the Malbim, the instructions of the Torah are actually intended to prepare inner garments for the priests, to enable them to garb their souls and their minds, and ensure that positive behaviors and thoughts are the garments of the soul. The priests are, therefore, instructed to repair their souls and enhance their inner characteristics so that they will be a source of glory and pride.

The first primitive “garments” for humans were the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness in the Garden of Eden. As the Torah states (Genesis 3:7): “Vah’yit’p’roo ah’lay t’ay’nah, vah’yah’ah’soo lah’hem chah’goh’roht,” They then sewed fig leaves together and made for themselves belts.

However, the first true garments worn by humans were the handiwork of the Al-mighty Himself. This occurred immediately after G-d confronted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden for defying His orders, and informed them that they would no longer be immortal, and would now have to endure pain for their sinfulness. The Torah then states (Genesis 3:21): “Vah’yah’ahs Hashem Ehlokim l’Adam ool’eesh’toh koht’noht ohr, vah’yahl’bee’shaym,” And G-d made for Adam and his wife coats of skin and clothed them.

In truth, the rabbis note that, in G-d’s eyes, every Jewish person is a veritable priest. As the Bible states (Exodus 19:6): “V’ah’tem tee’h’yoo lee mahm’leh’cheht Kohanim v’goy kadosh,” You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In essence, all Jews are expected to serve G-d through prayer, the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. And just as the priests who served in the Temple service wore special vestments, so should every Jew be dressed in a special way, so that every Jew be clearly recognizable as a servant of G-d.

Jews are, therefore, instructed to wear special clothes, “kosher clothes,” if you will, prohibiting the wearing of wool and linen together in the same garment (see Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762-2002 ). Men are also expected to wear special clothes in order to perform mitzvot, such as tzitziot (fringes). And, finally, Jews are expected to dress modestly, to refrain from following the latest styles, especially immodest and sexually suggestive clothes, that reduce the inner sanctity of the human being.

In Judaism, clothes are not only designed to provide protection from outside elements, such as heat, cold, rain and snow. As the Malbim argues, human clothes are intended to provide inner, spiritual protection as well. Hence, the Torah’s emphasis on the priestly garments and their prominence, since they play a key role in the service of G-d.

At times, garments also serve to protect the wearer from the schemes of others, who see a modestly dressed person and quickly lose interest. Clothes sometimes protect the wearer because they “prevent” them from visiting non-kosher eateries or places that are inappropriate for a person dressed as an observant Jew.

To underscore the power of clothes, our rabbis even devised a clever play on words, citing the verse that states that G-d dressed the first human beings in “koht’noht ohr,” in leather clothes. The rabbis suggest that when the Hebrew letter “ayin” in the word “ohr” (skin) is written with “aleph,” the new word means light. Clothes, therefore, can light the way for those who wear them, or provide light to others.

Surely, it is no coincidence that the Torah describes the first set of human clothes as a gift from G-d. After all, clothes truly are a reflection of the Divine.

May you be blessed.