“Clothes: A Reflection of the Divine Image
(Revised and updated from Tetzaveh 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Tetzaveh, we read of the בִּגְדֵי כְּהֻנָּה , bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, and the many precise descriptions concerning the garments and their manufacture.

The priests could perform the service in the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, and the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁBeit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, only when they were wearing the garments. The כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל –Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, usually wore eight garments, sometimes called בִּגְדֵי זָהָב –Bigdei 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 כְּתֹנֶת —k’tonet, a robe made of white linen with a checkerboard design. The white, of course, represented purity, and stood for the priest’s opposition to social transgressions and murder. (2) A second garment worn by the kohain was the אַבְנֵטavnet, 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 head covering, made of a long linen ribbon. The High Priest’s hat, known as a מִצְנֶפֶתmitznefet, was designed to be a little more elaborate than the lay priest’s hat, מִגְבַּעַתmig’baat. According to the commentators, the hat represented opposition to conceit. (4) Mentioned briefly are the pants, the מִכְנָסַיִם –michnasayim, which the priests wore. They were very much like britches, covering the torso and reaching to the knees, and represented sexual modesty.

The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional garments: (1) On top of the robe, he wore a מֽעִילmeh’eel, a poncho-like garment, made of תְּכֵלֶתt’cheilet, sky blue thread. On the bottom of the meh’eel was a series of alternating pomegranates and bells, both woven and made of metal. The meh’eel represented the mantle of duty for those who serve the Holy Nation. The bells would tinkle as the High Priest walked, representing the Kohain Gadol’s opposition to gossip and לְשׁוֹן הָרָעLashon Harah, evil speech(2) On top of the meh’eel, the Kohain Gadol wore an אֵפוֹדay’fod, an apron-like garment with shoulder straps onto which was attached the חֹשֶׁןcho’shen, the breastplate. The ay’fod was similar in appearance to a garment which was commonly used by idolaters, but in this instance it represented 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 into it, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes. Letters were 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 אוּרִים וְתֻמִּיםUrim V’tumim, the sacred name of G-d, which gave the breastplate its spiritual 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 צִיץ tzitz, a rectangular gold plate that the priest affixed to his forehead. This gold plate had the words קֹדֶשׁ לְהשׁם –Kodesh la’Shem, Holy unto G-d, inscribed on it. The tzitz represented the priest’s opposition to עַזּוּת פָּנִיםazut panim, obstinacy, and firm commitment to the 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, אַרְגָּמָן –argaman represented royalty. The תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִיtola’at shani, 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 both the animal and vegetable worlds represented. To each of the four colored threads was added a single thread of gold, a substance which is found pure in nature, and represented the mineral world.

The rabbis tell us (Talmud, Z’vachim 17b) that בִּזְמָן שֶׁבִּגְדֵיהֶם עֲלֵיהֶם – כְּהוּנָתָם עֲלֵיהֶם , 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 and they were rendered ineligible to serve. Just as representatives of royalty wear royal garments, so do these garments, in effect, represent the royalty of the priesthood, and 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. Recall how important clothes were in the life of Joseph: the coat of many colors, the cloak that Mrs. Potiphar tried to remove from him, and the royal garments that he eventually wore.

Attentive students of the Bible 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: וַיַּעַשׂ השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר, וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם , 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, created in the image of G-d, cannot suffice in his 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, each dress in their own particular manner. Often priests, rabbis and Muslim clerics have special dress or uniforms. Formal clothes consist of the tuxedo and the elegant evening gown, while the informal, so-called “dress-down” garments are often sweaters and slacks. We quickly recognize the hat of the police officer, the firefighter and the naval captain, the shoes of the marathon runner, the boots of the fisherman, and the footwear of the construction worker. We have less-revealing turtleneck sweaters and saris, and more-revealing strapless gowns and bikinis. All these fashions reflect the personality, the function of, and, at times, the values 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 the 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 L-rd 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, Nehama Leibowitz, summarizes Benno Jacobs’ position, arguing that G-d clothed the man and the woman as if, through that act, He consecrated 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. By donning the garments, the human being, who serves as the priest in the “Temple of Nature,” shows that those garments symbolize that the human being is investing him/herself with good moral qualities.

Who would ever imagine that a few pieces of clothing could have such profound meaning?

May you be blessed.