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    Tezaveh: Clothing and Religion

    Torah from Israel


    Having already delineated the structural components of the Mishkan, in parshat Tezaveh, the Torah depicts the wardrobe of the Cohanim. By way of introduction, the High Priest’s clothing is described as emitting ‘kavod and tifaret’ – dignity and splendor. Modest people recoil at the notion of dressing for any public “effect” and yet the Torah endorses clothing which provoke these intense passions. Oftentimes, ostentatious forms of dress project ugly traits such as vanity or snobbishness. Yet, by stressing the glory of Aharon’s clothing the Torah effectively affirms constructive value to clothing.

    In earlier times, clothing was far more “personal”, as people possessed fewer articles of clothing. Yossef is deeply identified with his multi-toned shirt just as his brother Yehuda surrenders his personal clothing as collateral to his daughter-in-law Tamar (who herself if dressed in an abnormal fashion). When Eliyahu ascends to the heavens, his protégé, Elisha, is left clutching his “aderet” or cloak; the possession of his mentor’s cape indicates to Elisha that the baton has passed to him as his era of leadership had begun. By stark contrast, in modern times, clothing is mass produced and therefore more disposable. We rarely develop long-term affiliations with a particular article of clothing, and therefore our experience with clothing is far less personalized. Yet, the concept of “clothing” – if not particular clothes – is extremely resonant in human experience and, evidently, a potent force within religious experience.


    Firstly, clothing can augment particular religious moods or significant religious moments. Perhaps, most obvious, is the impact of clothing in honoring special days such as Shabbat. Dressing “up” for Shabbat should trigger a sense of regality and even luxury to the day. In certain contemporary settings, amidst the general cultural shift toward “dressing down”, the role of special Shabbat clothing isn’t always sufficiently appreciated or applied.

    Additionally, clothing can supply gravitas to an important experience. The gemara in Shabbat (10a) asserts that a legal proceeding (a din) is launched when the jurrors/dayanim cover their heads – known as “atifat harosh”. Rashi comments that head coverings convey “focus”, which enables careful and undisturbed deliberation of the litigation. Furthermore, head covering acknowledges the presence of a Higher authority whose doctrines must be upheld within the judiciary hearing. This serves as one source for those who don a hat during prayer as a sign of gravitas and added reverence (see the Oruch Hashulchan Choshen Mishpat 8:2). Likewise, wearing a white kittel on Yom Kippur certainly conveys solemnity and recognition of human mortality.

    Clothing may also reflect the embrace of “religious mission”. In addition to delineating the dimensions and fabrics of the Cohen’s wardrobe, parshat Tzaveh also describes the ceremonies which launched the Mishkan and inducted the Cohanim into their service. The inauguration period, known as milu’im, peaked when Aharon and his children ceremoniously dressed in their new attire. This symbolic dressing process announced the adoption of a life of mission. Sometimes ceremonious dress helps us articulate our mission – both to ourselves and to others. On a personal level, I sense the same effect when I don tefillin and tzizit – each of which possesses mission-based symbolism.


    Beyond generating religious moods clothing also creates association and identification with groupings and communities. Clothing style defines and demarcates both religions and races. The Jews in Egypt suffered serious religious erosion, but they maintained a particular “Jewish” style of dress. This cultural anchor preserved identity and provided a basis for the ultimate national rejuvenation. In fact, dress as a cultural affiliation is such a vital marker that it must be protected – even to the point of death. The gemara in Sanhedrin applies the principle of yeihareg v’al ya’avor – the obligation of martyrdom – even if a Jew is coerced to wear a non- Jewish “shoe lace”. Of course, the gemara refers to a period in which clothing coercion is being employed as part of a general conversion agenda against Jews (sha’at hashemad). None the less, the importance of clothing as a religious and cultural marker is quite apparent. Over the past 700 years a kippah has become a core and potent symbol of Jewish identity despite the almost complete lack of any halachik basis for covering our heads.

    Of course, married women covering hair also creates association with the institution of marriage. As a male I haven’t experienced this identity and don’t feel comfortable elaborating about this powerful form of association, but it can certainly become a resonant part of Jewish female identity.

    Oftentimes, we wear actual uniforms to create affiliation; As the word ‘uniform’ implies, these forms of clothing limit or even suspend personal expression in favor of conformity and collective identity. Perhaps the most obvious type of ‘affiliative dress’ is an army uniform which intentionally suppress personal identity to create common ‘social cohesion’ which in turn builds both discipline and commitment to army life. In a similar fashion, many believe that Torah-committed Jews should also dress in a uniform fashion which clearly announces membership within a Torah community. For many, a white shirt coupled with dark pants creates valuable and clearly defined boundaries- which may serve as important barriers against religious attrition. To be sure, some religious people presume that such severe and overt boundaries are either unnecessary or even detrimental.


    Finally, our clothing affirms the dignity of the human condition. Originally, humanity had no need for clothing as their undressed state didn’t elicit inappropriate thoughts. Subsequent to our first sin and our fall, we became embarrassed at our unclothed state and G-d Himself fashioned clothing to conceal our bodies. In addition to providing modesty, this Divine wardrobe was also meant to reaffirm that Man was still vested with Divine dignity. Clothing should be calibrated to achieve each of these two goals: modesty and human dignity. Clothing which draws excessive attention defeats the original purpose of Hashem’s wardrobe designed to preserve human modesty. Just the same, dignified and pleasant forms of dress, expresses our unique station as humans; unlike animals we alone weave our body’s external shells. Rebbi Yochanan admonished Torah scholars who dressed in sullied clothing as they were compromising the dignity of Torah itself.

    As stated above, parshat Tezaveh describes the ‘effect’ of the priestly garments upon Jewish onlookers. Isaiah chapter 61 describes the celebration of of Jews who will ultimately be acknowledged by an entire world : we will be clothed in garments of salvation ( bigdei yesha) and covered with robes of righteousness (me’il tzedakah).


    Moshe Taragin