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Torah Commentary
T'tzaveh (February 8, 2014)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

IN MY COMMENTARY this past fall on Parashat Tol’dot, I described the biblical association between clothing and dishonesty. In many biblical stories, our ancestors and their adversaries wear a disguise or conceal who they are in order to achieve their goals.

Yet, clothing may serve not only as a costume — hiding our true identities — but also as a statement about ourselves, revealing to others aspects of our personalities that would otherwise remain unknown. In deciding what to wear and how we wish to be seen, we show others something about who we are and what matters to us.

This week’s portion, T’tzaveh, highlights a third role that clothing may play: that of a uniform. A uniform, rather than disguising or revealing the wearer’s identity, downplays the wearer’s individuality (as is indicated by the word itself, “uniform”). In these chapters from Exodus, we learn about the garments worn by the ancient Israelite priests, which like the crown of royalty, the badge of the police officer or the brown suit of a UPS driver, immediately identifies that person’s role, status and duties. It also lets us know when the person is acting in an official capacity or is “on duty,” during which time he or she has different rights and responsibilities then when donning “civilian attire.” The priests were required to wear this outfit whenever they performed their divine service in the Temple.

The garments of the High Priest are described in greatest detail and include a breastpiece, robe, tunic, headdress, sash and ephod (apparently, a kind of long vest). This distinguishing attire not only invests the High Priest with status; it also acts as a symbolic reminder of his role as a representative of the entire community. Mounted on the breastpiece are 12 precious stones, each engraved with the names of the Israelite tribes (28:15-30), so that during the High Priest’s official duties in the Sanctuary he keeps them close to his heart.

Similarly, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Zev. 88b) each of the elements of the priestly wardrobe is designed to help guard him, and the Israelites, from wickedness. For example, the breastpiece is called the “breastpiece of justice.” The headdress is meant to protect against prideful and arrogant thoughts, and the jacket would discourage gossip. (Its Hebrew name, me-il, is similar to a word for betrayal, ma-al.) The values that the High Priest is meant to embody are woven into the very fabric that covers his body.

Of course, we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem, and there is little to distinguish the descendants of the priests (the kohanim, often people whose last name is Cohen or Kahn) from those of the ordinary Israelites. Yet, the priestly wardrobe has, in some ways, lived on. W. Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on the Torah, writes: “The vestments here described are the direct antecedents of those now in use in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, whose priests, and especially whose bishops, wear similar robes while officiating.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, New York: URJ Press, 2005, p. 617).

Today, the synagogue has replaced the Temple as a centralized location for Jews to gather to commune with the divine. Rather than relying on a High Priest to enter the holy of holies containing the Ark of the Covenant and intercede on our behalf, we turn to one another to remove the Torah from its ark and interpret its message. The Torah is dressed, like the High Priest was, in an embroidered mantle and sash and adorned with pomegranates and bells. These are reminders that it is the words of Torah that must guard us from wickedness.

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