Parshat Tetzaveh

Torah Reading for Week of February 17-23, 2013

“Dress Code”
By Batshir Torchio, Fifth Year AJRCA Rabbinical Student

During my last visit to New York, to the home where I was raised, my mother gave me a precious gift, an album she created which chronicled in photographs snapshots of my life from birth until about age 18 or so.  I stepped back in time to visit myself, age 6, in a sun-burst one-piece bathing suit on the shore at West Meadow Beach, metal pail in hand, and in another photo I am sitting on the ledge of the Empire State Building wearing a gray wool winter coat, red beret upon my pig-tailed hair, and linen white gloves on my neatly folded hands. I was ten years old.  My brother Daniel, 4 years my senior, is seated beside me in that photo, dressed impeccably in a soft brushed camel wool coat, his short black hair flawless and restrained by pomade.  We are smiling – my brother because camera posing prompted it, and I was plotting the pocketing of an indigent dime I spotted on the cement floor a few feet from where we sat.  My memory was activated and I was transported by these photographs, but even more striking to me, I was able to see my life beyond the shutter. When reading these photographs one is able to capture what my parents valued and what they strove to provide for each of their 11 children.  Very strict protocol informed my parents’ sense of dress-code, a la Captain Von Trapp. For my sisters and me, pants were part of the play-clothes wardrobe and not to be worn at school, and we were never to experience the sockless shoe trend of the early 70s popularized by penny loafers.  Photos of pleated pink-ribboned braids, starched collars, and hanky-rubbed shiny faces provide the proof:  when the moment and Mom dictated it, we were Ivory soap clean and apparently, very well-dressed.  It helped significantly that my mother handmade most of our clothing.  She was, and remains, a talented seamstress.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, just three verses into the parasha, we read in elaborate detail descriptions of the priestly vestments to be used in consecrating the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest for service.  Fine linen, precious stones, gold, blue, purple and crimson colored threads are among the designated materials for the construction of the robe, tunic, headdress and breastplate for the kehuna.  Picture an ancient version of Project Runway (Tim Gunn, fashion consultant, as Moses):


Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for
dignity and adornment.  Next you shall instruct all who
are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill,
to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve
Me as priest.   (Ex 28:2-3)


The text describes these special clothes as vigdei kodesh, literally holy clothing, l’kavod ultifaret, for honor and glory.  On the surface it makes perfect sense that the unique priestly couture worn in the service of G-d reflects the awesome sacred duties.  As Nehama Leibowitz commented, “the sons of Aaron who minister in their priestly office in the House of the Lord do not serve G-d in their ordinary, everyday garments.”  My parents would agree, overalls are worn for playing in the sandbox.   The vestments worn by Aaron and his descendants distinguish them, as well as the service in which they are involved.  We might ask (as do my 8th grade students who argue against the more strict dress code for Tefillah service at school) would the priest be eligible for the task — would his prayers be acceptable and his heart adequately elevated if he entered the sanctuary in his play clothes?  One perspective is found in the Shulchan Arukh which describes a dual role for the bigdei kehuna.  The parasha reads that the special priestly garments are for the purpose of le-kadesho le-khahano li, “to sanctify him to serve Me.”  (Ex 28:3) On one level the garments serve the purpose of le’khahano li, as a demonstration of respect for G-d and for the act of prayer, of avodah.  But additionally, wearing special clothes for prayer has the effect of le’kadesho, showing honor and respect to oneself.  Though arguably somewhat subjective, special shul-going attire is an instant reminder to one’s self and others that we are dignified, respectful, and fulfilling a sacred duty.  The special clothing created an important distinction between priest and layperson, and therefore, respect expressed between community and priest, and priest and G-d.  Conversely we might ask, would the priest’s sacred performance (and would my prayer obligation) be diminished or denied in the Heavenly realm if presented while wearing torn jeans and t-shirt?  Is the clothing made holy because it meets Divine specifications, or as a result of the wearer’s devotion to G-d and one’s purity of heart?  Nahmanides provides a meaningful response to this question.  According to the Ramban, the priestly garments were made for their own sake, not merely as priestly accoutrements.  And here is where the Ramban elaborates a subtle and most meaningful interpretation of the text.  The artisans who are appropriated for making the clothing must do so with proper kavannah, with all their heart, so-to-speak, with a wise heart, fully aware of the purpose of the vestments.  That is the meaning of  ””כּל חכמי-לב found in Exodus 28:3.  “A wise heart…”

Though I fought against not being able to wear jeans to school, I can appreciate that my parents believed (and still do!) that what we wear, and how we wear it, can express deference, admiration, and reverence for people and places, including oneself. But intention of the heart matters too, and where the cloth and heart intersect each can greatly elevate the other.

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