Royal Fashion: Esther Edition

February 22, 2023Rabbi Sari Laufer

Clothes may not make the woman, but there is no doubt that there are times when the clothes we wear make a difference. Clothes can help define us; think of a doctor donning their long white coat for the first time. Clothes can also help others identify us; a firefighter or an EMT arriving in uniform tells me that help has arrived. Sometimes, the clothes we wear help us imagine a different future for ourselves. Organizations that provide people with affordable business attire for interviews, such as Bottomless Closet or Dress for Success, have long understood that first impressions matter.

Much has been written about the Book of Esther's themes of hiding and openness, the masks we wear, and the ways our identities and self-images shift throughout our lives. Beyond those themes, there is one particular moment where clothes do indeed make the woman.

The fourth chapter of Esther begins in sackcloth and ashes. The Jews of Persia are mourning, weeping and wailing at Haman’s genocidal decree for the Jewish people. As the chapter draws to a close, Esther has declared a “general strike” of sorts, asking the Jews of the kingdom to partake in a three-day communal fast, praying for her welfare prior to her going before the king on their behalf. Chapter five begins: “Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house.” (Esther 5:1)

The rabbis of the Talmud use this phrase, “her royal apparel,” to imagine Esther wrapped in the Divine Presence, bringing God into a story where God’s name does not appear. This modern-day rabbi has a different question: What was Esther wearing?

I have always been fascinated by the priestly garb, described in such detail in the Book of Exodus. The colors, precision, and functions captivate me. I have wondered how the high priests might have felt as they donned their robes and breastplates, their ephods and headpieces. As someone who has long loved to chant Torah, I can sing from memory the order of the “royal” colors described in the building of the MishkanMishkanThe portable tabernacle.  , the fabrics for the design, and the colors of that priestly attire. Appearing first in the beginning of Parashat ParashahפָּרָשָׁהTorah portion. The five books of the Torah are divided into 54 parashiyot or portions. Each week, Jewish communities read one parashah (singular of parashiyot); in this way, Jewish communities read the entire Torah over the course of a year.  Depending on the calendar, some weeks will feature a “double-portion.” The name of each portion is taken from the first few significant words of the portion; plural: parashiyot T’rumah, I can hear this list in my head--the same tropeTropeטַעַם הַמִּקְרָא / טַעֲמֵי הַמִּקְרָאMusical notations or cantillation marks used to chant Torah, Prophets, and Writings. (tune) every time: “blue, purple, and crimson yarns” (Exodus 25:4).

Much Biblical scholarship suggests that, at the time of the Mishkan (perhaps not unlike now), the creation of clothes—and the weaving in particular—was most likely to have been done by women. While they are not mentioned explicitly in the instructions or implementation of the work of the Mishkan, women were largely responsible for these textile design elements. Therefore, it was women who were largely responsible for the design--and probably the weaving as well--for the clothing of the high priests in the Temple.

Therefore, there is--at least in my imagination--a straight and powerful line between these women and the women donning purple for International Women’s Day and red for the International Day Without a Woman, which was the theme of International Women’s Day 2017.

The colors purple, green, and white have been used to symbolize women’s equality as far back as 1908. Historically, purple was a color that denoted justice and dignity; now it is used to represent women as the official color—for signs, clothing, and more-- of International Women’s Day, marked on March 8. In 2017, on the International Day Without a Woman, social media feeds were filled with women--and some male allies--donning red. According to the group, the color was chosen to represent "revolutionary love and sacrifice."

The line between weaving the textiles for the Mishkan in our desert days and the inception of International Women’s Day travels through ancient Persia, the eventual home of Queen Esther. King Cyrus--the king who ultimately allowed the Israelites to return from their first Babylonian captivity--is credited with making purple, one of the colors of the Mishkan, into a royal color.

And so, while we cannot know what Queen Esther wore when she approached the throne, I like to imagine her in garments of purple, blue, and revolutionary red. But, more importantly, I like to think that the Divine Presence was wrapped around her too.

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