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Do Clothes Really Make The Man (Woman)?

  • Do Clothes Really Make The Man (Woman)?

    T'tzaveh, Exodus 27:20−30:10
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

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 a priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me; they, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns and the fine linen. (Exodus 28: 2-5)

D'var Torah

Clothes are an important part of our culture. Whether it is the carefully ripped T-shirt of a teenager or the three-piece suit of a lawyer, the way an individual dresses projects an image or makes a statement about that person.

That idea is integral to this week's parashah, T'tzaveh. More than half of the portion is devoted to a detailed description of the priestly dress of Aaron and his sons. The text states that each garment is to be made by skilled craftsmen and created out of the most beautiful and finest materials.

Commentators such as Nahum Sarna, Umberto Cassuto, and J. H. Hertz state that special clothes distinguish a priest from the people and serve as a constant reminder to them of his sacred duties and responsibilities. The beauty and distinction of the priest's clothes also remind him of the significance of the job he does for God and the people.

Similarly, the clothes people wear today reflect the functions they serve in our communities. For instance, we recognize a police officer instantly by his or her blue uniform, which has come to symbolize law and order, and we associate a white lab coat with the medical profession.

When we perform a special duty or have a particular job, we often dress in a way that reflects this. For example, people wear business attire for job interviews because it is important to show a prospective boss that they know how to dress appropriately for the office. A politician is always impeccably dressed when making a public appearance. A child who is celebrating his or her bar or bat mitzvah wears fine clothes, which he or she shortly outgrows, rather than his or her usual jeans and baseball cap, in order to lead the congregation in worship.

Ultimately, however, what is more important than the garment is the person wearing it. The priests have specific, holy duties to carry out. They must perform them in proscribed ways, correctly and with sanctity. If they stray from the instructions they were given, they are punished, as are Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron's sons, who bring offerings not commanded by God and are consumed by fire (Leviticus 10:1-2). Although Nadab and Abihu wear the right clothes, they do not behave like priests. Instead, they make up their own rules, which is clearly not allowed. Thus while clothes help a person project the proper image, it is his or her actions that determine whether or not he or she has fulfilled a role appropriately. For example, a person who dresses nicely for a job interview but cannot fulfill the demands of the job will not make a satisfactory employee, and a well-dressed politician with crooked dealings does not fulfill the ideals of public office.

When we talk to b'nei mitzvah, we stress that what is most important is how they feel on the inside and what they have done to prepare for the event, not how they look. Students need to make mitzvot a part of their lives in the months leading up to their becoming b'nei mitzvah. By doing so, students can internalize the values and lessons they learn so that their insides reflect the finery of their outside bar or bat mitzvah garb.

Nevertheless, what a person wears matters. When people look good, they feel good. A certain uniform or costume identifies a person's role. But who a person is underneath the clothing is even more important than how he or she looks. Aaron and his sons needed to be as holy as the clothes they wore in order to fulfill their responsibilities as priests. Even if a bar or bat mitzvah student wears fine clothes to preside on the bimah, he or she still needs to demonstrate his or her commitment to learning, mitzvot, and assuming responsibilities in order to truly become a bar or bat mitzvah. And while we may find it fun at times to dress differently than we normally do to project a certain image, we must always remember the importance of acting responsibly in order to fulfill the roles that we have accepted.

By the Way

  • But God said to Samuel, "Pay no attention to his [Eliab, eldest son of Jesse] appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does Adonai see]; man sees only what is visible, but Adonai sees into the heart. (I Samuel 16:7)
  • You don't have to have an MBA to strive for that professional look. ("Fashion Tips for MBA Job Interviews," MBA Style Magazine)
  • The High Priest's vestments invest him in anxiety, no less than in glory. Ultimately, it is not only the diadem that is to be "Holy to God," but its wearer. If the dissonance between vestment and wearer is palpable, if there is not "that within which passes show," the trappings become hollow. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, New York: Doubleday, 2001, p. 369)

Your Guide

  1. If God is ultimately concerned with what is in our hearts, as stated in I Samuel 16:7, then why is there so much emphasis in this parashah on the details of the priestly clothing?

  2. In light of the excerpt from MBA Style Magazine, why do we think that it is important "to strive for that professional look"?

  3. According to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, it is essential for the priest to be as holy as the garments he wears. What can each one of us do to ensure that our inside matches our outside?

Reference Materials: 

"T’tzaveh, Exodus 27:20–30:10 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 618– Revised Edition, pp. 561–576; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 473–494"