Can I wear a pants suit when I am leading services? How long should my skirts be? Do I have to wear a black suit when I am officiating at a funeral? What should a woman rabbi wear under the chuppah?
Early in my career, when there were so few women rabbis that we all knew each other, questions like these were part of the conversation. I still won’t wear a pants suit on the bimah, though most of my women colleagues do. It took me many years before I would even wear pants to work. Part of my hesitation probably has something to do with the era in which I was ordained, when it was still a struggle for women rabbis to be taken seriously by many within our community. But part might also be related to this week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh.
“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for honor and for beauty [l’chavod ul’tifaret]. 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. . . . And for Aaron’s sons also you shall make tunics, and make sashes for them, and make turbans for them, for honor and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2–3; 28:40).
This phrase, l’chavod ul’tifaret, “for honor and for beauty,” appears only here in Torah, describing the clothing of the High Priest. Clearly, Torah suggests that clothes matter, but in what way? Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg tells us that Nachmanides explains: “He should be dignified and glorious in dignified glorious garments as the text says: ‘Like a bridegroom adorned with glory.’ (Isaiah 61:10) For these garments are royal rainment; kings were clothed in such garments at the time of the Torah . . . and the clothes must be fashioned with full intentionality (awareness of their sacred purpose) and possibly even require kavanah (awareness of the complex meanings expressed in them). That is why God said, ‘And you shall speak to all who are wise in heart who I have filled with the spirit of wisdom’ (28:3) that they should understand what they are making” (cited in Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, [New York: Random House, Inc., 2002] p. 364).
Clothes make the priest, it seems, and those who make the clothes need to understand that more is going on than just creating a physical appearance.
Malbim makes the connection clear: “Now the garments ordained were evidently external ones, and the text is concerned to relate to how the artisans performed the work. But in reality they symbolized inner vestments. The priests were to invest themselves with noble qualities which are the vestments of the soul. These vestments the artisans did not make. But God commanded Moses to make these holy garments, that is, to instruct them in the improvement of their souls and their characters so that their inner selves should be clothed in majesty and splendor” (see Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus) [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1976], p. 532).
The Torah portion goes into great detail about the clothing, with the vestments of the High Priest as the main concern. The Talmud understands all these vestments as protection against the sins that the priests might commit if their clothes didn’t sensitize them to their roles. For example, the breastpiece, with the names of the twelve tribes, would remind the priest that he serves for the people. The “robe” m’il (which is close to the word, ma-al, “betrayal”) would discourage gossip, and the fringed tunic would remind the priests of Joseph’s many colored tunic and would counsel against shedding blood (see Babylonian Talmud, Z’vachim 88b).
The Kli Yakaar, reflecting on the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a explains: “The eight vestments atoned for eight sins: four of them for the most serious sins (idolatry, incest, murder, and gossip) and four of them for general categories that contain all other sins (perversion of justice, presumptuousness, sinful fantasies, and insolence). This may explain the story of the proselyte who thought: ‘I shall convert so that I may become a High Priest and wear these vestments’ (Shabbat 31a). Was he really such a fool that he desired to convert merely to wear these clothes? Rather, after hearing the voice of the scribe reading aloud ‘These are the vestments which they shall make,’ he must have heard also their symbolic meanings, the sins for which the vestments atone. And the proselyte was aware that he had sinned all these sins and that he needed atonement.”
Clothes, then, have profound symbolic meaning, at least for the High Priest. But how does that translate for the rest of us?
Notice the detail about the High Priest’s clothing in Exodus 28:36: “You shall make a frontlet [tzitz] of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: ‘Holy to the Eternal.’ Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress.” While this command only relates to the High Priest, it evokes the commandment in Numbers 15:37–41 addressed to the rest of us to make tzitzit at the corners of our garments and attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them . . . thus you will be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God.”
For the High Priest, the words “Holy to YHVH” (Exodus 28:36) are worn on his head because he is somehow essentially holy to YHVH. For us, charged to become a kingdom of priests, holiness is not a given; it is something we have to focus on in order to achieve.
None of us are priests exactly as described in Torah. None of us wear those clothes. Now, only a Torah scroll does—a breastplate, a mantle, a sash, a headdress. We become holy through Torah, through wrestling with what it teaches us about living lives of justice and compassion. We become holy by paying attention to the way we conduct our lives, including something that seems as insignificant as what we wear. We become holy by paying attention to how our external self reflects our internal intentions. And, we become holy by paying attention not only to what we wear, but also to who makes those clothes, under what working conditions, earning what salary.
Even clothes matter—l’chavod ul’tifaret.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.