Most of the sidrah describes the obligations of Aaron and his sons and the rituals surrounding the priests and sacrifice. Parashat T'tzaveh has the distinction of being the only parashah in the last four books of the Torah in which the name of Moses does not appear.
In the midst of the fifth aliyah describing the sacrifice which ordains Aaron and his sons, we find the following statement:
The sacral vestments of Aaron shall pass on to his sons after him, for them to be anointed and ordained in. (29:29)
In the middle of a description of a sacred ritual, the discussion of clothing might seem mundane. On the other hand, clothing plays an important role in many of the parshiyot in Torah. Adam and Eve used clothing provided by God to cover themselves after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; the fact that we wear clothing distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. (Genesis 3:7) Indeed, the Sages suggest that this is proof that the Torah begins with an act of God's g'milut chasadim. Joseph had his special coat, given to him by his father, and this coat plays a crucial role in moving the plot forward as evidence of Joseph's demise. (Genesis 37:33) The wronged Tamar cleverly redeems herself by showing Judah his signet seal, cords and staff. (Genesis 28:25) Today, actors on a stage communicate much to the audience about their characters simply by the clothing they wear, as do officials wearing uniforms. Both in the time of Moses and today, clothing is one way of defining who we are or what we wish to be.
The uniform of the priests served a purpose for the people and the priests. Nehama Leibowitz explains one purpose of this special outfit, to "enhance the dignity and prestige of the wearer and his sacred office in the eyes of the people." (New Studies in Shemot, 528) In the same way that a king might wear a crown or a police officer a badge, the clothing worn by the priests described in this parashah was a reminder to the people of the power held by the kohanim.
Part of the power of a ritual garment is that the transfer of the garment can transfer authority to the new wearer. Our verse indicates that the priestly garments were passed to the next Kohein Gadol (high priest) as part of an inauguration. The new person in the special clothing changes that person's status in the eyes of the people. As for a bride or a graduate, wearing the special outfit transfers the wearer to a new status in the eyes of the community.
Clothing also affects the person wearing it. Rashi translates anointed as raised up. The process of wearing these clothes was elevating, rather than part of an anointing ritual.So, too, Aaron and his sons were instructed to wear the clothing only when they were offering the sacrifices. These vestments were their work clothes. When an athlete puts on a uniform, he or she is both physically and mentally prepared to engage in the sport.
In modern Jewish life, usually the shaliach tzibur, the leader of prayer (be he or she a clergy person or not) wears a tallit and sometimes a robe. Interestingly, the dress of the kohein was not adapted solely for the leader of the congregation, but for each worshiper, in the form of tallit and t'fillin,ritual garments designed to democratize the mitzvot. With the end of the Temple cult and the priestly system, we each became responsible for worship and in a sense were all elevated to the priesthood.
Is it possible for our dress to be spiritually elevating today? What would it mean to be more attentive to the clothes we wear? Social mores about dress have changed. Some argue that we no longer care enough about the clothes we wear or the messages our clothing send. Men and women can wear similar clothing. Some clothes can easily be worn both at work and play. Dress codes in schools are contested.
Our clothes do send a message to ourselves and others who see us, and we can be more conscious about those messages. In a study by Workman in 2003, (Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3, 331-354), participants who received an article of clothing advertising alcohol froma parent were more likely to perceive that their parents approvedof them drinking. On a more subtle level, we can pay attention to where our clothes come from and what they are made of. We can choose products that do not use chemical treatments. We can buy clothes that are made by people who are paid a living wage in sustainable conditions. Clothes are an external expression of internal values. It is "fitting" that T'tzaveh pays attention to the authority vested in the priests.
- What piece of clothing would you consider passing down to your descendents? What is its importance and what message would you want the wearer to receive?
- In Exodus Rabbah it is written that A man's honor is his garment. What does this mean to you? Do you believe this statement is true today? Why or why not? Compare this statement to Proverbs 31:25, She is clothed with strength and splendor; She looks to the future cheerfully.
- Read this Socially Responsible Shopping and Action Guide or shop for clothing made of natural fibers and choose one or two things you will do to choose your clothes in an ethical way.
For Further Learning
The priesthood was inherited. As we read in the verse preceding our selection, And those parts shall be a due for all time from the Israelites to Aaron and his descendents. (Exodus 29:28) With the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism, people gained status and authority through scholarship, which was open to all who devoted themselves to study. While most liberal Jewish movements have de-emphasized the role of one's inherited status, some traditional movements have continued to give honor to those descended from kohanim with such things as the first aliyah on Shabbat or designated seating in the sanctuary. Many kohanim also continue to observe the proscriptions against marrying a divorcee or coming into proximity of a corpse. What do you think is the value in maintaining these traditions, and what is the detriment? What do you think should be the role and status of the descendants of the kohanim?
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