He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. (Leviticus 16:4)
A few years ago, I was in Jerusalem in a Chasidic neighborhood, surrounded by stores carrying tallitot, kippot, and all sorts of Judaica. To my utter shock, prominently displayed in one store's window was a bright pink tallis! I went inside and started talking to the owner, a Chasid in full regalia: black coat, knickers, side curls, and fur-trimmed shtreimel hat. "Who would buy a pink tallit?" I asked. "A bat mitzvah girl of course," this Chasid said, with no hesitation. ". . . no, not the girls in my community," he added, "but in yours, sure, why not?"
A pink tallis in Mea Shearim. You've come a long way, baby . . . if it sells.
Just a year later I was at the Shabbat morning service during the URJ Biennial and I stood, preparing to put on one of my many varied and eclectic tallitot. This tallit is definitely not your average black-and-white striped variety: it is an appliquéd silk, full poncho-style garment that reaches to my knees, with tinkling bells around the neck and a top that comes over my head as a hood. If there ever were a kohenet g'dolah, a "high priestess," surely this is what she would have worn. I stood silently for a moment, feeling the sensuous raw silk on my back, my front, my arms. I closed my eyes. And from behind me I heard a loud, startled whisper, "What the heck is she wearing?"
The High Priest knew a sacral vestment when he saw one. There wasn't much choice back then among colors or styles.
In today's parashah, I imagine the priest putting the same kind of thoughtful kavanah into putting on his sacred garments. I imagine him holding the linen tunics and examining them to be sure they are clean and pure. Then he wraps his sash around his middle, puts on his turban, closes his eyes, and is ready to pray. If ever "clothes make the man" then the High Priest knows that. In changing his clothing, he changes his readiness. The Talmud states, "While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them" (Babylonian Talmud, Z'vachim 17b). It's not about jeans and a hoodie versus a suit. It's about how the garments of prayer — specifically kippah and tallit — can change our attitude toward prayer.
The Reform Judaism I grew up in eschewed these garments, saying they were not necessary for prayer to feel spiritual. Perhaps because in those days men regularly wore ties and women regularly wore dresses to shul, prayer-garments did not change us as we entered; we were already "dressed for shul." But today, when we no longer have synagogue dress codes or even communal expectations as to what is appropriate to wear for Temple, I believe prayer-garments help us take off the secular street when we arrive at the shul door, and put on a priestly attitude.
Sforno, the 15th-century Italian commentator says on our verse: "when angels appeared to the prophets, they wore these kinds of garments." I believe prayer-garments help us take the earthly street off when we arrive at the shul door, and feel closer to the angels.
The word in Hebrew for "linen" in the garments is bad (pronounced, bahd). This Hebrew root is in the word for "alone," bodeid, and in the word for inner meditation — hitbod'dut. I believe prayer-garments help us take off the white noise and over stimulation of the street when we arrive at the shul door, and feel more ready to face ourselves alone in the act of prayer.
And the Babylonian Talmud suggests in Arachin 16a that the 8 vestments worn by the High Priest granted atonement for 8 different sins. One of these garments was the robe containing bells on the bottom, whose sound as he walked would remind people to refrain from "gossip," lashon hara. I believe prayer-garments help us take off the desire to gossip from the street when we arrive at the shul door, and feel more ready to be in holy relationships with those around us — at least for the duration of the service!
This week's parashah is asking us to consider if sacral vestments indeed make the service participants themselves more sacred.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto' s new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).
Our tradition braves the middle ground between materialism and the denial of aesthetic power. To make worship solely about our attire undermines its power to elevate us beyond the physical realm. To ignore ritual garb overlooks a meaningful way, in the words of Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, to "take off the earthly street… when we arrive at the shul door, and feel closer to the angels."
I have often wondered about the intricate descriptions of priestly garments in other Torah portions. Initially I thought that they were intended to show how material resources should be used for sacred purposes. Increasingly, I have come to wonder if they also shrewdly provide an upward bound — a maximum — to public displays of wealth. A priest could not simply wear gold from head to toe. If even venerated leaders in Israelite society could not endlessly adorn their bodies, neither could other Israelites.
In this week's Torah portion, we learn of the careful way in which Aaron, Moses' brother and the High Priest of Israel, is to bathe before putting on sacral garments made entirely of linen. Linen was not to be mixed with wool and was seen as a cloth intended for sacred purpose (Leviticus 19:19; see also Rashi's discussion of Leviticus 16:4). Its beauty was evident, even in its simplest forms.
Aaron's process of preparing to put on his ritual garb is heightened, while his clothing in this Torah portion appears understated. His ablutions are emphasized as much as his garments. Perhaps this is the implied limit to which we too should adhere. The garments we wear should never exceed in importance the sacred rituals for which they are intended. They are meant only to accentuate the rituals themselves.
Acharei Mot I, Leviticus 16:1−17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858−876; Revised Edition, pp. 769–776
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 679–688
Haftarah, Ezekiel 22:1-14, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 997−998; Revised Edition, pp. 795−796