This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh is very much the continuation of last week’s portion, Termuah. Having concluded the instructions for building the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites were to use in the wilderness, our attention now turns first the olive oil needed for the lamps used in the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting. Then the parasha turns to the Kohanin, the priests who were to oversee the sacrifices in the Mishkan. They are to be distinguished from all the other priests with a special set of attire to distinguish them and their roles from all others.
Tetzaveh goes into great detail, like with the Mishkan, describing the attire of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest including the ephod, or apron, the hoshen, or breastpiece, the urim v’tummin, the devices used to understand the will of God, the robe, the tzitz, or frontlet, the kuttonet, or tunic, the mitznefet or headdress and the avnet, the sash. Is it any wonder Jews got involved in the garment industry, as we have been making sacred clothing since the beginning of time as a people?
Though often attributed to Mark Twain, the famous quote regarding clothing was most likely initially recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60): “vestis virum facit” meaning “clothes make the man.” This is why the High Priests garments were both so particular and so special. It was to remind both the Kohein and the Israelites of the nature and function of his role.
Since then, clothing has taken on many meanings and many roles in communities, societies and throughout history. We happen to be living in a much more casual society today, to the celebration of some and the lament of others. But regardless of how we choose to dress, as our tradition is reminding us, clothing can be the vehicle by which we express our holiest of selves.
Though styles have changed and will certainly again change, clothing is only the mere outer reflection of an inner meaningful life. How we choose to dress is just part of the greater myrad of ways we demonstrate the people that we are and the people we wish to be.
In the meantime, if you wish to see what the High Priest looked like back in the day, look no further than our Aron HaKodesh, our ark in the sanctuary. In there, you will find our Torah scrolls dressed in ways symbolic of how the Kohanim used to dress. For that style of dress, ritually speaking, never went out of style.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff