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Clothes and the Man

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Just as last week's Torah portion presented us with an enormous amount of bewildering detail regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels, this week's Torah portion bombards us with minute instructions regarding the preparation of the vestments of the priests.

As we pointed out in our discussion of the Tabernacle, the key to appreciating the detail must start from the realization that neither the Tabernacle nor the Temples that followed were meant to be "cathedrals"; places of worship designed to instill a sense of awe of God's majesty in the hearts of their visitors. These uniquely Jewish structures were designed around the idea of serving as God's residences; places in which the Divine Presence could be made manifest in a physically detectable way. As such, there was no need for the actual structure to inspire a sense of God's awe and majesty. These were there in abundance without the need to employ any physical props; the Divine Presence inspired them.

The vestments of the priests should be regarded in a similar light. Their design was also not audience inspired. There was no need to impress the worshippers with the importance of the priests by dressing them in gorgeous vestments. Their importance would be obvious from the fact that they served in the house where God was Present. The background to understanding God's instructions concerning the vestments is that the appearance of human beings arrayed in such garments pleases His eye. We shall attempt to shed some light on just what God finds so pleasing about these particular clothes. The first step is to explore the power of these clothes.


Rabbi Inimi bar Sason said: "Why did the Torah list the instructions regarding the offering of sacrifices immediately adjacent to the instructions that relate to the vestments of the [priests] kohanim? To teach you that just as sacrifices are offered to atone for sins, the clothes of the kohanim also atone for sins (as follows):

  • The tunic atones for the sin of spilling human blood, as it is written: "They slaughtered a goat and dipped his tunic in the blood." (Genesis 37)
  • The trousers atone for the sins resulting from sexual license, as it is written: "you shall make them linen trousers to cover the flesh of the sexual organs." (Exodus 28:42)
  • The turban atones for the sin of haughtiness. How do we know this? R' Chanina said, let something that is worn on high [the top of the head is the highest point in an erect human being] atone for the sin of holding oneself high.
  • The belt cleanses the heart of impure thoughts; we know this from its location as well (the belt was wrapped around the body of the priest from just under his arms to his mid section).
  • The breastplate atones for the sin of miscarriage of justice, as it is written: "You shall make a Breastplate of judgment." (Exodus 28:15)
  • The ephod atones for the sin of idolatry, as it is written: "Without ephod and trafim (talisman)." (Hosea 3:4)
  • The robe atones for the sin of lashon hara. From where is this known? R'Chanina said: Only something with a voice (the robe had bells that tinkled as the High Priest walked) can atone for the evil voice.
  • The head plate atones for the sin of insolence, as is written, It shall be on Aaron's forehead always." (Exodus 28:38) And it is written about the trait of insolence, "You have the brazen forehead of a harlot." (Jeremiah 3)" (Talmud, Zevochim 88b)

How can wearing clothes possibly atone for the commission of sins? Atonement is a spiritual process that requires repentance; true repentance takes place in the innermost regions of the human heart; clothes are entirely external. Repentance and atonement is about who you really are, whereas clothes are entirely concerned with what you look like!


Hebrew has three different words to express the idea of forgiveness: mechila, slicha and kapara. The Gaon of Vilna explains that these words are not synonyms; each of them expresses a different idea. We can get some insight into the different shades of meaning by glancing at how we use these words in the Amidah Prayer: "Forgive us (s'lach) Father for we have sinned (chotonu), pardon (mechal) us our King for we have transgressed (poshonu)."

The text of the prayer associates s'lach with God the Father and the sort of sin called chet; while mechal relates to God the monarch and the sort of sin known as pesha. The Gaon explains that this is not poetic eloquence but surgical precision!

The Jewish people enjoy a dual relationship with God; we are His children, and also His subjects. In terms of the Father-child relationship, the main consequence of our sins is the lowering of God's status in the eyes of mankind. The world tends to evaluate parents according to how polished and successful their children turn out to be; when children fail for whatever reason parents inevitably suffer a loss in prestige. How seriously can we take you in light of the fact that you raised such pathetic children? When we fail to live up to the standards God set for us – even if our failure is caused by sloppiness and lack of attention rather than by active rebellion against God's edicts – we sin against God our Father.

This type of sin is a chet, a word whose precise meaning is 'wrongful deed committed without thought', and the type of forgiveness required is called s'licha in Hebrew. Parents who are disappointed in their children still love them but they are no longer willing to invest in them. If I cannot trust my child not to waste the resources I pour into his development I will refrain from wasting my wealth and my energy. Instead of helping my child make a more spectacular crash I will allow him to crash on his own and preserve my resources to face the task of wiping up the inevitable mess. S'licha means that God our Father will retain His optimism concerning our ultimate success and will continue to invest in us despite our disappointing performance to date.

As God's subjects, our sins are damaging as acts of rebellion. Unlike the parent who is vulnerable to being hurt through the sheer sloppiness of his children, the king always has enough competent servants to govern the realm as long as he is perceived as powerful. But when his power seems to slip people stop taking his regime seriously. Respect for authority disappears and soon everyone is actualizing his own selfish desires and hang the common good.

Sins of rebellion are known as p'shaim and the type of forgiveness required for them is known as mechila; this type of forgiveness represents the King's consent to continue to accept his wayward subjects and to continue to grant them the privileges of citizenship despite their rejection of His authority.

But even when the father can be induced to overcome his reluctance to invest more resources in the disappointing child; even when the King is persuaded to pardon the rebellious subject, things are never quite the same. The enthusiasm and the trust are irrevocably gone. With God we have the opportunity to entirely overcome the past through a process known as kapara.

Kapara, or "atonement," is a level of forgiveness that leaves no trace or blemish of sin and allows the sinner to appear in God's eyes as spiritually fresh and clean as the day he was born. We do not ask for kapara in our daily prayers at all. This level of forgiveness is only attainable on special occasions such as Yom Kippur.


According to our rabbis, the clothes of the Kohanim not only bring forgiveness; they bring a kapara, the special level of forgiveness that wipes out the very memory of sin. We shall see how this idea which merely seems to deepen the problem provides the key to understanding the atonement of the vestments of the priests.

We find the association between clothes and sin earlier in the Torah. Following the sin of Adam and Eve in Paradise, after they both partook from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, it is written:

"Their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked, and they sewed together date leaves and made themselves coverings." (Genesis 3:1)

Later in that same passage, after God finished His exposition concerning the various consequences of their sin, it is written:

"God fashioned for Adam and his wife robes of leather and dressed them." (Genesis 3:21)

In Chapter 2 of the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides points to a startling phenomenon that is revealed by this association between the commission of the first sin and the resultant realization of the need to cover one's nakedness. One would expect that the commission of a sin would leave the sinner in a less exalted state than he was before he sinned. Yet the opposite seems to have been the case following the very first sin in history.

Before Adam sinned he did not realize his nakedness and was unembarrassed by it. Only following his sin were 'his eyes opened.' Man seems to have acquired his most precious attribute – his great intelligence – as a consequence of his sin. Does this make sense? We shall explore Maimonides' answer because it relates directly to our discussion.


Maimodes explains that the transformation wrought by the sin was an increase in emotion rather than an improvement of the intellect. Before the commission of his sin, if Adam perceived intellectually that a certain action was necessary to his survival and/or morally right, the realization itself gave rise to the emotional desire to carry it out. On the other hand when he perceived that an action was morally wrong or counterproductive, the intellectual perception was sufficient to instill a sense of revulsion towards its performance. This dominance of the intellect over the emotions left him following his sin.

There is a remarkable passage of Talmud that describes the human condition following Adam's sin:

The Talmud recounts that following the destruction of the first Temple the members of the Great Assembly successfully abolished the evil inclination for idol worship. Inspired by their success they turned their attention to the evil inclination for sex and decided to destroy it as well. Fortunately a spirit of caution set in and they made a three day trial before making the destruction final; much to their astonishment they discovered that following three days without the evil inclination for sex they couldn't locate a single fresh egg. Needless, to say they decided to leave the inclination for sex almost entirely untouched. [Talmud, Sanhedrin, 64a]

This passage of Talmud indicates that following Adam's sin man needs the help of the evil inclination to perform even the most necessary actions. We need to feel lust in order to have sex and reproduce even though it is clear that reproduction is essential to survival. If the desire is missing people cannot engage in sex simply because it is necessary. This is not God's fault. When He created us, our intelligence was our chief motivator; it was our own sin that reduced the status of our intelligence from motivator to watchdog.

As long as Adam's mind controlled his motivations, his physical desires had the same effect on his behavior as the itch we feel in our toes upon being tickled. An itch is definitely a powerful sensation but it is not a motivator by any stretch of the imagination.

As seen from the standpoint of pure intellect, the sexual organs are no different than other portions of the human anatomy and there is nothing shameful about exposing them to open view. But when control over human behavior switches from the mind to the emotions, the sexual organs diverge from the rest of the human anatomy and their exposure becomes embarrassing indeed. Let us see if we can appreciate how.

The transformation wrought by the sin did not alter our self image. We still feel that we are rational creatures and that our minds are in control of what we do. Of course we ourselves realize that this sense of control is more illusion than reality. How many times have we had the feeling, "Why do I have so much trouble doing this if I know that it is the right thing to do?" We may experience this feeling regarding many areas of life, but we can generally successfully fool ourselves and others that we are rational creatures after all.

Unfortunately, the loss of intellectual control over human behavior is clearly manifest in our anatomy. The constant reminder of the loss of mental control is the apparent independence of the sexual organs, which pay absolutely no attention to our reason and react as they choose no matter how inappropriate the circumstances may be. If we ever manage to forget our powerful irrational side, they are always there to bring us back to a humbling sense of who we really are. Covering his nakedness was Adam's way of hiding his shameful secret – the dichotomy between his passions and his reason.

In fact, the existence of this dichotomy is the source of all our transgressions. As it is a given that we are unable to do anything we do not desire to do at least slightly – even if we are totally convinced that it is absolutely the right thing to do – we are in serious trouble when our minds and our desires are in conflict.


Picture the Jewish immigrant who arrives in America and becomes convinced that his business can only succeed if he abandons Sabbath observance. In his mind he knows that observing the Sabbath is the right thing to do, and that Jewish law demands that he observe the Sabbath laws even if the consequence of such observance is bankruptcy and failure.

In his heart he desperately wants to succeed in the new world and finally escape the abject poverty from which he fled. His heart is totally inflexible. He cannot control the desire to succeed and become financially independent, nor can he escape the conclusion that attaining success depends on dropping Sabbath observance.

He has one of three choices to make:

  1. He can give up his dream of success.
  2. He can drop Sabbath observance while still believing that he is committing a great sin each time he goes to work on the Sabbath.
  3. He can change his mind about the moral necessity of keeping Sabbath and go to work with a clear conscience.

What he absolutely cannot do is bring himself to desire to keep Sabbath under such circumstances. Is it any wonder that almost three million Jews who immigrated to America between 1800 and World War Two stopped observing the Sabbath?


Let us sum up what we have discovered so far. The story of Adam's sin teaches us that sheltering us from the elements is not the major reason for wearing clothes. Clothes were invented primarily to conceal the fact that we are governed by our passions. They are designed to convey the impression that we have not changed; we still follow the dictates of reason.

Despite the fall of humanity caused by Adam's sin, we still perceive ourselves as a being controlled by our superior reason, and instinctively cover up the fact that it is passion that rules us – by hiding the chief symbols of our passion.

By serving as an insulating layer between ourselves and the outside world, clothes allow us to project the image of ourselves we desire and successfully avoid the trauma of allowing others a glimpse of who we really are.


But there is another aspect to clothes.

Suppose that someone worked really hard at perfecting his character and managed to bring himself under the discipline of his mind until his behavior actually came to resemble that of Adam before his sin. How can this feat be accomplished? Through Torah observance of course! The myriad commandments and prohibitions contained in the Torah are all there to teach us how to behave as rational beings controlled entirely by the power of reason.

Adam's sin only transferred the control over his emotions and desires from his mind to his heart. But his mind still retained the ultimate control over actions. Human behavior still reflects the decisions reached by the human mind. What we have discovered is that the mind has become incapable of reaching totally rational decisions because of the power of the drives and emotions that it no longer controls. The Torah teaches those who follow its dictato behave as though the mind still retained control over their basic motivation as well and eliminates the confusion caused by the mind-emotion confrontation.

"You are my sheep, the flock that I shepherd; you are Adam" (Ezekiel) – that is, you, Israel are called Adam; the nations of the world are not Adam. (Talmud, Yevomat 61b)

Presented by a bewildering maze of mixed motivations none of which originate in the mind, man needs a guidebook to teach him to behave as though he was still a purely rational being. The Mitzvos of the Torah are designed to do this, and therefore Israel, who accepted the Torah still reflects Adam as he was before his sin.

Thus the information contained in the mind of the Torah Jew is the same as the information contained in Adam's mind before his sin – a product of pure reason. His behavior is the same; only his emotions are different.

In the case of the Jew, wearing clothes that are designed to match the ideal human state does not amount to misrepresentation; such clothes accurately project the ideal inner being that his outward behavior actually reflects. These types of clothes do really constitute a kapara, the removal of the blemish left by traces of sin.


The High Priest wears eight articles of clothing:

The Tunic

The innermost layer right next to the skin is representative of the most basic and primitive human emotions. At that most primal level, I know that that my affairs are no more important than any one else's, but in my heart I am ready to kill anyone who gets in the way of my attempts to satisfy my desires.

The tunic is a kapara for these aggressive impulses. The kohen's behavior towards others is governed by the commandment of "love your brother as you love yourself" (Leviticus 19:18] and reflects his mind rather than his heart.

The Trousers

In my mind I realize that the purpose of the sexual drive is to populate the world and help cement the relationship between men and women with the powerful bond of romantic love. In my heart I want to engage in sex for the simple satisfaction of my lust.

The trousers are a kapara for the sexual impulse, because the wearer's behavior in this area is governed by the laws of the Torah.

The Turban

In my mind I realize that my importance in the scheme of things cannot possibly outweigh that of other human beings – we are all God's creations after all, but in my heart I feel that I am the center of the universe.

The turban acts as a kapara for these feelings of haughtiness in one who is dedicated to act towards others with humility.

The Belt

The inner turmoil and confusion that leads me astray comes from my inability to distinguish between the thoughts that are generated by the desires of my heart, from those that are the products of pure reason.

The belt that the kohen wears represents the determination to eliminate this confusion by testing every thought against the dictates of the Torah.

These four articles are worn by the high priest and by all priests. The remaining four are worn only by the high priest. We will discuss these, God willing, in the essay on Parshat Pikudei.

Let us end with the following thought. The word for clothing in Hebrew is beged – composed of the letters beth, gimel, and daleth. The Hebrew word for treason or betrayal is spelled with the identical letters.

These letters are also sequential; they are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Clothes have a dual aspect. They are either a disguise worn by the traitor to help conceal his treachery, or they flow naturally out of the number one, and allow us to trace the wearer back to his true Source.

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