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Holy Clothing

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Exploring the deeper significance behind the priestly garments.

The chapters immediately preceding this week's Torah reading contained very precise instructions for building the Mishkan. Now, our attention is turned to those who will serve as the custodians of this holy sanctuary: The kohanim. Parashat Tetzaveh records, in minute detail, God's instructions for the creation of the special clothing to be worn by the kohanim, and in particular the kohen gadol (High Priest). Apparently, entry into the holy domain, and especially into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Mishkan, required preparation; the garments described in this parashah served as an outward manifestation of this internal, spiritual preparation.

Talmudic tradition offers an additional insight into the symbolic nature of these garments, matching each of them with the particular sin for which it is meant to bring about forgiveness.(1) And yet, the connection between clothing and sin is not immediately clear. While we know that clothing can be seductive, and may lead to certain types of sin, it can also be used to obscure or even be oppressive and restrictive. This focus on clothing and its association with sin, however, is not new to this section of the Torah; in fact, it goes as far back as the very beginning of time.

In the idyllic Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were without clothing, without shame - and without sin. Only in a post sin reality - a reality with which we are well acquainted - is clothing needed. It is no accident that the etymology of a number of Hebrew words that describe articles of clothing connects them to sin: Beged (clothing) has at its root a connection with BaGaD - betrayal. Me'il (coat) is connected to M'eiLa - misappropriation. According to the Talmud, the word for clothing, levush, is comprised of two words, lo bosh - to avoid embarrassment.(2) The sin in Eden, then, as it is reflected in these words, was both a betrayal and a misappropriation. When this first sin was committed, the need for clothing arose: Mankind, once innocent and honest, now required, both literally and figuratively, a "cover-up."

As we know, exile from the Garden of Eden did not bring an end to sin. In the very next generation, the symbolic connection between sin and clothing deepened: Cain, a farmer, murdered his brother Abel, a shepherd, and according to rabbinic tradition, this heinous crime lies at the heart of the prohibition of shaatnez: The Torah prohibits the mixing of wool, a product of the flocks, with linen, an agricultural product. We are commanded to insure that in our clothing, the divergent realms of Cain and Abel are not combined.(3) Our clothing not only reflects the sin, but is intended to serve as a constant reminder and symbolic wake-up call.

The Mishkan, and later the Beit HaMikdash, were intended to be places of healing and rapprochement. There, man could approach God and seek forgiveness. No wonder, then, that a representation of mankind before sin stood in the holiest place within the Sanctuary: The keruvim, two angelic cherubs, simulacra of Adam and Eve in their original state of innocence,(4) hovered over the Holy Ark. These innocent, naked figurines represented man before he corrupted himself and his world, before shame and guilt created a need for clothing. However, in order to enter this area, the kohen gadol had to be dressed in "holy clothing," not merely to serve as a fig leaf to cover his nakedness, but as a profound acknowledgment of the human condition in a world corrupted by sin.

On the other hand, this same clothing contained within it a statement of hope: Unlike all other clothing, the garments of the kohen were made of a combination of linen and wool. Symbolically, the kohen was not limited by the repercussions of Cain's sin; the Torah specifies that this clothing, is to be made of shaatnez. Only one day a year, on Yom Kippur, when the kohen gadol entered the Holy of Holies and the keruvim were in full view, were these clothes of shaatnez set aside. On this special day, all ornaments, all distractions, all symbols of sin were stripped away. On Yom Kippur, the kohen gadol wore clothes of pure white, in an attempt to reach the level of purity that he would see when he beheld the naked keruvim within the inner sanctum. Neither clothing of gold, representing the sin of the golden calf, nor shaatnez, representing the murder of Abel, could cross that threshold. For in that unique place, reconciliation between Cain and Abel suddenly became possible, just as reconciliation with God suddenly came with man's reach.

For a more in-depth analysis see:


1. See Talmud Zevachim 88b, Archin 16a, Keretot 27b.

2. Talmud Shabbat 77b. For more on this topic see Echoes of Eden (Jerusalem: Geffen Publishers and OU Press, 2011), especially Parashat Vayeshev: "Clothes Make the Man," p. 245.

3. Midrash Tanchumah Bereishit section 9.

4. See Explorations (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 2001), p. 169 for a broader discussion of this topic.



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