Garments of Holiness

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Miriam Pearl Klahr

In this week’s Torah portion Moshe is told to bring forward Aaron and his sons to function as Priests for G-d. Surprisingly, what follows is not an account of their service but forty-two verses that describe the garments the priests should wear. These garments are royal in nature, made from the finest of materials and gold. While one might expect instructions for dignified apparel, the detail with which G-d instructs Moshe regarding how to make each garment seems almost excessive and counterintuitive. In this holy space where man approaches G-d, why is such a great emphasis placed on clothing?

ועשית בגדי קדש לאהרון אחיך לכבוד ולתפארת

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, לכבווד ולתפארת = for dignity and adornment.  (Exodus 28:2)

The words לכבוד ולתפארת seem to be the Torah’s justification for the elaborate priestly clothing.  Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains that those who ministered in the mikdash wore beautiful garments so as to receive great honor and be distinguished from the rest of the people.  This raises the public esteem for the mishkan.  Netziv writes that the garments of the priests helped create a distinctive aura within the mishkan.   Sforno adds that the Kohen Gadol specifically wore dignified garments so as to inspire awe among the Israelites, who were all his disciples with their names engraved upon his breastplate.

These approaches suggest that the priestly clothing exists not for its own sake, but rather to elicit a response from others, in other words to generate respect for the mishkan or for the Kohanim.  Sforno’s side point that the names of the Israelites were engraved upon the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol implies a third purpose for the bigdei kehunah. The priestly garments also came to remind the kohanim of their own role. Through constantly wearing the names of all twelve tribes, the Kohen Gadol was constantly reminded of that he was doing G-d’s work as an emissary of the people. Though the other kohanim did not wear the breastplate, perhaps one can deduce that wearing such finery also helped them realize that they were performing G-d’s work on behalf of the Jewish people when serving in the mishkan.

However, the Talmud in Zevahim 88b takes a radically different approach to the priestly clothing. It correlates each garment with a specific sin and explains that the bigdei kehunah serve as an atonement for these sins. This explanation gives value to the priestly garments in and of themselves regardless of the response they provoke. It also implies that the need for bigdei kehudah is not ideal, for if the Jewish people would not sin, these garments of atonement would be unnecessary.

Rabbi Isiah Horowitz’s in his work Shney Luchot Habrit offers a slightly different perspective.  He explains that Aaron symbolizes the completion of Adam’s atonement. Adam created a distance between himself and G-d, while Aaron represents the culmination of man coming close to G-d post-sin. This idea can also be applied to the clothing of these two men. Adam was given clothing at his moment of shame. His garment was not ideal but a response to his having misused the world around Him, falling prey to physical temptation and having taken what which was forbidden to him. On the other hand, Aaron’s clothing comes at a moment of glory and closeness, not shame. It comes at a point when Aaron is about to begin using the physicality of this world to serve G-d and bring His presence into this world.

The Torah refers to the priestly clothing as bigdei kodesh, sacred garments. While these garments can be viewed as a means to achieving a greater goal of respect or as coming to atone for sin, they can also be seen as holy in and of themselves. They represent how while physicality can alienate one from G-d, it can also be extremely holy when used to serve Him. The priestly clothing functions as a microcosm for the service of the mishkan and the maintaining of holiness in the entirety of one’s life. It reminds one that while physicality may often be a distraction that leads to sin and distance from G-d, when used in the context of serving and coming close to G-d, forty-two verses about clothing is far from shallow and excessive. It is a holy way of serving one’s creator.

Miriam Pearl Klahr (SBM 14) is currently a junior at Stern College studying Mathematics and Judaic Studies. She spent her gap year at Midreshet Nishmat.

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