Of all the prophets, none has ever been so close to the Divine as Moses. God spoke to him face-to-face, “as one speaks to a friend.” But when it came to human relationships, his brother, Aaron, was far better: He excelled at mediating civic and domestic disputes, was happily married, and was close to his children. And he was free from envy when he saw that his younger brother had been chosen to lead God’s people. Said Shimon bar-Yochai, “The same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother, let precious stones be set on it. As it is said, ‘And Aaron shall bear the names of the Israelites on the breastplate on his heart’” [Midrash Tanhuma].
Because of this capacity to rejoice wholeheartedly in another’s good, Aaron was chosen as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) — to bring harmony to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, drawing them close to God. And although, previously, Moses had fulfilled the dual function of leader and priest, he was now called upon to serve as his brother’s personal wardrobe assistant, advising him on how to wear his ephod, robe, fringed tunic, breastplate, headdress, and sash. For if even one component was missing, not only would Aaron’s service have been invalidated, but his life would have been forfeit.
While Moses, in his attachment to God, would veil himself to deflect attention from the radiance surrounding him, Aaron and his successors needed colorful ceremonial garb to assume their role.
Why was there so much emphasis on ritual and appearances when it came to the Sanctuary and the priestly garments? According to the Midrash, God’s command to build a Sanctuary may be compared with the ordering of a new suit from the royal tailor. Similarly, on special occasions, such as weddings or coronations, people make use of color and pageantry to express their feelings. The Shechinah, literally “dwelling,” denotes the settling of the Divine Presence in the Sanctuary, built and decorated by human artistry. The feminization of this concept in rabbinic literature has largely been accepted as a way of imagining the Infinite as contained by the constraints of space and physicality. With the transfer of the priesthood from the remote, ascetic Moses to the friendly, accessible Aaron, it became possible, metaphorically speaking, to ground the Divine Presence, as a rainbow-colored garment, or rather as the descent of veil upon veil of God’s light in “Clouds of Glory.”
The prophet Ezekiel likens the Shechinah to “the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day.” Rainbow is one of her names. The poet Ben Sirach, describing the high point of Yom Kippur, when the High Priest returned unscathed from the Holy of Holies, compares that presumably male reappearance with the erotic feminine images of the “rainbow emerging from a cloud,” “a rose set in the midst of the garden of sweet love,” and “the glow etched on the face of a bridegroom.”
By wearing multicolored garments, the Kohen Gadol becomes a representation of this Presence. The Talmud mentions that, in a variant of the Hebrew word for glory (kavod), Judah the Prince referred to his clothes as “those that honor me” or “my dignity.” Ramban tells us that the brightly colored priestly garments were essentially royal robes, like those worn by kings on state occasions. As an example, he cites Tamar, the daughter of King David, who wore a multicolored tunic to publicize that she was a princess.
Aside from the utilitarian purpose of covering the body and protecting us against the elements, what is clothing for? The priestly vestments, the Torah tells us, were “for glory and for beauty” [Exodus 28:2]. Their function was ornamental, a luxury affordable only to royalty or the priestly class. The reason for this otherwise impractical fashion is the message they convey. That message is beauty.
For whose glory, asks Ramban, does Aaron don such splendor? It is not to aggrandize himself but so that, in them, he and the group he represents “should serve the glory of God.” The word “kohen” means to serve as well as to lead. When the text mentions “glory,” says Ramban, God is being addressed, but when beauty is mentioned, it means “the beauty of Israel.” Ramban insists that the quintessential quality of the Jewish people is beauty (tiferet), as it relates to Israel’s connection with God and to their harmony with one another.
At every stage during the fashioning of these garments, the men and women involved were instructed to bear this symmetry in mind. The High Priest, at the apex of this process, wore the breastplate with precious stones, each engraved with the names and seals of the tribes, possibly as an antidote to the jealousy that led to the rending of Joseph’s coat of many colors. By assuming this investiture, the High Priest holds the brotherhood together — each one different, each one precious — “against his heart,” arousing a corresponding remembrance in the Divine.
During the creation of the world, God Himself is imagined as putting on clothes, possibly a tallit: “The Lord covers himself with light as with a garment,” the Psalmist declares [Ps. 104:2]. In Shabbat liturgy, Israel is likened to God’s royal diadem, but Jeremiah has the audacity to compare the Jewish people to a loincloth: “As the loincloth clings to a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to Me … to be My people … for My glory” [Jeremiah 13:11]. Assuming the most lowly, necessary, intimate article of clothing is that in which God takes special pride.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: a Jewish Book of Light,” available in an Amazon Kindle edition.
Shabbat Candles: 5:12 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 27:20-30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27
Havdalah: 6:14 p.m.