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The Well-Dressed Kohen

The Well-Dressed Kohen

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Shabbat candles: 5:07 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 27:20-30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27
Shabbat ends: 6:08 p.m.

Tetzaveh is wholly devoted to the High Priest Aaron and his children, the priesthood, without even a mention of Moses’ name throughout the reading.

What is most jarring to the modern ear, and especially to those of us who have become accustomed to the informality of Israeli dress, is the painstaking description of the eight special garments of the High Priest and the four special garments of the regular priests.

The Talmud stipulates that only when properly garbed [Exodus 28:2], are the priests endowed with sanctity and permitted to minister in the Sanctuary [B.T. Zevahim 7]. Is the Torah then teaching us that “clothes make the man?” What about the internal characteristics of knowledge, virtue and commitment?

The priestly garb is not meant to endow sanctity but to inspire it, as well as to instill within the priests the confidence that they can make the entire world sacred. Moreover, the Torah teaches that every Jew must see him/herself as a High Priest dressed in sacred vestments, a member of “a holy nation and a Kingdom of priests.”

Jewish spirituality means to go into the world and sanctify it: to sanctify the kitchen and dining room with kashrut; to sanctify the bedroom with family ritual purity; to sanctify the marketplace with business ethics; to sanctify the calendar with holy days and sacred moments.

The previous reading, Terumah, began with the Divine charge: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among them.” In effect, God gave us a world — an imperfect, incomplete world with darkness a well as light, evil as well as good [Isaiah 45:7] — and expects us to perfect it, to re-make the world into a veritable Sanctuary so that the Divine will feel comfortable dwelling among us. This is the charge as well as the challenge, the model as well as the mission, of the Sanctuary.

In order to effect this, the High Priest must first see himself as being capable of carrying out such a formidable task, he must see himself as a powerful king, representing the King of all Kings, garbed in regal robes of honor and glory. And his dress expresses a message.

Just as the ideal King of Israel dare not involve himself with opulent, material blandishments like numerous wives, horses, gold and silver, but instead must demonstrate his devotion to God by always having with him a copy of the Torah [Deuteronomy 17:16-20], so must the High Priest wear the tzitz on his forehead “always,” a gold head-band on a heavenly blue thread of tchelet, upon which was written “holy unto the Lord” [Exodus 28:36-38]. Just as the ideal king of Israel must understand that his authority derives from the will of the people and for the sake of the people [Deuteronomy 17:18- 19], in accordance with the Talmudic dictum that a king cannot relinquish the honor due him because it is in actuality the honor of his nation, so the High Priest wears the breast-plate of justice over his heart, upon which were embroidered 12 precious stones with the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel “as a constant reminder before the Lord” [Exodus 28:29].

Every Israelite must also see himself as a High Priest, a proud representative of a holy nation and kingdom of priests. After all, does not the Israelite dress himself every day in his tefillin, the head tefillin atop his forehead on the place of the High Priest’s tzitz, and the hand tefillin opposite his heart, where the priestly breastplate expressed the names of the Twelve Tribes?

The tefillin are called a symbol of glory [Ezekiel 24:17], just as the regal robes are vestments of honor and glory [Exodus 28:2]. In wearing tefillin, the Jew becomes adorned with the four portions of the Torah expressing love of God, fealty to commandments, the sanctity of the people of Israel, and the sanctity of the land of Israel. These four readings are housed in the tefillin’s batim (box-like repositories), much like the king is adorned with the Torah that must always accompany him.

Moreover, the second traditional Jewish men’s’ garb is the ritual fringes of the tallit, or the smaller tallit katan (ideally with a thread of blue techelet, the salient feature of the High Priest’s tzitz) that is significantly called tzitzit, or a junior tzitz.

Every Jew must share in the mission to perfect the world, and must be inspired to do so by wearing the priestly, regal garments, which teach commitment to God and commitment to the nation.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Our Torah Stone and is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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