By Rabbi Alan Iser
Most of this week’s Torah portion is concerned with elaborate instructions for the making of the special garments for Aaron and his fellow priests. Moses is told to “make holy vestments for your brother, Aaron, for dignity and adornment” (Exodus 28:2).
But for whose dignity and whose adornment? For Aaron and his fellow priests, for God and for the holy place in which they serve, or for all of the above?
Jewish commentators throughout the ages have offered a variety of explanations as to the specific purpose of the priestly garments.
Maimonides believes the vestments are to emphasize the dignity of the exalted office of the priesthood. He carefully points out that the priestly clothes are not to be worn for self-glorification. Another medieval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, notes that the clothes are called “holy vestments” because the priests serve in a holy place and because non-priests were forbidden from wearing anything like them.
The Ketav Sofer, a 19th-century rabbi, writes that garments set a person apart from others by affecting one’s attitude toward oneself and toward others. The high priest should not forget his unique position and responsibilities, while the people should be reminded of his lofty office.
Rabbis today serve a very different function from Aaron and his fellow priests as spiritual leaders.
Rabbinic Judaism is a far more democratic religion than the Judaism of the tabernacle and holy temple. For example, unlike the temple where only the priests could officiate, any adult Jew may lead services today. While some rabbis do still wear clerical robes during services, most rabbis do not feel the need to distinguish themselves from their congregants through their apparel.
Every Jew can now don holy vestments by wearing tallit and tefillin in daily services as an adornment for God. Tallit and tefillin should make us reflect on our devotion to God and our purpose in life as servants of God. So they both make us self-aware of our religious roles and distinguish us from other religions.
Let’s turn to one other 19th-century interpreter for a final word on the priestly garments.
The Malbim sees the instructions for the garments as operating on two levels. There were the visible physical vestments they had to wear, but they were also instructed to develop noble qualities within themselves, the vestments of the soul. Moses was to instruct them to improve their character so that their inner selves should be clothed in majesty and splendor.
In an age when superficial appearances seem more important than ever, it is important to be reminded that clothes should not make the man or woman; rather, the substance of our personalities and character traits are of ultimate importance as far as Judaism is concerned.
Rabbi Alan J. Iser is an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s University, Villanova University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.