“What should I wear?” For the priests who serve in the Tabernacle, the Torah gives very clear answers to this question in Parashat Tetzave.
After the revelation at Sinai, God continues to address the Jewish people through Moses, instructing our ancestors how to construct a society and how to build the physical structures to support the people’s ritual life. This week’s portion turns to the particulars of crafting sacred objects for the sanctuary; the details of the priests’ garments; and to the rites of their installation and consecration.
Are we what we wear? God tells Moses to “bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons … to serve Me as priests … Make sacred vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” The Holy One then enumerates the components of these vestments: “A breastpiece, an ephod [a priestly garment for the upper body], a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash,” specifying the materials and the colors to be used for each item. Precious stones are essential to the completion of the priest’s raiment, and the text describes in detail how the ephod and the breastpiece are to be fashioned with mounted jewels.
The two words translated as dignity and adornment are repeated in verse 40, as Moses is instructed to make tunics, sashes and turbans for Aaron’s sons “for dignity and adornment.” The first of these words is kavod, “distinction.” Does the raiment serve as a sign or reminder of distinction to the beholder or to the wearer? Do we wear certain articles of clothing, particularly garments that set us apart, to honor ourselves or to honor others?
The sages of the Mishnah teach us that our ability to honor others is connected to the way we honor ourselves. In Pirke Avot, the rabbis teach, “Let your friend’s honor be as precious to you as your own.” (2:10) When we dress for others, we honor them. The rabbis challenge us to also recognize our own worth by the way we dress ourselves.
Aaron was charged to “carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart.” The priestly raiment contained the names of Aaron’s ancestors; every time he donned his ceremonial garb, he was reminded of his inheritance and of his charge: to continue to serve and to care for the Israelite people. Each time he and his sons dressed in priestly garb, they symbolically re-articulated their commitment to their past and to their people’s future.
The priesthood, as described in Exodus and throughout the Tanach, came to an end. And while many faith traditions reserve special, “priestly” garb for their religious and spiritual leaders, every Jew can wear a tallit, tefillin and kipah.
Sacred garments do not have inherent power, but there is great power in the simple act of donning these ancestral gifts. When we, like those who came before us, wrap ourselves in tallit and tefillin, we wrap ourselves in both history and hope. We acknowledge ourselves as a link in a chain of connection, of service, of caring for ourselves and caring for others.
May we, as the heirs of Aaron and his sons, claim the joy and privilege of wearing garments “for dignity and adornment,” affirming our precious legacy of joy in sacred service.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .