For Whom Do We Dress?

Tzav By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 22, 2003 / 5763

Parashat Tsav raises the issue of clothing, and how our outer presentation can mirror, or even influence, our thoughts and behavior.

Early in the parashah we read about the priests’ clothing:

This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place (Leviticus/ Vayikra 6: 2—4).

Is this change of clothes for the benefit of the Israelites or the priests themselves?

The new Etz Hayim commentary points out that this change helps the priests remember the ordinary Israelites whom they serve and represent: the priests are not set apart altogether, but must leave the sanctuary and dress as their brethren, in order to empathize with the “ordinary” tasks that the other Israelites do every day, and to impress upon the priests how fortunate they are to be engaged, for the most part, in holy work.

Earlier, when we were introduced to the fabrics, colors and articles of the priests’ clothing, we learned that the High Priest wore a gold plate on his forehead, inscribed with the words “Holy to God” — “Kadosh L’Adonai” (Exodus 28:36). Surely this was not to impress the Israelites, who rarely saw the Kohen Gadol during his service, but to remind Aaron and his descendants of their sacred task of representing the people and atoning for their sins.

Through the generations, Jewish tradition has mandated specific dress from the rank and file: a tallit katan with tzitzit to help us remember the commandments; a head covering to show that we acknowledge the Divine Presence over us; a beard or sideburns in response to the specific statement in the Torah: “do not cut the five corners of your beard …”; and clothing that is tzanua — neither overly revealing nor excessively flashy, for both men and women.

While “modern” Jews might be observant at home and away, believe in God, visit Israel, and invest in children’s Jewish education, we often stop short of dressing or presenting ourselves as “traditional Jews.” We may have ingrained rules about synagogue dress (no slacks, skirt below the knee, no bare shoulders for adults or teens), even these are becoming blurred. Is this a conscious choice or something that just happens? Are we afraid of standing out, or do we just prefer the aesthetics of contemporary fashion?

Is it a coincidence that the Jews most identifiable by external appearance, are often the ones most dedicated to pursuing a completely Jewish lifestyle? What might we gain by opening a dialogue about clothing and physical appearance: hats, beards, skirts, tzitzit?

Giti Bendheim writes, “There are certain limits that Judaism wants me to set, that I want to set for myself, and my consciousness of having deliberately thwarted my own vainer instincts in favor of a higher principle confirms and strengthens my higher expectations of myself” (Moonbeams, 56).

Certainly, the earliest Biblical use of the term “tzniut” refers to modesty not in the narrow sense of dress alone, but in the more general sense of humility of character.

The prophet Micah tries to reduce the messages of Torah to three essential elements:

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of You: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God (Vehatznea lekhet im Elohekha).

Similarly we learn from the post—talmudic composition Derekh Eretz Zuta (composed some time between 600 and 1000 C. E.) “A disciple of the wise should be modest at eating, at drinking, at bathing, at anointing himself, at putting on his sandals; in his walking, in dress, in he sound of his voice,… and even in his good deeds.”

Still, there are times that wearing certain clothes can influence our behavior and help us achieve our goals. Just as wearing a suit can give us confidence in an interview, and wearing a fancy dress can help us experience the festive mood of a party, wearing special clothes to synagogue reminds of our goals there: worship and connection with what is best in us and our community. Similarly, wearing clothes that are clean and tidy and that cover the most “private” parts — inside the synagogue and outside — may help us see ourselves as respectful Jews attesting to the Divine Presence continually. For then, it is as if we today wear the headband of the High Priest — “Holy to God.”

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.