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Priestly Clothing
Dignified clothing serves as the mark of a man elevated above the base.

Priestly Clothing

Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak


Clothing is not a minor issue. World trade in textiles was worth some $331 billion dollars in 1998, a number that has surely expanded exponentially in the last ten years. Peoples from around the world have always known instinctively that what you wear effects who you are.


The Torah acknowledged the psychological effect of clothing in the uniform it assigned to the Kohen Gadol (high priest) serving in the mishkan (tabernacle) and, later, in the Beis Hamikdash (temple): “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aharon (Aaron) your brother, for glory and splendor” (Exodus 28:2). The raiment of the Kohen Gadol was beautiful.


This significantly contributed to the noble atmosphere the Kohen Gadol commanded. Some may be surprised to learn that the most spiritual individual in the most spiritual of all nations was required by the Almighty to invest much time and energy in to his physical appearance. In commanding the Kohen Gadol to invest time and energy in the way he looked, Torah confirmed the legitimacy of external beauty as a resource to support spiritual pursuits and the service of the Almighty.


Attractive appearance has influenced social standing in cultures the world over and the Kohen Gadol’s attractive appearance emphasized his honorable position. Perhaps even more surprising, though, was the positive spiritual effect the priestly garments were intended to have on the Kohen Gadol himself.


Although the nation would be inspired by the splendor of the Kohen Gadol’s uniform, claimed the Torah the person the Kohen Gadol’s raiment would inspire most of all would be the Kohen Gadol himself. The Jewish People would be touched, not only be the authority the Kohen Gadol’s clothing commanded, but most of all by the holy, elevated visage those garments helped him to project from within.


It was the spiritual effect that the clothing had on the Kohen Gadol, even more so than the external appearance they gave him, that was to uplift the nation as they watched him perform his temple services. Once, again, this was not a minor issue. “They shall be on Aaron and his sons when they enter the Ten of Meeting or when they approach the Altar to serve in holiness, and they should not bear a sin and die…” (ibid 28:43). Serving in the Beis HaMikdash without the assigned noble attire was severely punishable.


Worse still, appearing without the proper apparel meant losing the privilege of serving as a priest for all subsequent generations as well. “As long as their clothing was upon them, their priesthood was upon them. Their clothing was not upon them -- their priesthood was not upon them,” says the Talmud in Zevachim 17B.


Without priestly attire, the former priest’s legal status was identical to any other member of the nation and his temple service was invalidated. One of the fundamental points that the priesthood depended on was being appropriate clothed.


“Why was the matter of priestly clothing discussed immediately before the matter of sacrifices in the Torah?,” asks (where is this from?). “To teach us that just as the sacrifices atone, so do the priestly garments atone.” Why were the priestly garments so important?


Clothing is much more than a measure of protection against the elements or self-decoration. Clothing is the first, decisive impression that we make on human society. It usually defines how others treat us, and it often defines how we treat ourselves. It is our external visage that proclaims our moral sensitivity and distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. The essence of clothing is human dignity, the honor of a human being in that he or she is a human being.


Clothing has served this purpose since the Almighty provided Adam and Eve with leather tunics, not as an unimportant afterthought, but almost as a part of the act of creation itself. This second skin, as it were, was to accompany man towards a more refined relationship with his physical being.


Clothing bespeaks the loftiness, holiness, and refinement of man and is the cornerstone of civilization. Primitive tribes that did not catch on to the necessity of clothing the human body did not survive the test of time. Unfortunately, twentieth century western culture has seen man backslide in his sensitivity to privacy and dignity in both the public and the private arena.


Judaism teaches that clothing changes man into the priest of his own temple, the bearer of the moral code of his world. Clothing allows man to refine his life and assign it meaning beyond the maintenance of his basic physical needs. Dignified clothing serves as the mark of a man elevated above the base, projecting refinement all around him.


The appearance of the Kohen Gadol dressed in the priestly garments commanded by the Almighty reminded all those who saw him of the original gift of clothing at the dawn of humanity. The gift of clothing meant more than just a garment. It meant the ability for man to guard himself against the animalistic and base in his nature and around him. The concepts of Jewish priesthood and human clothing in general are both defined by their purpose in raising consciousness towards the rectification of human society. The power of this rectification is no less atoning than the temple sacrifices themselves.

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