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Parshat Tetzave: When clothes become more than just something to wear

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 02/02/2022

Do you enjoy finding deeper meaning in everyday things? Dr. Gila Vachman, director of Torah Lishma Tel Aviv and lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, helps us see the deeper meaning in the uniform vestments of the high priests. We learn that the meaning of their clothing is not only for the priests. Its symbolism benefits the entire Nation of Israel.

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Every morning, I stand in front of the closet and wonder “what should I wear”? Whether we like it or not clothes will always be an issue. They are never just pieces of fabric to cover our body, they are always a statement. A garment has to fit the body, suit the event, match the weather.

Parshat Tetzave deals, among other things, with special garments meant for a certain job. What is their role? Let’s read and see. Veasita bigdei kodesh, “you should make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. These are the vestments they are to make; a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons for priestly service to me” (Shemot 28:2). These garments are priestly garments or more specific the garments of the high priest. So, what makes them suitable for this job? Are they some kind of uniform, like those of soldiers or policemen? Perhaps they are working clothes? Are they supposed to be fancy royal robes? And how do these clothes actually relate to the role of the high priest?

The midrash has an interesting answer to this question. Rabbi Simon said, just as the offerings affect atonement, so do the garments affect atonement (Vayikra Raba 10:7). This is a surprising answer. The role of the high priest’s garment is not to mark him or glorify him. In fact, according to this midrash the garments are not at all intended for the priest who wears them, they are meant to atone for the people just like the sacrifices offered by the priest.

The midrash goes on explaining; the tunic atones for kilayim (a mixture of two kinds of material), the trousers atone for forbidden sexual relations, the headdress atones for the arrogant, the breastplate atones for improper judgments, the ephod atones for idol worship. Even the small bells, hanging from the edges of the high priest’s robe, are meant for atonement. According to this midrash they atone for leshon hara malicious speech, so we see that at least according to the midrash the garments of the high priest are not meant to be honoring and glorifying, l’chvod ul’tiferet they have a role of their own. The high priest does not wear them to look better, nor to be representative. He wears them to atone for the sins of the people and this is a particularly important message to senior officials who often feel elevated from the people, more dignified, well-dressed: you are here first and foremost to serve the people. Do not forget this.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.


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