Parashah of the week: Tetzaveh

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron” Exodus 28:2


The Torah is not the most obvious place to find a detailed description of its characters’ apparel, yet Parashat Tetzaveh devotes more than 40 verses on the priestly garments “for dignity and adornment” of Aaron and his sons.

Commentators are quick to explain that “dignity and adornment” relate not to Aaron, the individual, but to the importance of his office.

Usually, when we come across clothes in the Torah, they are purely functional rather than indicators of the status or riches of the wearer, the obvious exception Joseph’s kutonet passim, the famous coat of many colours gifted by his father, which is a cautionary tale of parental favouritism and sibling rivalry.

Garments are typically only mentioned when someone or something needs covering up, whether literally or metaphorically. The first such mention is in Genesis. God made clothes for Adam and Eve to preserve their dignity (Genesis 3:20), which is why some suggest that the Hebrew word lebush (garment) is derived from lo bosh (no shame).

Other times clothes are mentioned as a means of deception. Rebecca, for example, clothed Jacob in his brother’s favourite tunic to deceive his blind father, because it smelled of Esau and the outdoors (Genesis 27:15-27).

Aaron’s vestments, however, serve another function. Ceremonial robes help the wearer to fully inhabit the role he is about to perform. The garments’ splendour is a reminder of both the dignity and the responsibility of his position. Not for him to become – or feel that he has become — the object of veneration, but to remind him of the dignity of his position, which he must personify in his dealings with others.

For this reason, he wears the ephod and the attached choshen (breastplate), adorned with 12 semiprecious stones representing the 12 tribes, over his heart as a reminder that he should keep the people he serves in his heart. He also carries the burden of their needs on his shoulders, symbolised by the two stones on each shoulder of the ephod, engraved with the names of six of the tribes each.

The priestly vestments remind all leaders that the honour bestowed on them should always only be aimed at their function, not their own person. And is only truly deserved when they fulfil it with love for their people and with their people’s burdens on their shoulders.

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