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The Torah Portion of Tetzaveh: Aaron’s Priestly Garments

How much attention should men pay to their clothing? The standard reply is probably: a little, but not too much. Maimonides writes, “The clothing of a Torah scholar should be clean and good-looking and it is forbidden that a stain or an oil mark be found on his garment, etc. Neither should he wear royal garments, such as gold or scarlet clothing, which attract everyone’s attention, nor a pauper’s clothing that degrades the one who wears it, but normal, good-looking clothes.”[1] By all means, jewelry and fashion generally belong only to a woman’s world, while men are also limited by the prohibition, “A man shall not wear a woman’s dress.”[2] Yet, the High Priest is an exception to this rule. He does wear, “gold or scarlet clothing, which attract everyone’s attention” and some of his garments, such as the breast-plate and the head-plate, are quite clearly jewelry.

Moses and Aaron

The priestly garments are not just an added extra for the kohanim (priests), but an integral, essential part of their priesthood. The service of a kohen who serves in the Temple wearing everyday clothing and not the priestly garments is invalid. Similarly, the High Priest is ordained as such by wearing the High Priest’s garments.[3]

In order to glean some insight into the mysteries of the priestly garments, we will compare between two brothers.

Aaron the High Priest is obviously the one who plays the main role in the Torah portion of Tetzaveh. In the first part of the Torah portion a complete wardrobe of magnificent clothing is sewn for him, “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, as honor and for beauty.” In the second half of the portion appears the commandment relating to the seven days of “filling-in” when Moses served in the Tabernacle, offered up sacrifices, and inaugurated Aaron and his sons into their service.

By contrast, Moses appears in the portion as Aaron’s assistant, and is even commanded to dress him, “And you shall dress Aharon…” Moreover, this is the only Torah portion since Moses’ birth that does not explicitly mention his name, although he is mentioned in the second person, as in, “And you shall command.” It’s as if Moses has cleared the stage for his older brother, and wishes neither to compete with him nor to offend him.

Whereas Aaron has eight magnificent, colored and tailored garments, the verses make no explicit mention of Moses’ clothing. However, the sages ask, “What did Moses wear during the seven days of ‘filling-in’? A white robe.” So now, if we include the basic priestly outfit of the lay kohanim (priests), which is comprised of four garments―a tunic, pants, a cap and a belt―referred to as “white clothes,” we now have three sets of clothing: Moses’ one garment, Aaron’s eight garments and the laykohanim’s four garments.

The division into 1, 8 and 4 is a clear allusion to the three letters of the word “one” (אחד) which have numerical values of 1 (א), 8 (ח) and 4 (ד), respectively. Let us use this allusion to assist us in our quest to reach a more profound dimension.

God is One

Every day, twice a day, we say the word “one” out loud with special intentions, “Hear o’ Israel,Havayah is our God, Havayah is one.”[4] When saying the word “one” we should have in mind the numerical value of each of the letters of the word in Hebrew, with the intention that the alef (א), with a numerical value of 1 alludes to the Almighty; the letter chet (ח), with a numerical value of 8, alludes to the 7 heavens together with the 1 earth; and the letter dalet (ד), with a numerical value of 4, alludes to the four spatial directions.[5] This means that we have no perception of the alef because God Himself is a singular unity, above any definition or limitation and we have no comprehension of Him whatsoever (“No thought grasps Him at all”). Nonetheless, His unity penetrates the world and is apparent in it as it descends from heaven to heaven until it reaches the earth (the letter chet) and diffuses throughout the spatial directions (the letter dalet), which is how we know Him as “King of the Universe.” Between the letter chet and the letter dalet, the greater novelty is that of the chet, which succeeds in descending and evolving from a higher world to a lower world, as opposed to the dalet, which represents diffusion on one plane (the difference between two-dimensions and three-dimensions).

Now let’s get back to clothing. Our clothes are our ability to appear outside. However, during this appearance, there is a danger that our clothes might betray us. Indeed, the letters of the word “betray” (בָּגָד) are identical to the letters of the word “garment” (בֶּגֶד) and the sages make this connection in their explanation of the phrase, “The scent of his garments―the scent of his betrayers.”[6] However, in a more positive scenario, our clothing represents our inner truth, and through the garments that we wear to cover our bodies, others can receive a distant sense of our soul, hidden deep within. Our clothing is like our PR campaign, and we need to take care that it is a genuine expression of our inner essence and does not turn into a glittering, but hollow shell.

Moses does not participate in this PR campaign. He is the last one suited to do so, because he stutters, “Of heavy mouth and heavy tongue.” We might say that he is not particularly “photogenic.” Moses clings to the Divine truth, and he knows God better than anyone else. That’s why he wears a white robe – because he integrates God’s brightest light, as He is in simple unity, above and beyond all the different colors and their shades. This is exactly like the letter alef (א) of the word “one” (אֶחָד), which alludes to God’s unity.

The four garments of the lay kohen succeed in making white light tangible and perceptible to the human eye. They wear not only one simple white robe, but a detailed outfit of white clothing that includes the belt of the lay kohen in which there is a combination of different colored threads.[7] This is the first stage of our PR campaign―like the letter dalet (ד) of the word “one” (אֶחָד), which alludes to the four spatial directions.

The eight garments of the High Priest are the climax of our campaign. Here we have a beautifully colored array, which includes a variety of shades, from the vegetable (linen), animal (wool) and mineral (gold and precious gemstones) kingdoms. They even incorporate bells that draw our attraction through our sense of hearing. Everyone is impressed and praise the High Priest, “True, how magnificent was the sight of the Kohen Gadol [High Priest]!”[8] This is the letter chet (ח) of the word “one” (אֶחָד), which successfully illustrates God’s unity within the myriad changing shades of this world.

Father and Mother

We began with the differences between men and women regarding clothing. Indeed, we can perceive Moses and Aaron as “father” and “mother” figures. The father wears a white robe, “A clean and good-looking” garment, while the mother wears layers of beautiful garments (like the three layers of Aaron’s clothing: a tunic, above which is a coat, above which are the apron and the breastplate.) The father represents the abstract essence, the unity that precedes multiplicity, so he suffices with one simple, modest garment, without jewelry or flair. By contrast, the mother knows how to work well with the myriad shades of reality, which is why her wardrobe holds far more than her husband’s shelf; one dress for today and another one for tomorrow, in a variety of colors and styles.

The Tabernacle and the Temple are a home, and the home is run by the woman, the housewife. This is the task of the kohanim, above all Aaron the High Priest runs the show―like a devoted mother who takes care of the cooking, the laundry and the cleaning. Moses, on the other hand, does not regularly serve in the Tabernacle, he concerns himself with Torah study and he comes into the Tabernacle to hear God’s word, the Torah. When he nonetheless has a task to do, as in the seven days of “filling-in,” he retains his loyalty to his unique task and adds nothing to his one simple garment.

Truth and Peace

Here is what the sages have to say about the difference between Moses and Aaron:[9]

Moses would say that justice must prevail. But Aaron loved peace and pursued peace and promoted peace between man and his fellowman, as it says, “True teaching was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. In peace and equity he went with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity.”

Truth makes no compromise; it therefore suits a man of truth to wear a white robe, as if he sees everything in black or white, with no shades of grey in between. But, truth alone cannot succeed in creating positive communication between people in our world, which is why together with the man of truth there needs to be a man of peace who is suited to wear beautiful, colorful clothing. That is why Aaron carries the names of all the tribes on his shoulders and upon his heart, because he promotes peace amongst them.

A man of peace is prepared to make a detour from the absolute truth for peace’s sake, since, “It is permitted [and even a mitzvah] to modify [one’s words] for peace.” But, Moses states the unprejudiced truth without embellishments:

Moses would verbally rebuke them, but Aaron never told a man ‘you acted corruptly’ or a woman, ‘you acted corruptly’… Two people who were in dispute went to Aaron. He sat with one of them and said to him, ‘See what your friend is saying, “My heart is in turmoil… I am pulling my hair out, how can I look up and look at my friend? I am so embarrassed that I sinned against him.”’ He would sit with him until he eliminated all the jealousy from his heart. Then he would go to the other friend and speak to him similarly, and when they met, they would hug and kiss each other.[10]

However, Aaron needs Moses by his side, to dress him and inaugurate him into his service, so that the peace he achieves represents the innermost truth, and so that his multiple garments will not “betray” him. As mentioned above, the letters of the word “garment” are the same as “betray” (בגד) and they are consecutive letters in the order of the alef-bet. But, before these three letters comes the first letter, alef (א), which is represented by Moses, as above. The alef (א) must enter the garment (בגד) as is alluded to in the verse, “And Leah said bagad (בגד)” in which the word is read as if it is two words with an additional alef (בָּא גָד), meaning that within the garment is an alef, which is reminiscent of the One and unique God who is the source of all varieties of color and clothing.

Adapted and translated from our book (in Hebrew), “Earth, Heaven and Abyss,” p. 161

[1] Hilchot Dei’ot 5:9.

[2] Deuteronomy 22:5.

[3] Maimonides, Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 10:4.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[5] Shulchan Aruch Harav 61:6.

[6] Sanhedrin 37a.

[7] Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 8:1.

[8] From the Yom Kippur prayers.

[9] Sanhedrin 6b.

[10] Yalkut ShimoniParashat Chukat 764.

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