Do Clothes Make The Priest?


Shabbat candles: 5:31 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 27:20-30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27
Havdalah: 6:30 p.m.     

With so much attention being paid at the Academy Awards to the “red carpet” and fashion, this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, turns the lens to the far more serious and spiritual couture of the Kohanim, an exhaustive account of the priestly aristocracy’s official wardrobe.

We might have expected the parasha to commence with Aaron’s job description as Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). The narrative, however, skips directly to the dress code. The Torah explains that the reason behind these vestments for the Kohen Gadol is “lekad’sho l’chahano li,” “to sanctify him so that he can be a Kohen to Me (God)” [Exodus 28:3].

How will these garments serve to sanctify Aaron? Do clothing items have the power to make someone holy? Looking at featured articles of clothing from recent parshiyot, it appears that the mention of clothing in the Torah seems to correspond to a diminution in holiness. From Adam and Eve’s post-sin apparel, to Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat, to Tamar’s seductive attire, clothing did not necessarily portray these biblical personalities in the best light. 

What makes the Kohen Gadol’s uniform so distinct? The garments detailed in this parasha are filled with biblical post-it notes, reminders of the Kohen Gadol’s responsibilities toward his constituency, Bnai Yisrael and God. The Kohen Gadol was commanded to wear a breastplate that contained twelve different precious gemstones, each engraved with a name of the Twelve Tribes. He was also instructed to place a stone on each of his shoulders, each stone having been engraved with the names of six of the tribes. Additionally, the Kohen Gadol was expected to put on a headdress that was inscribed with the words “Holy to God,” as well as adorn a cloak with bells attached to it.

The vestments described in Tetzaveh did not only serve as reminders of Aaron’s responsibilities but they also contributed to the fulfillment of his work in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Talmud in Masechet Zevachim, a tractate dedicated to the details of sacrificial service, states: “mah korbanot mechaprin, bigdei kehunah mechaprin,” “Just as offerings atone, so too do the priestly vestments atone” [B.T. Zevachim 88b]. The Gemara explains how each of the garments listed in our parasha had redemptive qualities that worked hand-in-hand with the actual sacrifices. For example, the tunic atoned for bloodshed, the belt atoned for improper thoughts, and the robe atoned for lashon harah, evil speech.    

These clothing items also served as Aaron’s life-vest to save him from the unknown occupational hazards of working for God, as the Torah states that the sound of the bells on the his cloak should be heard when Aaron entered and exited the sanctuary, “v’lo yamut,” “and he will not die” [Ex. 28:35]. Rashi and several other commentators understand this strict decree to apply to all of the clothing items detailed in our parasha. If Aaron were to do his holy work without wearing his uniform, he could risk death.

The vestments of the Kohen Gadol, while beautifully designed, were not only for show but to a soulful focusing aid. Just as specific materials were donated for the structure of the sacred space of the Mishkan, these clothing items, known as “bigdei kodesh,” “holy garments,” added to the sanctity of the Mishkan itself.

The Kohen Gadol’s garments were a constant reminder of his holy responsibilities. What we wear can inform and inspire us in our daily regimen. How can our wardrobe choices contribute holiness to the spaces around us, or help us to focus on our duties of the day? Can certain fashions make us feel more responsible? It appears that the intricate design and detail devoted to the garments of the Kohanim teach us that fashion has the possibility to transform the way in which we work and the way in which we contribute to society. May our wardrobes bring sacred styles into our lives.

Rabbi Yael Buechler, one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” honorees in 2010, is the founder of, an educational venture that features a weekly manicure for the parasha. Rabbi Buechler serves as the coordinator of student life in the middle school at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.