Clothes Makes the Man

And out of the blue, purple, and crimson wool they made the packing cloths for sacred use,and they made Aharon's sacred garments, as Hashem commanded Moshe.  (Sefer Shemot 39:1)

The vestments of the kohen gadol are for his honor and glory

Parshat Pekudai completes the Torah's discussion of the fabrication of the Mishcan.  Included in the parasha is a description of the garments to the kohen gadol – the high priest. The kohen gadol's vestments include eight components. These are his shirt, pants, headdress, belt, jacket, an apron-like garment, his breast-plate, and a gold band worn on the forehead.

What is the purpose of these elaborate vestments?  It should be noted that on the most sacred day of the year – Yom Kippur – the kohen gadol performs the services that are unique to that day in simple garments of white linen.  Why during the rest of the year are those simple garments replaced by elaborate vestments? 

The beautiful and detailed garments of the kohen gadol are first described in Parshat Tetzaveh. There, the Torah explains that the vestments of the kohen gadol are designed for his honor and glory. Nachmanides explains that they are the vestments typical of royalty.  Assigning these vestments to him communicates the elevated status within the nation of the kohen gadol. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra adds that these vestments are assigned exclusively to the kohen gadol and no other member of the nation may wear such garments.  Ibn Ezra may be referring to the cloth used for the kohen gadol’s vestments. These garments include combinations of wool and linen.  This combination of materials is typically prohibited.  The exception to this prohibition is the vestments of the kohen gadol, and to a lesser extent, this combination is also included in the garments of the common kohen.

Sefer HaChinuch suggests that these vestments are not intended to glorify and elevate the status of the kohen gadol. Instead, the objective in designating these beautiful and elaborate vestments to the kohen gadol is to emphasize the importance of the Mishcan. The kohen gadol is assigned these vestments because of his role in the service in the Mishcan and in securing atonement for the sins of the people. Therefore, the vestments do not honor the kohen gadol but rather communicate the awesome sacredness of the Mishcan.

The vestments also communicate a message to the kohen gadol

Sefer HaChinuch suggests, that although the vestments communicate the exalted sanctity of the Mishcan, they have another more immediate function. His position is based upon a study of these vestments and upon his understanding of human behavior.

Sefer HaChinuch notes, that not only are the vestments detailed in design, they are also considerable in their extent and mass.  They cover the kohen gadol from head to foot.  Some of the vestments are voluminous.  The belt is so long as to require that it be wound around the kohen gadol multiple times. The headdress is similarly extensive.  This characteristic of the vestments leads Sefer HaChinuch to conclude that the vestments' design is not solely aimed at impressing the observer.  The design suggests that the kohen gadol is to also be very aware of his vestments. Their weight, extent, and sheer mass are intended to attract and retain his attention. What message do these vestments communicate to the kohen gadol?

Before addressing this question, we must consider an insight of Sefer HaChinuch into human behavior. We understand that our actions reflect our attitudes. For example, when I speak respectfully to another person, my behavior reflects my regard for the person whom I am addressing.  When I recite the daily prayers, my actions reflect my faith in Hashem.  Actions are expressions of our internal attitudes, beliefs, and opinions.  However, Sefer HaChinuch asserts that it is also true that our behaviors exercise an influence on our internal attitudes and beliefs.  If I treat others with respect, my actions will shape or re-enforce my respect for others.  Through my praise of Hashem, I re-enforce my sense of His grandeur.

Now, we are prepared to address our question.  What is the message communicated to the kohen gadol by his vestments?  Sefer HaChinuch responds that the vestments remind the kohen gadol that he is the servant of Hashem, and that to Him, he offers his service.  By wearing his vestments, the kohen gadol is constantly reminded of these messages and they become more thoroughly integrated into his thinking and outlook. 

In summary, his vestments are designed to not only bring honor to the kohen gadol; they also serve as an ongoing reminder to him that he is acting in the service of Hashem and that it is He whom he worships.  Through this ongoing reminder, these messages are constantly re-enforced and become integrated into the kohen gadol’s thinking and perspective.

Our clothing impacts our perception of ourselves and our values

This insight of Sefer HaChinuch has implications beyond our understanding of the vestments of the kohen gadol. Sefer HaChinuch's insight suggests an approach to understanding the Torah's attitude toward how we should dress.  The Torah requires that we dress modestly and not in a revealing manner. The Torah also has other standards for dress.  Maimonides explains that a Torah scholar should wear clean and attractive garments. A scholar should wear neither extravagantly expensive nor tawdry clothing, but instead, clothing that reflects the mean standard.

Unfortunately, when these expectations are considered most attention is given to the requirement for modest dress, and more specifically, to imputing from these standards attitudes toward gender and sexuality.  Approached from this perspective, the Torah's standards for modesty in dress are critically interpreted, as at best, expressing an antiquated prudishness. 

Let us apply Sefer HaChinuch's insight to the Torah’s expectations. According to Sefer HaChinuch, our clothing communicates a message to others and also to ourselves.  Let's focus on the message we communicate to ourselves through our manner of dress.  Moderate garments remind the Torah scholar to be moderate in the pursuit of one’s desires and in one’s behaviors.  Clean, appealing clothing remind the scholar to behave with the self-respect that is demanded by the scholar's role in representing the Torah.  The Torah scholar’s moderate garments are also a reminder of the importance balancing this self-respect with humility.  By consistently dressing according to the Torah’s standards, these messages are constantly re-enforced and integrated.

Modesty in our attire also communicates a message to us.  It reminds us that we are more than our physical bodies. Through resisting the tendency to reveal or accentuate our most attractive physical features, we remind ourselves that our inner-self is far more significant than our superficial physical endowments.  Again, consistent adherence to the Torah’s standard provides on-going re-enforcement of this message. 

Perhaps, this is also the message that modest dress is intended to communicate to the observer.  The message expressed is that the true distinction of a human being is never to be found in the person's outward attractiveness.  Our virtue is derived from our spiritual endowments. 

An April 2012 article in the New York Times discusses the scientific field of embodied cognition.  The article describes various studies that support the hypothesis that our clothing impacts our attitudes and behaviors.  As Sefer HaChinuch suggests, how we act and how we dress does have impact upon how we think.