Blog Post


Parsha Tetzaveh: Clothes Make the (Wo)Man

This week’s Torah portion details the beautiful and elaborate clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. We are told of the materials, colours and vestments he wore while performing his service in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. 

We may not be dressed like the High Priest on any given day but we know that clothes have a very powerful effect on us and others. They influence the way we feel about ourselves and also influence how others view and judge us. A study in Psychology Today once noted this phenomenon:

The researchers in charge of performing psychometric testing—new college grads and not much older or taller than the participants themselves—recently made an interesting observation: if they wear a white coat when interacting with the participants (and their parents), they receive more respect. According to a study by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, it’s possible that these individuals not only look more professional, but subconsciously feel more professional. In other words, the clothes may literally make the man (or woman).

I recall a cute anecdote about this a number of years back when my son, Yoni went to a Florida Panthers hockey game one Saturday night right after Shabbat. Because the game started at 7 pm and Shabbat went out about 10 minutes before that, he didn’t bother changing out of his suit but went straight to the game after his friend rushed home to get his wallet. 

Have you seen how people dress at a hockey game? Most are wearing an oversized team jersey, and this being Florida, some even show up in t-shirt, shorts and flip flops (little do they know how cold the arena gets and they are about to freeze their tushies off).  There aren’t too many Manhattan-type suits in the crowd. Yoni said that everywhere he went people were staring at him and wondering if he was someone famous. With his athletic build, his super-slim Zara suit and the facial hair that he had been sporting, people probably thought that he was some up-and-coming NHL prospect. I told him that he should have gone to the Panthers dressing room and told security his name is Gord McKenzie from Moose Jaw and he wants to pop in to say hi to a couple of his hockey buddies. 

We happen to have a bit of style in the Nightingale home thanks to Karen working at Banana Republic for many years. She has sensitized us to many fashion do’s and don’ts and I think our kids are a pretty well-dressed lot thanks to the very generous employee discount from Gap Inc. 

But getting back to the parsha, there is one verse that gives a very good general description that defines how we ought to view our clothes. The Torah says that God instructed Moses to “make holy vestments for Aaron your brother לכבוד ולתפארת for kavod/dignity and for tifaret/beauty.” These two simple descriptions of the Kohen’s garments, in a nutshell, describe how we should regard clothing in our own lives. 

One the one hand they should be for tifaret/beauty and aesthetically pleasing. For ourselves as well as for others. But secondly they should also offer kavod – honour, dignity and an air of respect and grace to the wearer.

These two features of clothing are sometimes a tough balancing act to achieve, especially in our day and age. Various societies and communities seem to focus and emphasize one of them but ignore the other. Watch any award or fashion show where the red carpet appearances of the rich and famous give us a window into the latest and greatest in the fashion world. It seems that the fashionistas often get the tifaret/beauty part down quite well, but are sorely lacking when it comes to the modesty and dignity part. Every year the boundaries get pushed a little further and there seems to be less and less difference between what passes for clothing on the beach or in the bathroom versus what is worn in a public forum. 

At the other end of spectrum of fashion and good taste is Disney World. Now that’s a scary place! And I don’t mean the rides. It almost seems as if people go out of their way not to care what they look like. I get dressing for comfort when you are walking about all day long in the heat, but seriously, we have shmattahs in our laundry room that are in better shape than the shorts and t-shirts being worn at Epcot. Go to Disney World and you will not see much Kavod/Dignity let alone Tifaret on line at “It’s a Small World”. It’s basically a fashion disaster all around. (And don’t even get me started on the Turkey-Leg eaters – that is a whole other essay.)

And then you have parts of the very religious Jewish world which seems to focus exclusively on the modesty and dignity aspects but totally lose sight of the tifaret/beauty bits. Not just the men whose closets consist of black suits and white shirts (“Hmmm… should I wear black and white today or black and white? I think I’ll go with black and white.”), but even the women who styles and colours exude dour and boring. Nope, don’t go visiting Kiryas Yoel or Ramat Beit Shemesh if you are looking for ideas on sharp dressing. Kavod/Dignity – yes. Tifaret/Beauty… umm, not so much. 

I understand that there are a lot of other important factors besides clothing that make a person good, moral and upstanding. But ever since Adam and Eve decided they had to have that forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, clothes have been a crucial part of how we view ourselves and how the world views us. It’s a simple reality whether we like it or not. Clothing was an integral part of the Priestly duties and still has a huge influence on us when we behold beautiful vestments among dignitaries like a Queen or King or the man or woman in the street. 

Dignity and Beauty – these should be the two overriding notions we need to keep in mind when we are out clothes-shopping and getting ready in the morning to face our day. Dignity and Beauty – pop into Banana Republic at Aventura Mall and Karen will get you hooked up with both.

Clean shirt, new shoes
And I don’t know where I am goin’ to
Silk suit, black tie,
I don’t need a reason why
-ZZ Top

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