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The Dual Focus of the Bigdei Kehunah

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Feb 11, 2011

The Torah goes to great length and spares no detail in describing the bigdei kehunah, the special priestly vestments worn during the service in the Mishkan (and Beis Ha-Mikdash). This very detail, however, as well as the ornate nature of the garments themselves, raises the obvious question: why the preoccupation with clothing, something external and superficial?  

When commanding Moshe about the bigdei kehunah God notes that the purpose of these garments is “le'chavod u-le’sifares,” for glory and for splendor (Shemos 28:2). However, this doesn’t seem to answer the question; it begs the question. Since when are glory and honor admirable goals to aspire towards? And why, in the Mishkan of all places, is there a focus on material beauty? This difficulty is compounded when one considers that the Rambam (Kelei Ha-Mikdash 8:4-5) goes even further, ruling that if there is any imperfection in the garments – a small stain, not exactly the right size – they must be discarded. Again, why such an emphasis on the appearance of the kohanim

The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar) explains that the special clothing was necessary because of the important message it projected to the Jewish people. He explains that it was crucial for the kohanim’s service – and especially for the Kohen Gadol that they be respected and held in high esteem. Even as they were accessible to everyone it was necessary for the kohanim to be perceived as somewhat removed from the rest of the nation. The Netziv explains that the priestly vestments were therefore elaborate and beautiful, thereby elevating the stature of the kohanim by projecting a sense of dignity and inspiring feelings of awe. 

Rav Elya Meir Bloch (Peninei Da’as al Ha-Torah) offers an alternate explanation which focuses on the impact that the garments had, not on others, but on the kohanim themselves.  

R. Bloch notes that while Hashem initially tells Moshe that the purpose of the vestments is “for glory and for splendor,” in the very next verse (28:3), when Moshe is told how to instruct the artisans, the emphasis is on garments’ function, “le'kadsho, le'chahano li,” sanctify and serve God. The question is, obviously, why the shift in focus? Why does the Torah emphasize appearance of the garments when speaking to Moshe but stress their functionality when giving instructions to the artisans? 

To resolve this difficulty R. Bloch explains that the purpose of the garments was to “bring down” a certain level of kedushah, sanctity, into the world. To achieve this purpose the garments needed to be made exactly according to Hashem’s specifications. Theoretically, though, the garments could have been very modest and not elegant at all; as long as the kohanim performed their service in garments made in keeping with Hashem’s directions their function would be served and the kedushah would be obtained. Thus, R. Bloch notes, the instructions given to the artisans who would actually weave the begadim needed only to relate to the spiritual function of the garments, “le'kadsho, le'chahano li.

But that was not enough. Hashem understood that in reality the garments couldn’t be simple or modest; they had to be beautiful and dignified. While the appearance of the begadim may not matter for the spiritual reality, it most certainly mattered for the human reality. While it wouldn’t make a difference for Hashem, it would make a difference to the kohanim who had to work in those garments. R. Bloch explains that human nature is such that we take more seriously those things which are associated with special and beautiful clothing. To ensure that the kohanim would constantly recognize the significance of their avodah it was necessary for them to wear elegant and dignified clothing. Therefore, when instructing Moshe, who would then communicate with Aharon and his children, the stress was placed on their appearance, “le'chavod u-le’sifares.”  

Aside from providing insight into the importance of the bigdei kehunah, the respective explanations of the Netziv and R. Bloch have broader significance as well. What is true of the priestly vestments is similarly true regarding the clothing that each of us wear. The way we dress – both men and women – projects an image to others and, at the same time, impacts our self-image. The more modestly and dignified we dress the more respect from others we will engender and the more self-respect we will have. And the opposite is, unfortunately, true as well.  In this, as in so many other areas, the kohanim should serve as our role models. We should dress – and generally act – in a way that is both dignified, “le'chavod u-le’sifares” and that will help us live noble lives, “le'kadsho, le'chahano li


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