By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
The Torah, in Parashat Tezavve, sets forth laws relating to the garments, which in Hebrew is “begged”[בגד] in the singular, or beggedim [בגדים] in the plural, that were worn by the Kohanim during the Priestly Service. The Torah describes in great detail the specifications for making these beggedim.
But why does the Torah go to such great lengths to specify the particulars of the Priestly garments?
To answer this question, we must point out the obvious: the Priestly Service, as its name implies, may be conducted only by priests, that is, only by Kohanim.
Although Hashem is One, Hashem Echad, as we recite daily in the Shema, our world, the physical world in which we live, is a world of duality, that is, a world of opposites. For example, there is hot and cold; up and down; man and woman; good and evil, and holy and secular.
The Hebrew word for “holy” is “kadosh” [קדוש]. In addition to meaning “holy” or “sacred,” “kadosh” also means “to be cut off, separated, or to be or become pure or sacred.”
The opposite of “kadosh” is “hullin” [חולין], which means “profane,” “secular,” “mundane,” or “ordinary.” “Hullin” is also the name of a Talmudic tractate in the order of Kodashim, which deals in large part with laws regarding the ritual slaughter of animals whose meat will be used for non-consecrated purposes.
Returning to our discussion of beggedim [בגדים], garments, we can see that the special beggedim worn by the Kohanim while performing the Priestly Service are different from the garments which the Kohanim and others wore for other purposes.
This brings us to a fundamental question. Why do humans wear clothes? After all, no other creature wears clothes; wearing clothes is a uniquely human practice.
The practical answer is that we humans, unlike the animal kingdom, need protection from the elements. Another reason is that one purpose of clothing is to conceal or to hide the body from public view. All of this is true, but there’s more.
As we recall from Parashat Bereshit, human beings “only” began to wear clothes after Adam and Eve ate from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (“The Tree”). Prior to that time, there was no need, no purpose, for humans to wear clothes.
The need for humans to wear clothes came about only because Adam and Eve betrayed their natural purity by defying Hashem and eating from The Tree.
This defiance of Hashem raises at least two important points.
First, the Hebrew language, Lashon HaKodesh, which, when translated, literally means “the separate language,” is unique among all other languages in that Hebrew words which share the same root, that is, share the same shֹresh [שורש], also share a common meaning or idea.
The Hebrew word for garment, as previously mentioned, is begged [בגד], which in Hebrew is spelled “bet, gimel, dalet.” The root of the Hebrew word “b'giydah” [בגידה], which means both “betrayal” and “treason” is also the Hebrew letters “bet, gimel, dalet.”
Thus, we can learn from Lashon HaKodesh – the Hebrew language – that human beings only began to need clothing after Adam and Eve defied, that is, betrayed, Hashem by eating from The Tree.
Second, we learn that human beings became aware of the duality of this world only after Adam and Eve ate from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We also learn that, along with this awareness came the need to “conceal” or “hide” most portions of the human body because man, by eating from The Tree, had acquired knowledge of good and evil.
Returning now to the topic of duality, the description in Parashat Tezavve of the Priestly garments illustrates yet another example of the duality of this world. The Kohanim, the “priests” of the Jewish people, are separate from the rest of the Jewish people. This “separateness” is illustrated by the different attire the Kohanim wear while performing the Priestly service, a service that, as we mentioned, may only be performed by Kohanim and not by the rest of Am Israel.
Also, we learned that Hebrew, Lashon HaKodesh, the national language of the Jewish people – is, literally, the “separate language.”
Lastly it should not be forgotten that Hashem took us, Jewish people, “out of the land of Egypt” not just to be our God, but also to give us Eretz Israel, Vayikra 25:38, and to make us “a light unto the nations, so that [Hashem’s] salvation may extend to the ends of the earth.” Yesha’yahu 49:6.
As we learn in Parashat Yitro, the Jewish nation, not surprisingly, should be separate from the other nations of the world. This separateness is described in the pasuk which states that Am Israel is to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” [ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש]. Shemot 19:6.
The reason the Torah goes to such great lengths to specify the particulars of the Priestly garments is to teach the importance of separating the holy from that which is not holy, or at least from that which is less holy. Thus, we see that just as the Kohanim are separate from the rest of Am Israel, so too should Am Israel be separate from the other nations of the world.
May we, the Jewish people, all merit to live in Israel and to live both our national and individual lives in a manner that meets Hashem’s expectations for us.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.