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Clothed in Splendor

Mrs. Elana Moskowitz

When dressing up is spiritual, not superficial

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


preliminary glance at his and her sides of a couple’s clothing closet generally yields two truths:

  1. Men own a moderate amount of clothing.
  2. Women also own a moderate amount of clothing… for a midsized country.

Somehow, where other stereotypes fail, the one about females and apparel is spot on. We notice and appreciate color, cut, fabric, and details, and are willing to invest time and effort to get it just right. Which is why the concept of Shabbos clothing seems to be tailor made for us: Which woman would not rejoice at a divine mandate to procure an entirely new suit of clothing for once-a-week wear? Yet even the most fashion-conscious among us understand that bigdei Shabbos are not about our wardrobe preferences, but are part of the way we honor the holy day.

The Message of Clothing

“In honor of Shabbos one should wear a clean garment. Clothing for every day should not be the same clothing as for Shabbos. And if one does not have a different garment to substitute, he may lengthen [allow to hang longer] his existing raiment, so that his Shabbos attire is distinguishable from his everyday clothing.” (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 30: 3)

One of the myriad ways we express kavod is through our dress. The worn skirt and stained top that are perfect for heavy housecleaning are unsuitable for a wedding. When I upgrade my attire for an event, I imply that the occasion is worthy. Shabbos, the most elevated day of the week, demands an extra dose of kavod, and changing to finer clothing confers this kavod.

Clothing-obsessed people are rarely pegged as discerning spiritual seekers; their fixation on trivialities is incompatible with transcendence and holiness. Therefore, it seems odd that in the Beis Hamikdash, the cradle of spirituality and holiness, we are so utterly preoccupied with attire. Kohanim follow a very specific dress protocol, detailed in two parshiyos of the Torah. The Kohein may not wear his “street clothes” while serving in the Mikdash, and in an act reminiscent of the Rambam’s Hilchos Shabbos, he is obligated to change his clothing before commencing the Avodah.

Why must the Kohein change his clothing? If his only purpose is to distinguish between the mundane and holy, then instead of donning different attire, the Kohein could signal his “on-duty” status by donning a prominent “Kohein” or “Kohein Gadol” sign.

Why do we change our clothing for Shabbos? If our purpose were to proclaim that this day is more worthy, then perhaps it would suffice to maintain our pedestrian wear and simply hang an elaborate sign around our neck that states “Shabbos.”

Why do we express kevod Shabbos by dressing differently? Why does the Kohein dress differently in the Mikdash?

The Malbim (parshas Tetzaveh; Rimzei Hamishkan) suggests a unique angle on attire: Both the guf and the neshamah wear clothing.

The clothing we use to cover the body is termed “modd,” to size up. True to its name, even the most shapeless of “moddim” offer a rough measure of one’s physical dimensions. While folding endless mounds of laundry, I rarely glance at the tag to determine if a shirt belongs to an older son or a younger one; the clothing’s dimensions, moddim, speak for themselves.

Middos are the clothing of the soul. Our intangible neshamos are nearly impossible to gauge. How can we assess the condition of this most imperative, yet inscrutable, piece of ourselves? The neshamah is appraised through our middos, they are the metric of the soul. A healthy, vigorous neshamah dresses in dignified, virtuous middos. A decaying, putrefying neshamah dresses in tattered, tainted middos.

When a negative thought crosses my mind, I pause for a moment. What middah is triggering my thinking? Kin’ah? Tzarus ayin? Lapse in emunah? And what does that say about the state of my neshamah? I squelch the thought, replace it with a more charitable observation and continue with the gradual work of repairing my middos, repairing my soul.

Garments are modd, agents of appraisal and measurement. Clothing measures the dimensions of the body. Middos measure the dimensions of the soul.

When the Kohein donned the Bigdei Kehunah, he was not motivated by fashion trends, nor was he attempting to “fit in” with the established dress norms of the Mikdash. Each article of physical clothing, modd, was analogous to an attribute of holiness and purity, a middah to attire his soul. “And the purpose of the Michnasayim was to arrest lustful compulsions… and the Ketones… to impede the propensity toward anger… and the Avneit, secured beneath his heart, a reminder to submerge his evil thoughts… the Avneit atoned for undesirable thoughts…” (Malbim, ibid.)

The Bigdei Kehunah were designed to clothe the Kohanim in goodness, integrity, and morality. As customized reminders of the imperative for good middos, they ensured that the Kohein entered the holiest sanctuary on earth enrobed in fine qualities, indicative of a healthy soul.

“V’chagor eifod bahd — And Dovid bound himself in a linen tunic” (Shmuel II: 6:14). When the Aron was returned to Yerushalayim, Dovid escorted it with joyful dancing. Describing Dovid Hamelech’s conduct, the Navi notes that he fastened himself with an “eifod bahd,” a linen tunic. The Shelah Hakadosh, drawing on the analogy of clothing to comport, explains that Dovid Hamelech engaged the middah of “bahd” to rejoice with the recovered Aron. Bahd, also known as “hisbodedus,” is a deep and fearless accounting of self by evaluating one’s actions, motives, and thoughts, as if standing alone before Hashem. While dancing before the Aron, Dovid Hamelech was engaged in this penetrating self-evaluation, having donned the middah of bahd.

Similarly, when Esther Hamalkah approached King Achashveirosh without a royal summons, the pasuk recounts: “Vatilbash Esther Malchus — Esther dressed in regal attire.” Meforshim explain that her regal attire was in fact the middah of malchus that enveloped her.

Dressing the Part

On an elementary level, clothing is a cover for the guf. However, Dovid Hamelech, Esther Hamalkah, and the Kohanim illustrate that while clothing conceals, its function is also to reveal. Their attire was a portal to their most sublime self — the neshamah.

Why do we dress up for kevod Shabbos? Indeed, what is the concept of kavod? Kavod (honor) and kaveid (heavy) share a derivation. When I treat something with kavod, I articulate the belief that it has substance and value, it is “weighted” with importance. The Kohanim dressed “L’kavod u’litiferes” (Shemos 28:2). Their ornate clothing, an expression of kavod, highlighted their spiritual substance and communicated their status and prominence as Kohanim b’Yisrael.

When we dress up for Shabbos, we are not merely showcasing our fine taste in clothing. Rather, we are acknowledging the kavod inherent in a day weighted with dense spiritual worth. We devote more time to tefillah, linger over the seudos, delve into the parshah, and bask in the restorative power of a spiritually focused Shabbos. Our clothing symbolizes this spiritual initiative. As expressions of honor and dignity, Shabbos attire should likewise be dignified and honorable, and perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Do my Shabbos clothes exemplify the kavod they are meant to represent?”

Similar to the Kohein who enters the Mikdash, on Shabbos we enter a sacred haven and must rise to the occasion. In our dignified Shabbos attire, we are surely dressed for success.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 635. Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.

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