D’var Torah, T’tzaveh: The Bell of the Ball

by Lucy H. F. Dinner

This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. Thisd’var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group.

“Religion is not the enemy of the senses,” declares Richard Elliott Friedman, as he elaborates on the ornate details of the priestly garments illuminated in Parashat T’tzaveh.2 The famous apparel of the priests includes vibrant colors accented with fringes and sashes, twisted yarns, an ornate bejeweled breastplate, chains of pure gold, a linen headdress, and bells all around the hem. Aaron and his sons, bedecked in the epitome of finery, knew how to dress the part of the priesthood. Their garments befit their sacred duty in the Tabernacle so distinctly that they wore them for that purpose alone, shedding them immediately as they left the sacred ground. Over the centuries the priestly garments became so renowned that they set the standard for acclaimed celebratory events worldwide, and to this day asceticism finds scarce representation in synagogues and Jewish culture.

Next week Jews throughout the world will be gathering in elaborate costumes, dressing just the part for the enticement and fancy of the celebration of Purim. Children, and in some congregations adults too, will don fine gowns, capes, and crowns. We will laugh at ourselves and share in the revelry until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai” (see Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 7b). And yet, there is irony in the fact that this occasion for which we dress up is dedicated in the Jewish calendar to mocking ourselves.

Even King Ahasuerus, though not a Jew, recognized the importance of the Jewish priestly garb. King Ahasuerus made formal occasions his profession. The Midrash records: “King Achashvairosh made a feast of one hundred and eight days in order to demonstrate his greatness and might. Every single day of the banquet he revealed different treasures to the eyes of the people. Among other valuables, he also displayed the bigdey kahuna (priestly garb). King Nevuchdnetzar had brought these to Bavel when he destroyed the Bais Hamikdash, and since then, they had been carefully preserved in the royal treasures of Bavel.3

Formal attire, which a decade or two ago still had a foothold at weddings and other proper gatherings, has given way to the nouveau dress-as-you-like style. At the symphony or a Broadway show you may find an occasional group in tuxes and gowns juxtaposed next to the array of attendees in everything from dress pants to jeans and sneakers. Casual Fridays have been replaced with all-casual workplaces. In the temple on the bimah, congregants, unless instructed in advance, often have no qualms about coming up in flip flops, shorts, strapless tops, or frayed pants. There are few places left where fine attire is required.

The question is: should it be? What is the purpose of all the finery? What role does it play? In the priestly world of biblical times it was an essential requirement. The clothing requirement was so integral that the text warns: “Aaron shall wear it [the special garment with the bells attached] while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Eternal and when he goes out—that he may not die” (Exodus 28:35). Both Rashi and Nachmanides agree that without the proper dress the priests could be “liable to death ‘at the hands of heaven.’ ”4 Nachmanides states that the bells were to announce the approach of the priests before God. “For according to royal protocol, one who enters the king’s palace unexpectedly is liable to death.”5 Nachmanides elaborates further with the proof text from the Book of Esther, recalling Esther who feared death for calling upon the King without summons.6For the priests their garments were part of their ritual protocol, a sign of reverence, and respect.

Only after the priests put on their ritual attire were they ready for ordination (Exodus 28:41). The Hebrew phrase for “ordination” literally means to “fill their hands.” Our temple’s Torah study group reflected on the elaborate ordination garb and ritual that culminates with this filling of hands. Larry suggested that it is analogous to the modern idiom “to have your hands full,” meaning that one has a tremendous job ahead. Bee suggested that a modern interpretation would be myopic and may shut out the possibility of what it meant in its own historical context. And Anita considers the priests’ role and sees “filling their hands” as giving them sacred responsibility.

The clothes one wears cannot tell the complete story of one’s abilities or commitments, but they are the first indicator offering insight into personality and intention. They are the bell that announces one’s presence. What one chooses to wear gives others the confidence and reassurance they need to fill another’s hands with important tasks and entrust that person with sacred responsibility.

1. W. Gunther Plaut, The Haftarah Commentary (New York: UAHC Press, 1996), pp. 546?556. Note that I Samuel 15:2–34 is an additional haftarah portion for Shabbat Zachor.
2. Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: Harper, 2003), p. 266
3. Moshe Weissman, The Midrash Says: The Book of Sh’mos (Brooklyn, New York: Benei Yakov Publications, 1980), p. 279
4. Michael Carasik, ed., The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), pp. 251–252
5. Ibid., p. 251
6. Ibid.

Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.

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