The Clothes We Wear: Dignity or Deceit?

Feb 21, 2013 in 4. Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights, Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Clothes We Wear: Dignity or Deceit?

In Parshat Tetzave, Moshe is instructed to “make sacred clothes for your brother Aaron, for dignity and beauty… They will be used to consecrate him and make him a priest to Me.” (Shemot 28:2-3). As my Rav, Rabbi Meir Wise, notes in his impressive translation and adaptation of Rav Kook’s words in Ein Eyah ( “Clothing has a dual purpose. Its first function is utilitarian, protecting us from the elements – the cold and the rain, the wind and the sun. In this respect, our apparel corresponds to the fur of beasts and the feathers of birds. Except that the animals have it better. They never need to change clothes, or worry about acquiring new garments when they wear out or no longer fit. Their wardrobe comes naturally. The second function of clothing, on the other hand, is unique to humans. Our attire affects our state of mind; it influences how we feel about ourselves and the image that we wish to project. We feel unhappy when wearing unattractive or ill-fitting clothes, and feel good wearing apparel that is complementary. We feel comfortable in casual clothing, and dignified in formal wear. This second aspect of clothing has great ethical value. It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefilin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.” Rabbi Wise concludes his article by stating that clothing can thus contribute to human dignity and morality, raising us above the animals. It is due to its spiritual value in acquiring refined traits that we also enjoy its physical benefit – providing warmth and comfort. Stripped of its ethical function, however, clothing loses its true value. Indeed, while clothes can also make a man, they can also break him, by disguising his true identity, by causing him to focus more on his external image than on his inner essence. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states (4:27) – “Al tistakel ba’kankan, elah b’mah sheyesh bo” (“Don’t look at the jug, but rather at what is inside it”). The way a person looks, and attention to aesthetics in general, is significant, so long as we remember that, at the end of the day, “Ha’Neshma Lach, ve’ha-guf Po-olach” (“the soul is Yours, the body is Yours, [therefore] have mercy on Your handiwork”), as we say in the Selichot prayers. The Gemara tells us: “Three things broaden (marchivim) the disposition of a man’s mind: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife and beautiful furnishings” (Berachot 57b); however, there is an alternative text of the Gemara there that most forget to quote: “Three things ruin (machrivim) the disposition of a man’s mind.” The Hebrew language is infused with holiness by God Himself. It is not surprising that many Hebrew words and expressions encapsulate deeper ideas. Commentators with a linguistic bent have noted the connection between the Hebrew words “beged” (garment) and “begidah” (infidelity, treason), and between “me’il” (coat, covering) and “me’ilah” (duplicity, perfidy). Thus, Ibn Ezra (Vayikra 5:15) writes, “If anyone commit a trespass [“ma’al”]: I.e., he removes his “ma’al,” his covering, from the same root as “me’il,” cloak.” If someone casts off God’s yoke, he is a “ben beliya’al”, a person without a yoke [“beli ol”]. This expression connotes an evildoer, as we find regarding the apostate city: “Base people [bnei beliya’al] are gone out from the midst of you” (Devarim 13:14). In a similar vein, the Malbim explains that me’ilah and begidah (“betrayal”) are alternative expressions for the same act and both derive from garments – me’il and beged (“garment”). Begidah was chosen to describe an untoward act done secretly “just as a person covers himself with a garment so that his real flesh is not visible, thus the betrayer hides his betrayal – he appears like a friend but hides his enmity,” while me’ilah was chosen to describe an act of open lying, like a coat which is an upper garment, seen by everyone, and therefore every open lie and visible, wrongful change is called me’ilah.


Rav Meir Kahane expands on this idea in his book “Forty Years.” Thus, in Me’ilah 18a we find: “Ma’al” can only mean “change” [i.e., acting differently from what God commanded us to do]. Thus it says, “If a woman deviates and commits a “ma’al” against her husband” (Bamidbar 5:12) [i.e., switching mates for a strange man]. It also says (I Chron. 5:25), “They committed a “ma’al” against the God of their ancestors and strayed after the gods of the nations of the land” [i.e., they switched from worshipping God to worshiping idols.] A woman who profanes her holiness by turning to harlotry is called a “zonah,” and a married woman who commits adultery is called a “sotah.” Both words convey deviation, altering the role one was commanded to follow.

In actual fact, change and deceit are one. Whoever veers from his role is untrue to it. Change, deceit and “me’ilah” are all one, as well, because our clothing symbolizes the Divine yoke and holiness God placed on Adam, naked of mitzvot and holiness, as a covering. ”Me’ilah” and “Begidah” indicate the removal of this spiritual garb, thus betraying one’s duty. In the Temple, the Torah established a “me’ilah” offering to atone for the person who betrayed the holy objects of God, deriving benefit from them as if they were non-holy, and transferring the holy to a non-holy domain. Similarly, when the Jewish People substitute idolatry or a foreign culture in God’s place, this constitutes change, straying and betrayal.

*** In 1980, a revolutionary law was passed by the Israeli Knesset - the Foundations of Law Act. This stated that where a judge is faced with a legal question requiring decision, to which he finds no answer in statute law, judicial precedent or analogy: “…he shall decide it in light of the principles of freedom, justice, equity and peace of the Jewish heritage” (“Moreshet Yisrael”), rather than the principles of British law which were employed until that time.

In 1992, two special laws were passed by the Knesset relating to human rights (‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty’ and ‘Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation’). The preamble to both these Basic Laws states that: “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to anchor in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” And of immense significance is the provision that “None of these rights may be violated, except by a Law befitting the values of the State of Israel…” According to this provision, laws of the Knesset must befit the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state - otherwise they can be struck down by the courts! Moreover, the courts themselves must take account of Jewish values when resolving legal-ethical questions which come before them. For example, in 1981 the court ruled that active euthanasia (‘mercy killing’) was illegal, because it negated the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish state (Yael Shefer v. The State of Israel). Every cultured nation engages in a dialogue with the heritage of its ancestors. Even if it chooses not to accept the values and norms of previous generations, it feels – or should feel – a healthy, natural need to justify its position in relation to the heritage of its national predecessors. We should be proud and not ashamed, as a people and as a nation, of our rich, Jewish legal heritage. Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, who passed away on February 6, 2013. Elon was an advocate of the concept of Ha’Mishpat Ha’Ivri. By this effort he sought to incorporate traditional Halacha into the corpus of Israeli civil law. He felt that Shulchan Aruch, especially Choshen Mishpat, and the centuries of case law represented by our huge responsa literature, had a place in the legal system of the modern State of Israel, and indeed could facilitate the construction of a truly Jewish legal and judicial system. Among his efforts to achieve this goal is his multi-volume work, “Ha’Mishpat Ha’Ivri,” in which he combines his mastery of secular law with an astoundingly broad and deep understanding of traditional Halacha. Thanks to Justice Elon’s legacy, Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset can now look proudly to our traditional teachings when they enact laws that govern a contemporary society, because Elon taught them that the wisdom of centuries of rabbinic study and debate can guide a modern society.

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