Cloths maketh the person | Tetzave

‘Clothes maketh the man’ [sic] so the old saying goes, to which Mark Twain added ‘Naked people have little or no influence in society.’ [More Maxims of Mark].

The author/s of the Torah would likely agree, as we discover in Parashat Tetzaveh, in which the details are given for the sacred garments that the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, would wear when performing his sacred duties in the Tabernacle. Aspects of the apparel are functional, but other aspects are separational, that is, they serve to distinguish the Cohen Gadol from the other Cohanim, Levi’im, and even more so, the rest of the people. In this respect the axiom above is correct – without any clothes on, we are all the same, but with clothes, social, religious, economic differences are made explicit. It is interesting to read this parasha during the discussions here in the UK about what King Charles is, and is not, going to wear for his coronation. How you attire yourself is full of symbolic meaning. 

In the UK, most schools have a school uniform which is, well, uniform, only allowing for some minor creative touches. The argument for this is that it prevents style-wars, and imparts a school identity. It also serves to distinguish the students from non-students, and maybe even reminds them to behave differently in the uniform to how they would comport themselves without the uniform. I am not always certain that that message gets across!

The Biblical priestly garb is now to be found on Catholic and other priests, but not on Cohanim. Amongst the Chasidim there are still distinctive Jewish clothes which serve to distinguish Chasidim from other Jews and from non-Jews, and which also impart an identity within the group. A Satmarer male wears different streimls from a Gerer chosid, and so on. They have this in common with other ethnic and religious minorities which strive to preserve their difference through, among other ways, distinctive dress.  ‎

We progressive Jews no longer recognise the priesthood in out synagogues, so the only distinctive progressive Jewish clothing is generally that which is worn in any synagogue, namely, a tallit and a yarmulke. There are some progressive Jews who wear a tallit katan under their clothes and a yarmulke all day, but they are rare. The tallit and yarmulke serve functions as described above – separation from others, from the outside world, from the ‘workaday’ outside world and the holy world one is creating in time, space, or both. They are symbols of a Jew at prayer. It is interesting that in some progressive synagogues, few men wear even a yarmulke, and rather sadly, in synagogues where the men do wear yarmulkes and tallitot, many of the women do not, meaning that this Jewish apparel also serves to distinguish between ‘the Jew’ at prayer and the woman, perhaps not quite claiming her role as active and equal participant in Jewish prayer life. We early women in the rabbinate used to debate with great passion just what to wear as clothing in general when in the pulpit. Women’s apparel is always more closely monitored and commented upon then that of men.

Just as donning the priestly garb helps the priest don his role, so does the wrapping of oneself in a tallit, the placing of a yarmulke on ones head, help one to prepare to enter the realm of the spirit and leave behind for a short while the realm of the body. One encases ones body in symbolic clothing in order to remind the body to give way to the soul.

During Covid times, the fashion industry reported that people were no longer buying what one might term special clothing, but rather, stocking up on hoodies, dressing gowns, sports trousers and onesies. This highlights the way that what one wears is also a function of how one wants to present themselves to others, as, freed from such constrictions, many chose comfort over beauty. With the return of public life, style has also returned and for a lot of people, there is great pride and joy in expressing oneself through what one wears. Or chooses not to wear – in the Northeast of England, where I live, you prove your strength of character, and your sexiness by wearing as little as possible even on the coldest of nights. Clothing has that kind of signalling function as well.

However, whereas clothing can serve these special even important functions, the topic of clothing nowadays is very fraught. Although there is controversy about the reports that the fashion industry being one of the world’s worst polluters, it is clear that there needs to be research into the various claims about the effect of fashion. But one thing is known. The creation of fashion was and continues to be a thankless and even dangerous task. We Jews often commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in the USA, when 146 garment workers, overwhelmingly women, died in a fire. Did that make the industry safer throughout the world? No indeed. We also remember the 1,134 Indonesian garment workers killed in April 2013 when their building collapsed. And so on. The garment industry is rife with terrible statistics and even if the impact of fashion on the environment is really not clear, the impact on workers is very much so.

Clothing do maketh the person. We express who we are, who we identify with, and what we feel enhances our bodies through the clothes we choose to wear and there is nothing terribly wrong with that. But if we do that ignoring exploitation of those making those clothes for us, that is a different story. Then our clothes serve only to distinguish haves from have-nots;  Do a search [using Ecosia plants trees] and see what you can do to decorate your bodies without sacrificing your souls.


Rabbi Dr. Barbara Borts | Associate Lecturer, Dept of Music, Newcastle University, USA


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).