Parshat Tetzaveh contains a fascinating collection of mitzvot related to the bigdei kehuna the clothes that the kohanim, priests, wore. But what exactly is this mitzvah all about? Rav Binyamim Tabory analyzes several different positions on this throughout the Jewish tradition:

  • Rav Saadia Gaon argues that the only formal mitzvah around is a communal one. The community must come together to make the garments that the kohanim wear.
  • Maimonides writes that the mitzvah is for the kohanim to wear the garments and that the community making the garments is only a preparation for that mitzvah, but not a mitzvah itself.
  • Nachmanides pushes back against Maimonides by quoting the Behag who does not count bigdei kohanim as a mitzvah at all. For him, the whole thing is simply preparation for the mitzvah of the kohanim serving in the Temple.

All of these positions are fascinating, and there is much room to discuss each of them. What unifies them all, though, is the underlying importance of beauty and art within a holy Jewish context. This is something that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory discussed at length in his Covenant and Conversation series. :Judaism,” he wrote, “does not believe in art for art’s sake, but in art in the service of God, giving back as a votive offering to God a little of the beauty He has made in this created world.” He went on to strongly argue, despite the risk of oversimplifying, that “the difference between ancient Israel and ancient Greece is thus: that where the Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty, Jews believed in hadrat kodesh, the beauty of holiness. There is a place for the aesthetic in avodah.” In other words, having a sense of beauty, as the clothes of the kohanim show, is important to the religious experience. “For beauty inspires love,” Rabbi Sacks writes, “and from love flows the service of the heart.”

One might think of this perhaps like a public art exhibit that the community financially supports. A public exhibit like that will often showcase something of great value to the community through the particular lens of various artists. In this case, the bigeei kehunah can be said to serve as an art exhibit paid for by the Jewish people and showcasing their desire to be ovdei Hashem – worshippers of the divine.

Art and beauty, though, are deeply subjective at their core. (Parenthetically, did you know many studies show many types of birds have their own subjective sense of beauty? That’s why we see so many unique looking pigeons). My teacher, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, notes this internal component in discussing the specific garbs of the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest. Rabbi Wieder notes that the High Priest would wear not only a tzitz with the divine Name inscribed on it, but also tefillin, which are otherwise only worn when praying in the morning. Rabbi Wieder writes that “the High Priest was adorned with the beautiful and expensive garments, and even had G-d’s ineffable name on display.  But that is all a show of religiosity, all on the surface.  The tefillin, however, are a reminder that the genuine religious personality is suffused with Godliness throughout his or her entire being.” All Jews, then, learn from the garments of the high priest to have an awareness of the beautiful while never losing our core individuality and drive as religious people.

This week’s parsha, then, has much to teach us. Isn’t that beautiful?

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Gotlib and the JET Team