Parshat Tetzaveh – Holiness and beauty

The prevalent opinion is that holiness requires a purely spiritual expression that has no real place in the material world. But we can clearly say that this position does not stem from Jewish sources.

February 18, 2016 19:54
2 minute read.
Jerusalem's Old City

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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If the Torah portion we read last week seemed like an architectural design, the portion we read this week is even more surprising. At first glance, it seems like a course in fashion design. We find a long and detailed list of bigdei kehuna, the clothing the priests wore when doing their work in the Temple, with each item of clothing having to be made of specific materials, and then woven and sewn in a very specific manner.

In the list of bigdei kehuna, we read about a set of four items of clothing termed bigdei kohen hedyot, clothing for the “simple” priest, and it includes a hat, a kind of shirt, pants and a belt. For the set of items for the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), four additional items of clothing are added: an outer coat, an efod (a sort of apron), the hoshen (a breastplate etched with the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel), and the tzitz (a gold ornament on the forehead etched with the explicit name of God).

What catches the eye of the reader going down this list of clothing and materials is how fancy and magnificent they are. The clothing was made with a lot of gold, precious materials, and ornate decorations.

A reader of our generation might find this a bit odd. At a place that is so holy, we might expect to find simpler clothing that does not display so much magnificence.

The prevalent opinion is that holiness requires a purely spiritual expression that has no real place in the material world. But we can clearly say that this position does not stem from Jewish sources. Actually, in the entire Bible we do not find separation between the spiritual and the materialistic.

The famous cry, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” did not come from the seminary of Jewish sages. This division expresses a concept of despair from the world in which we live. The truth, based on this position, exists high in heaven, while we are subjected to a life of lies and punishment.

This is not Judaism. On the contrary, Judaism holds that man’s sphere of action is inside reality, not outside of it. The commandments were meant for tikkun olam, repairing the world, not escaping from it. God’s interest is in the world as it is and in man as he is.

Already in the first chapter of the Torah we read, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good!” (Genesis 1:31) From this unifying perspective, there is no contradiction between holiness and beauty, between worship of God and pleasure. On the contrary, some of the Torah’s commandments encourage physical pleasure, such as the pleasure of Shabbat and of Jewish family life, and others encourage us to fulfill mitzvot with charm and glamor.

So specifically in the Temple, the most sacred and spiritual place, it is important to emphasize beautify and thus express the ideal state of fully connecting materialism with spirituality.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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