Tradition Today: Garments of sanctity

What is the significance of our clothing--and what purpose do they serve?

Haredi men at JDC 521 (photo credit: Eyal Toag)
Haredi men at JDC 521
(photo credit: Eyal Toag)
How is an observant Jew supposed to dress? What garments are required? Walking down streets in Jerusalem, one might think that certain black garments and specific black hats are required, or black pants, white shirts and black kippot, or on Shabbat, silk robes of white and gold stripes. For sure, a head covering for males and for married women. Speaking of women specifically, long sleeves and long skirts would seem to be required.
Of course, none of that is to be found in the Torah, although rabbinic writings would indicate a head covering for married women and that it is a pious custom for men to have their heads covered. On the other hand, pictorial evidence indicates that Jewish men in ancient times went bareheaded. The magnificent third-century frescoes in the Dura-Europos synagogue on the Euphrates River clearly show men, including Moses and other luminaries, without head coverings, an indication that this was then accepted practice.
There is, however, one injunction in the Torah concerning what we wear. In Numbers 15:37-41, the Israelites are told to “make for themselves fringes on the hems of their garments” with a cord of blue attached to them. The purpose mentioned is that they will “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge... and to be holy to your God.” In Deuteronomy 22:12, this is echoed in different terms: “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” No further explanation is offered.
Today and for many centuries, these fringes – tzitzit – have been attached to special garments worn during prayers – the tallit – or small garments worn under clothing. However, this was not the case originally. As we know from the study of ancient sources and depictions, in the ancient Near East it was common for hems with elaborate embroidery to be worn on the garments of priests and nobles as a sign of their important status. The color blue was similarly a sign of nobility. As Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom wrote, “The more important the individual, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem.”
Therefore, to understand the true significance of the tzitzit, we have to take this into account and realize that the fringes were not on special garments worn in addition to one’s normal clothing, but were part of the Israelites’ day-to-day dress, intended to convey their special status.
That status can best be understood when we note the use of the expression “to be holy to your God.” In Leviticus 19:2, the Israelites were similarly told, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” There follows an entire list of dos and don’ts on how to be holy. These included both ritual demands and ethical, moral imperatives, the latter being more numerous than the former. They include many of the same injunctions as the Ten Commandments, as well as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and loving the stranger (Lev. 19:34).
To go one step further back, just before the Revelation at Sinai, God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites and offers to make a covenant with them so that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). To be holy, then, is the expression of being a kingdom of priests. Just as the priests are singled out among Israel to be dedicated to the service of God, so the entire people of Israel is singled out from humankind for this purpose, serving as an example of what God desires from human conduct. Just as priests wore special garments to indicate their status, so, too, all Israelites had a special garment indicating their sanctity.
Every covenant made with God has a sign. The rainbow is a sign of the covenant with Noah and all humanity (Genesis 9:12-17). Circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:9-14). The tzitzit, the tassels on the hems of the Israelites’ garments, are a symbol of the covenant made at Sinai to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As such, they serve a double purpose – signifying this status to ourselves and to others, and also reminding us to observe the terms of that covenant, the commandments of the Lord. They are the garments of sanctity.