Wearing signs of holiness

"You shall make [the high priest] a tzitz [head-plate] of pure gold, and you shall engrave upon it, engraved like a signet ring."

Picture from the parasha 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Picture from the parasha 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
 Our Talmudic Sages teach that “the Merciful One requires the human heart”; God looks to one’s innermost soul rather than to one’s external garb. Nevertheless, our clothing affects our mood and expresses a message about ourselves to society. Virtually everyone dresses up for special occasions. Halacha (Jewish law) mandates unique garb for Shabbat and the festivals. Men and women are expected to dress modestly and the mourner may not change his outer garments for all seven days of mourning (except for Shabbat).
From this perspective, we can understand why the kohen (priest) must wear special garments when officiating in the sanctuary. Our portion mandates: “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother for glory and splendor” (Exodus 28:2). And all Jewish males are expected to cover their heads (especially when praying or eating, but preferably at all times) as well as wearing a special undergarment called tzitzit, which has ritual fringes on each of its four corners.
Let us examine the significance of these special vestments. The head covering worn by observant Jews probably harks back to the turban of the high priest. The Talmud describes how great scholars such as Rav Huna would not walk a distance of four cubits without covering their heads, as a constant reminder of the Divine Presence.
Apparently the Catholic Church adopted the custom at that time, and so the cardinals and the pope always appear publicly with their heads covered. Much of Ashkenazi Jewry for at least the last 300 years have universalized this custom to include all adult males, with the Yiddish word for the head covering being yarmulke, said by some to be a contraction of two Aramaic words, yarei malka, one who is in constant awe of the Divine King.
The tzitzit, as well as the more visible prayer shawl, are biblically mandated for every male Jew: “The Children of Israel shall make for themselves tzitzit [ritual fringes] on the corners of their garments… and they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of t’chelet… in order that you may see it and remember all the commandments and perform them; you may not seek out after [the stirrings] of your heart and after [the lustings] of your eyes to harlot after them. This is all so that you may remember and perform all of my commandments and be holy to your God” (Numbers 15: 37-40).
The symbolism is nothing short of amazing.
The kohen gadol (high priest) wears a tzitz placed on a cord of t’chelet upon his forehead; upon this tzitz are engraved the words, “Holy unto the Lord.” In a parallel fashion, a Jewish man wears tzitzit (diminutive of “tzitz”) – fringes with a thread of t’chelet. This, too, is to remind him that he must be holy to God.
The t’chelet was dyed with a very expensive dye extracted from the rare hilazon mollusk, a color reserved for royalty in ancient times. The high priest was Jewish royalty; in a slightly lesser fashion, so is every Jew.
The high priest, who risked becoming a heretical Sadducee rather then remaining a God-fearing, Halacha-practicing Pharisee, had to dedicate his thoughts to God; therefore his tzitz is on his forehead. The average Jew, however, whose major risk lies in straying after inappropriate sexual urges, has to remember to dedicate his body to God. Therefore, the tzitzit are in the area of his lower body parts.
Most important of all, every Jew is seen as royalty, as a “mini” high priest. When Jewish men look at the fringes, they are reminded of all of God’s commandments.
The Hebrew word “tzitzit” has the numerical value of 600, and when we add the five knots and the eight strings on each corner, the sum total comes to 613 – the number of commandments in the Torah.
The Talmud goes one step further, “the t’chelet is similar to the color of the sea, the color of the sea is similar to the color of the heavens and the heavens are similar to the divine throne of glory.”
The Jewish people were charged by God to be a sacred nation, a status that can only be achieved when we dedicate our lives to the 613 commandments. Additionally, God commanded us to be a kingdom of priests – teachers to the world. At the very least, we must spread the seven Noahide Laws of morality to all peoples.
This second charge is symbolized by the turquoise of the sea and the turquoise of the heaven – reminiscent of the God, who created the heavens and the earth.
Yes, we must remember – and strengthen – the uniqueness of our nation, but at the same time we must express the noblesse oblige of our royal status by reaching out to every human being and lovingly attempting to bring them the priestly benediction of peace and redemption.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.