Sign In Forgot Password

Tezaveh 5782 ~ February 11, 2022

One of the mysteries of the priest’s vestments found in our reading this week  is similar to that which was recently asked by one of our congregants. “Rabbi, one of our funeral directors asked why it is that there are three garments that are worn by the “met”, the deceased, on one’s upper torso. It seems a tad redundant.”

We first must recognize that the garments worn by the priest in the temple of old had the specific purpose of spiritual elevation. As the priest donned the vestments, he would recognize the role he was about to play in the life of not only the religious observance, but also in the life of the individuals who placed their trust of faith in him. Understanding that responsibility was essential to the high priest for the nation as well as the priest who performed the ritual for the individual worshipper. The donning of these specific pieces of clothing hopefully inspired the individual to his mission, but it was the preparation of donning the vestments that elevated the priest’s awareness of the task and role he didn’t just play, but lived and breathed.

It might no different than when we don a tallit, our prayer shawl. There are actually rituals attached with putting it on and some unique meditations that one can chant prior to reciting the beracha, the blessing, that provides the worshipper with that same understanding of significance and responsibility of the prayerful moment. By reciting the beracha itself, one understands the uplifting of the moment of the soul to standing before Hashem. But, on another level, it may provide the individual with the understanding that beyond the heightened spiritual moment of prayer was how that individual would transform and transpose that message to the rest of the day.

The most ceremonial of these items were specific to the High Priest. The Urim and Tumim, the breastplate of decision, included the names of all of the tribes of Israel, with twelve magnificent stones. It has been said that when Aaron, the High Priest, would enter the Holy of Holies, a sequence of them would shine in some specific way that would provide him with answers or advice. He would then relay them on, as necessary, in the Torah’s moment, to Moses. The tallit clips that I attach to my Shabbat tallit, have those same twelve stones upon each side. I purchased both my tallit and the clips in the Cardo section of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.  I purchased them, not because of the twelve stones, but rather because they looked nice and hand a strong clip. Only later did I recognize their symbolism.

But then there are the basic garments that the priest donned. And those are the garments that are a part of the sacred tachrichim, the shrouds that one is dressed in by our most honored Chevrah Kaddisha, our holy society of men and women who prepare the deceased’s body spiritually for Olam Habah, the World to Come. And, as they bathe and dress the individual, they are in many ways preparing the individual to be his or her own priest before the Holy Tribunal and the Ribbono shel Ha’olam, the Master of the Universe. Then again, each and every day, our role as God’s manifestation is to be our own priest and to sanctify our world as best we can, not only with our presence, but with thought and action.

The shrouds, similar to the garments worn by the priest, are white and are made without buttons, zippers or fasteners. Tachrichim may come in muslin or linen fabrics. Regardless of gender, a complete set includes tunic, pants, a head covering, face covering, and a belt. Everyone is also dressed in a kittel - a simple, white ceremonial jacket that we might wear on Yom Kippur, at the Passover seder and under the wedding canopy. The kittel is traditionally worn not only for spiritual elevation, but is indicative of the purity of the moment, a bridegroom all over again. It suggests a moment of change in one’s essence and the purity of heart. It represents humility by its makeup of white linen or muslin.

But that does not answer the question of our congregant. The outermost garment is the kittel. The middle garment is the tunic of the priest. And then later on in the Torah reading for this Shabbat, the answer is found both in the commentary and in the text itself. The Torah states: “You shall also make for them linen breaches to cover their nakedness.” (Exodus 28:42) And the commentary states “the linen breaches are not mentioned for reasons of delicacy, because Aaron puts on this undergarment by himself.” (Etz Hayim page 511) The bottom layer for the deceased, not mentioned as part of the garments, is quite similar: modesty, and so that the body and the priestly garments do not touch one another, since they are on different plains of spirituality.

In that regard, not only do I appreciate the question asked, but I am even more impressed by the dedication, commitment and honor that our Chevra Kaddisha takes upon themselves each and every time they join together to provide one of our community’s cherished souls with a taharah, the ritual purification and dressing with the vestments of priesthood and modesty at the same time.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782