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“Fashion Week,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

February 23, 2024 | 14 Adar I 5784

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Ah, fashion week. It is that season again when our attention turns toward one’s attire. The elegant folds of the fabric, the sashes and headbands, the tunics and the flowing outer garments, the shimmering of the jewels, and the careful placement of the gold wrapped chords catch the attention of our eyes and perhaps our imaginations as well.

All of those designers’ talents and creative genius are not a match for the ancient descriptions of the high priests’ garments and vestments found in this week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh. Those modern artistic fashion engineers all share the desire for shock and awe but the message of what they choose and why has a different significance for the fashionable attire of those who would lead the rituals and rites in the Torah. The elegant folds of the fabric, the sashes and headbands, the tunics and the flowing outer garments, the shimmering of the jewels, and the careful placement of the gold wrapped chords are detailed in our sacred scroll.

Last week, God instructed Moses to make the physical space for sacred engagement:

Make me a holy space, וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ
So that I will dwell among you.וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
(Exodus 25:8)

This week brings us the instruction to — again — make the elaborate attire of the priests designed for maximal visual experience and to convey a certain attitude.

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron. וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ
For dignity and adornment. לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת

Fashion today may not necessarily be about dignity and adornment, but back then it surely was and with great specificity.

A breastpiece, an ephod (something like an apron), a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash comprised the sacral vestments. Each were then laid out like a McCalls’ sewing pattern (now deemed as vintage) with more descriptions and embellishments to follow accordingly. The priest was afforded a kind of respect through all of these adornments. In return, his responsibility to carry out the religious duty of the sacrificial services placed a heavy weight upon him to perform the offerings correctly.

Rabbi Judith Abrams, of blessed memory, a great scholar of the 20th century, recognized the message that “dignity and adornment” meant for the priest but also for every person engaged in the Jewish community. Dignity brings discipline, the importance of the sacred rite, and the performance of the mitzvot, the sacred obligations, to ground us in Jewish practice. But, if that is all we have, she taught, “we miss half of the Jewish experience. We must also float in Judaism’s beauty and joy, the mystical texts and practices, the sensuality specific to each holiday and to Shabbat.” When we do we become “seriously joyful and joyfully serious.” That is what adornment means here.

I’m not sure of the full intention of the designers today and whether they accomplish their own goals each fashion week around the globe. But, this we know of the ancients: the clarity and visual splendor of the attire meant for the priests radiated a message of respect and spiritual access to lift the whole community toward the divine. What they wore mattered to them and even to us today.

Shabbat Shalom!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!

This weekend at Temple Israel:

  • We come together as a community to celebrate Shabbat at 6:00 p.m., onsite or on ZoomFacebook Live, or our website
  • Torah Study gathers onsite or online at 9:00 a.m. beginning with a short Shabbat service and Torah reading followed by an engaging study and conversation. All levels and abilities are welcomed!
  • Little Beats Music and Movement Party for Families with Young Children gathers onsite at 3:30 p.m.  Register here.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Elaine Zecher