Naomi Graetz

Clothing Makes the Man and Woman: Parshat Tzav

Symbolic Clothing graphic NG

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothing lately. It’s that time of the year! Now, in the transition between Winter and Summer (there is no real Spring or Fall in Israel), I usually think about when to switch over from my winter to summer wardrobe. Normally, I do the big switch on yom ha’atzmaut, which used to be the day the outdoor pool opened here in Omer.  But this year because of the confluence of Leap Year and global warming, I might change over earlier. Purim is the time of dress up and coincidentally, this week we are reading parshat Tzav (normally read right before Passover).  In this parsha there is a description of the high priest’s clothing, which I reflected about last year. I expected that our megillah reading would be a sober one, because of the situation. Yet, when I walked in a few minutes late, I saw our synagogue packed with children and adults dressed in costumes that ran the gamut from animals, soldiers, fire fighters and of course Mordecai and Esther. The many cross dressers among us allowed for an opportunity to express a different aspect of our identity.


What is it about clothing that is so important? There is the utilitarian aspect of it: so that we won’t be cold or to protect us from the sun’s rays. Clothing was God’s first gift to mankind:

And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21).

No one else in creation wears clothing (with the exception of domesticated dogs in the winter). Clothing is basic: it is one of the three things that a husband is responsible for in marriage:

If he takes another [into the household as his wife], he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights (Deuteronomy 21: 10).

Clothing gives us status. It can also hide parts of our body that we don’t want to share with others. We humiliate the woman when we remove the clothing that covers her, an example shown when the jealous husband brings his wife to the high priest for examination:

After he has made the woman stand before God, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy (Numbers 5: 18).

Or take the case of Joseph who is stripped of his clothing when he is thrown into the pit:

When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit (Genesis 37:23-24).

Clothing conceals who we really are. The word for clothing beged in Hebrew includes the idea of betrayal or deception as when Jacob stole the blessing from Esau:

Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on; and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids (Genesis 27:.15-16).

Or King Saul who tried to deceive the necromancer of Ov when he wanted answers from Samuel:

Saul disguised himself; he put on different clothes and set out with two men. They came to the woman by night, and he said, “Please divine for me by a ghost. Bring up for me the one I shall name to you.” …Then the woman recognized Samuel, and she shrieked loudly, and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” (1 Samuel 28:8-12).


We have recently become aware of clothing in the news when freed hostages related how they were dressed in gallabiyahs which totally covered them when they were moved from place to place; and their total humiliation (as part of the terror and abuse) of forcing women to remove their clothing and be ogled by men (and worse). And then, there are the many Hamas terrorists who remove their uniform and cowardly hide among civilians. In Israel, soldiers are traveling all over the country. If a soldier is dressed nicely in public, it means he is in the regular army—where the rules are that he has to wear the “Aleph” uniform. If the uniform is sloppy, it means he or she is in the reserves.  Our leaders dress appropriately for public appearances, notably the black worn by them in the early days of the war. Now it is all back to normal with suits and ties. Then there is the full regalia for marches or funerals with rare exception. For instance, when Prince Phillip died, there were no uniforms—perhaps because of Harry who lost all of his military privileges. The sight of storm troopers and the Hamas terrorists with their faces covered is frightening. Black is also a sign of mourning, on the other hand, no woman is without a little black dress in her wardrobe: black is always in style. Speaking of colors: White is associated with brides, as a sign of purity; unless you are a Chinese woman, where red is the lucky color of happiness, fortune and success


Lots of money is spent to be fashionably dressed as illustrated by these edited quotations from designers gathered by Harper’s Bazaar.

“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time…” “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world…Fashion is instant language.” “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak. Playing dress-up begins at age five and never truly ends.” “Girls do not dress for boys. They dress for themselves, and of course, each other. If girls dressed for boys, they’d just walk around naked at all times.” “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they notice the woman.”


So when we come to our priests, there are no surprises about the importance of not only the clothing, but also the order in which it is put on. There are work clothes and there are dress clothes.

The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place (Leviticus 6:3-4).

I wonder who were the laundresses in those days? They were certainly very busy and overworked!  Note also the detailed description of the consecration ceremony:

Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breast-piece on him, and put into the breast-piece the Urim and Thummim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem—as יהוה had commanded Moses. Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them (Leviticus 8: 6-10).


One of the main functions of clothing used to be to determine gender. In the Bible it says we should not cross-dress:

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to your God  (Deuteronomy 22:5).

Rashi famously addressed this passage when he said that if she looks like a man, she will consort with men and that can only be for the purpose of adultery. And a man should not wear women’s clothing, because he might end up leaving pubic hairs if he sits next to a woman. For a long time, it was fashionable to dress in what was called Unisex. It is still popular today, but is now called “gender neutral” or genderless clothing. In the Harper’s article one designer wrote that: “We are witnessing a ‘gender shift.’ I therefore design fashion at the service of it” (Stefano Pilati). The other designer explained that: “Fluidity offers an alternate way of being, crossing and merging masculine and feminine” (Harris Reed).  However, what is supposed to be neutral usually looks like men’s clothing. That in itself sends a message as to what is the norm.


It is interesting that when someone dies, the mourner tears his or her clothing. This has many precedents in the bible, among which Saul’s desperate grabbing hold of Samuel’s cloak and tearing it. To which Samuel famously says:

“YHWH has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and will give it to your fellow, the one better than you! (1 Samuel 15:27-28)

The chilling depiction of the desperate leader, whose time is past, but wants to keep up appearances and hold on to his power speaks to us all.  It is often the custom not to tear clothing, but to attach a black ribbon to the shirt instead at the grave site. Clothing is clearly symbolic and marks who we are and what we represent. All over the world many people are wearing disks and yellow ribbons as a mark of solidarity with the captives and hostages still in Gaza since October 7th. Let us hope that they will be returned to us before it is too late.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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