Yossi Feintuch

No leather – the first Biblical garments

The first earthlings, the Torah informs us in this first portion of the New Year, Bereshit, covered their reproductive organs with sewn fig leaves as ”loincloths”; the only species to realize that the nakedness of these organs must be covered. The first earthlings of the Torah chose their raw material from what was profusely available in the Garden, leaves.

Credit: Tali Education Fund page

But before God banishes the humans from the Garden of Eden eastwardly for eating the forbidden fruit, He ‘’clothed them’’ with “skin coats” which He ‘’made’’ for them. Or better yet – to avoid the personification of God – perhaps, inspired and enabled them cognitively, in the wake of their eating from the Tree of Knowledge and the resultant opening of their eyes, to figure out on their own and adopt such skills.

Does it mean, however, that although forbidding them to eat the flesh of animals (per Gen. 1:29), God wanted the first human pair to wear skin obtained either by deliberate killing of animals, or at the least using such skin after the death of an animal?  After all, animals that were living long before the fashioning of the first humans were presumably expiring already naturally. As to the provenance of such animal skin the narrative alludes to none of these possibilities.

Rather, God made and clothed them with coats to cover their own skin, but not made of animal skin. The Hebrew language does not have a distinctive word for either leather or skin, and it uses one word for both, “עור”/orr. Hence, given God’s effective prohibition against killing animals for sustenance, and derivatively (a fortiori) for making garments, “skin coats” should be understood as coats for the covering of the skin, rather than leather coats.

While essentially all translations of the Hebrew into English of this verse prefer “garments” or “coats of skin”, classical Torah commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra notes that the phrase “garments of skin” could simply be understood as garments to cover their skin. The folkloric presumption that God sacrificed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve has no basis in text. Thus, Ken Stone’s advocacy — in his Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies — of the idea that God committed ‘’the first murder in the biblical text’’ (p. 39) by providing animal skins for clothing to the two earthlings has no textual tip-off to rely on.

Indeed, the Bible uses the word “coat” or “tunic” (k’tonet or kotnot — as in the Garden, i.e., in plural–) to describe either Joseph’s striped coat or King David’s daughter Tamar’s “striped coat (that appareled “the king’s daughters that were virgins”). None of these coats seems to have been made of animal skin.

Similarly, when Noah’s two elder sons, Shem and Japheth, covered his nakedness, when he was drunk in his tent, they “took a cloak and put it” on him; the Hebrew word is “simlah” and we never find this very item in leather throughout the Bible. Hence, Noah’s two sons did not use a garment made of animal skin to cover their father’s naked body, even when such leather could be obtained after God had allowed the slaying of animals in the post-flood era.

By contrast, when Rebecca – like God who clothed the first earthlings – dresses Jacob, before he was to present himself to his father as an imposter of Esau — she also puts “the skins of the kids… on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck”; the skins’ provenance is spelled out. And when God addresses Moses concerning the materials that ought to be used in erecting a mobile sanctuary at Sinai, He identifies specific leathers such as “reddened ram skins”.

Clearly, when it comes to leather, like in these instances, the source of the skin is mentioned; no such source is mentioned in the case of the earthlings’ “skin coats”, which permits us to infer that these coats were to cover their skin but not made of animal skin. A Rabbinic gloss (Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer) suggests, however, that God made these coats from the skin which the Garden’s serpent sloughed off; hence, even the crafty snake did not need to die for these coats… In a nutshell, then, the first garments in the Bible that God tailored, just like the first diet regimen that God commanded did not require animals to die for these essential human needs.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.