Parashat Tetzaveh תצוה: “Beauty and Sanctity”

Triptych by French-Israeli artist Joseph Zrihen, "Les Voyages Extraordinaires" (d'apres Jules Verne) 2019. With permission of the artist.

This marvelous yet dry chapter teaches us many lessons. After laws (Mishpatim) and the building of the sanctuary (Terumah) this chapter deals with priestly garments. It is the third part of the “how to” manual.  In modern language: this chapter is about fashion and beauty.

Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me; they, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen. They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs. (EX 28:4-6)

Most of the rest of the chapter (English text follows the Hebrew text) gives us, in exquisite detail,  the designs of the breastpiece, the ephod, the robe, the tunic, the head-dress and the sash.

Here are my takeaways:
1. Beauty matters.  And fashion matters too!  This chapter is all about the clothing of the priestly class (the upper class).  But it speaks to the importance of beauty in our daily (non-upper class) lives. Here is the late (and great) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on this point:

Judaism does not believe in art for art’s sake, but in art in the service of God, giving back as a votive offering to God a little of the beauty He has made in this created world. At the risk of oversimplification, one could state the difference between ancient Israel and ancient Greece thus: that where the Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty, Jews believe in the beauty of holiness. Beauty inspires love, and from love flows the service of the heart. (The Aesthetic of Judaism, 03 March 2012).

When art becomes a false god, when our art museums replace synagogues and churches, our spiritual life is diminished, not enhanced.  At the same time, when synagogues and churches are devoid of life, cold, empty, uninviting and devoid of beauty, our spiritual lives are likewise diminished if not extinguished. 

The brilliant British Art and Social Historian at the University of London, Frances Corner, and the also brilliant writer Vanessa Friedman, fashion columnist for the New York Times, have written about the importance of fashion:  Francis Corner, “Why Fashion Matters” Vanessa Friedman“Why We Cover Haute Couture”.

2. Judaism is a transformative human tradition that seeks always to bring the sacred into daily life. In this chapter we read about priestly garments and we may be easily forgiven for thinking these prescriptions do not apply to us (except in the abstract as noted above).  However,

Beautiful Torah scrolls in the Chesed El Synagogue in Singapore. Image with full rights courtesy of Wikimedia.

Judaism itself abandoned the idea of a priestly class in favor of dressing the Torah itself as the “priest”. So, today and for centuries, the “priest” dressed in royal robes, ephod, breastplate and sash is the Torah itself.

Tetzaveh, this chapter, teaches us that art and fashion unite the sacred and the mundane (the worldly, the everyday) in our lives and in doing so they serve they highest purpose: our human equilibrium and peace.

Shabbat shalom!

About the Author
Martin Sinkoff is a (still new) Oleh Hadash in Israel (almost two years). He lives in Tel Aviv. "I have had a long and successful career in the wine trade in the United States and France. I have lived in many places in the United States, including twenty years in Dallas, Texas (which I loved). I moved to Israel from Manhattan (where I was born). I am a past president of Ansche Chesed in New York and an active member of Kehilat Sinai in Tel Aviv. And I am an avid reader of Torah. You can read more about me on my website www.sinkoff.com." My writing reflects two of my passions: Torah and wine. The background photograph is a view of vineyards in the Judean Hills wine growing district of Israel, one of Israel's best appellations.
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