Tetzaveh: Folded in perpetual seam

We mask the edges of our identity with the seams of the guises we present, and must take care not to forget what is us and what is adornment
Clothing for High Priests, part of the display for the Tabernacle replica at BYU. (CC BY, Ben P L/ Wikimedia Commons)
Clothing for High Priests, part of the display for the Tabernacle replica at BYU. (CC BY, Ben P L/ Wikimedia Commons)

Seams and edges are the picture frames of our lives. We build them to help us locate our center through measuring from the circumference. It’s the seams that border our vision and delineate all that is directly connecting us to our core. As they don’t say in Hebrew, but probably should: השלווה בשוליים (ha-shalvah ba-shulayim) — tranquillity lies in the margins, in recognizing and welcoming the edges of our being, where our boundaries are. That’s where Tetzaveh takes us.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the edges of substance play an integral part in building a mishkan (tabernacle) and a human central unit for the focussing of Gd’s presence in our world. Divided into three main parts, and bookended by the boundary-less light of the menora and fragrance of the incense, Tetzaveh tangibly examines what folds and creases we lay close to our hearts, and what it means to live on the edge of holiness.

These three sections of Tetzaveh verbally touch on the trappings we give to the edges of our identity and the unbreakable seams of the guises we present. The sections are:

  1. Clothing for the kohen gadol and regular kohanim, [28.2- 28.43]
  2. The inauguration of the present kohanim and future kohanim [29.1-9]
  3. The sacrifices which accompany these inaugurations. [29.31-29.42].

For the sake of space, I’ll only look at clothing here but check it out yourself — it’s all there in the other sections too!

As the priests who halachically pen in the flock and are the gatekeepers of its border fence of purity, kohanim both live on the fringes of society and form its nucleus. As such, Tetzaveh turns from a Homeric fashion catalogue into a meaningful spatial and visual examination of the edges that demarcate their clothing, practice and — our own — layers of being.

Clothing — No fraying at the edges

In the description of the ephod, choshen, me’il and tzitz, items of clothing and adornment for the kohen gadol, we see the edge of the garment being noted repeatedly and a focus placed on the centrality of the heart.

For the ephod, [28.7] “It should have two shoulder straps attached to its two ends and it should be connected” –  שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפֹת חֹבְרֹת יִהְיֶה לּוֹ אֶל-שְׁנֵי קְצוֹתָיו וְחֻבָּר. The ephod is made of twisted material ‘משזר’ [28.6]. By twisting something, you both make sure to offer as much of the substance to the external but also wind it in to the internal face also. The ephod also is linguistically enmeshed with the idea of beauty (at 28.8, וְחֵשֶׁב אֲפֻדָּתוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ מִמֶּנּוּ יִהְיֶה – “the cheishev with which he is beautified, which is above it, shall be like its work”). In providing an outermost face and lining to the kohen’s garments, the cheishev and therefore ephod are, most literally, edgily beautiful.

The stones on the ephod are “surrounded” [28.11 מסבות] by gold and the chains of gold [28.13] are “made at the edge” מִגְבָּלֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה . Rashi says that the choshen is a ‘תכשיט כנגד הלב,’ an “adornment against the heart” and is made folded, as Rashi insists, כנגד לבו, against the kohen’s heart.

Furthermore, the me’il, the tunic which the kohen gadol wears, is [Rashi on 28.32] also folded in on itself,  כְּפִי תַחְרָא יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ–לֹא יִקָּרֵעַ – “like the opening of a suit of armor that cannot be torn” [1]. Thus, the seam is, paradoxically, to the consciousness of all, folded in on itself so as to be hidden. All these examples and still others (on the separateness and blending of color, the edges of light, the hems of the robes, the edges of the ears, the power of touching the outside of the altar, etc.) show a strong preference of the Torah to present seams, folds, and edges, as critical to the quality of the garments worn and therefore to the function of the cohen.

Unravelling at the seams

In recognizing the function of clothing as the edging face of our identity, it is possible to spend so much time working on not making the seams fray that you forget what the picture looks like, forget what you’re carrying or why you’re carrying it. Aaron, as kohen gadol, shoulders the load [28.29-30] of these seams, folds and edges “to please Gd” [28.38]. The parsha as a whole gives a three staged approach to working out the beauty in the seam and in the edge — and, by placing it close to the heart, beautifies the center of the folds of our sometimes crumpled being.

Folded in perpetual seam[2]

One normally has Purim, festival of guises and truth, just round the corner from this parsha, when not a leap year. Tetzaveh’s extra awareness of where our seams lie reminds us both that there is an edge to the mask we wear and of the different parts that make it all up. An assessment of the patchwork we carry that pigments our picture, of the seams that construct us, acts as a reminder not to wear the mask to such a degree that we forget that we are wearing a mask and forget where the seams are. Purim is about using the excuse of putting other masks on — in order to take our caked-on masks off. To make sure that the seams and edges aren’t so ironed into ourselves that we forget what is us and what is given to us as adornment.

Tetzaveh is a tangible hand-held exploration of what it means to be on the margins of your being, the edges of your self and how to create something new, while acknowledging the seams connecting you to what already was.

There’s living on the edge and then there’s living in search of the edge. The kohen’s clothing — although not normal garb — is a model of how to be the gatekeepers of our own holiness, of how to integrate a seam which cannot be broken, and to lay our creases and edges close to our heart and honor them.

לכבוד ולתפארת
(for honor and glory)

[1] A prohibitive tearing which is either prescriptive (don’t tear it or you’ll get punished!) or descriptive (it’s tear-proof). Do we fit ourselves to our seams and edges or do they mould to us?

[2] A Word dropped careless on a page, Emily Dickinson (poem 1261)

About the Author
Tikva Blaukopf Schein lives in Jerusalem, where she runs Torah-poetry slams, teaches, and learns. She is enaged in doctoral research at Bar Ilan University on laughter. Her BA is from Oxford University in Classical and Oriental Studies.
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