The Clothes of the Cohen and the Masks of Purim

“Make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment” (Exodus 28,2).

At the beginning of the parsha, the text outlines in great detail the beautiful and ornate wardrobe that Aaron, the High Priest, will wear as he performs his duties in the Mishkan. 

We are told of ornaments which use the most precious of materials, as well as require the highest level of craftsmanship. For example the choshen, the breastplate, is held up with braided chains of gold, and is filled with etched precious stones with names of all the twelve tribes. It must have been an absolutely breathtaking piece. 

But why is Aaron told to wear such extravagant items? We could imagine a servant of God, especially the High Priest, being told to wear very modest and simple garments. Why all the pomp and circumstance?

Additionally, who is the clothing for? Is it for the people, to illustrate Aaron’s exacted position, or is it for Aaron himself?

The text tells us that the clothes are “l’kavod u’l’teferet” for honor and for glory. It continues and says, “Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for sanctify him to serve Me as priest” (Exodus 28,3).

It is the clothes themselves which sanctity and separate Aaron from the rest of the nation, and even from the other priests. On a simple level they are his uniform; but by donning these garments of grandeur Aaron is transformed. Only through these garments is he the Cohen Gadol.  

Listen to how Mark Twain articulates the significance of clothing: 

“[One] realizes that without his clothes a man would be nothing at all; that the clothes do not merely make the man, the clothes are the man; that without them he is a cipher, a vacancy, a nobody, a nothing… There is no power without clothes.”

The effect of these garments is experienced by the people as they look on at Aaron; it inspires awe and awakens them to the importance of his position. 

But the beauty and the grandeur of the clothing is also experienced by Aaron himself. As he dresses himself in these distinctive garments, his heart opens and he accepts his unique role as the intermediary between the human and the Divine, between heaven and earth.

But of course there is another side to the story. Just because someone puts on the garments of the king, that does not make them the king. Shakespeare calls fashion “a deformed thief.”

And so with Purim approaching, the custom of wearing costumes can offer us the other side of the story. Someone can be the grossest, most vile person on the inside, but they can dress in the most glamorous clothing. Clothes can hide the naked truth.

What does this teach us about wearing a costume on Purim? On Purim, we read a story which has no mention of God. All the events of the story, including the incredible plot twist of Haman being hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordechai, and the miraculous salvation of the Jews across the Persian Empire, all comes through the garment of happenstance. 

Though God’s name is never mentioned explicitly, the implication is that God was always present. God, so to speak, wears the costume of happenstance. So if the seemingly random events of history are also directed by the Divine through his “costume” of happenstance, our way of acknowledging this is to also put on a costume. We put forward a fake or funny projection of ourselves on Purim as a nod and a wink to God’s projection of God’s self through happenstance and history. 

So what are we left with? Do clothes make the man, as the old adage goes, or is fashion a deformed thief? On Purim the answer is yes. 

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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