In parshat Tzav the list of korbanot, sacrifices, described last week is repeated, this time in the form of a priests’ manual telling the kohanim how they are to perform their tasks. Our Torah reading begins with a description of the burnt offering, specifically the korban tamid, the daily offering made on behalf of the entire community every morning and evening.
The Torah teaches that each morning:
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 garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.
Even though the entire process of removing the ashes was part of the kohen’s sacred service, he was required to change his clothes before he left the sanctuary. The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein, 1860-1941, Russia) states, “This is so that the special clothing which is used for sacred acts such as the burning of the incense or the libation should not be despised.” That is, the kohen was to wear his “good clothes” only for the most holy rituals.
This makes perfect sense to me, because when I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, all public schools had dress codes. The girls had to wear dresses or skirts and blouses, and the boys were required to wear collared shirts and nice pants. We had “school clothes” and “play clothes,” and the first thing we did when we got home was to change into our play clothes. After all, if you wore your school clothes for outdoors or boisterous after-school activities and they got dirty or torn, you were in for a strong dose of parental wrath.
However, in the late 1960s, school dress codes began to disappear, and kids began to wear the same jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers all the time. Without the clear demarcation of school clothes and play clothes, we lost the distinction between school behavior and play behavior — and the schools suffered for it.
And it doesn’t just affect kids. Many companies that adopted casual dress policies in the 1990s later discontinued them because they discovered that when employees no longer come to work in “business clothes,” not only did productivity suffer, but there were more episodes of offensive and inappropriate behavior. It appears that when people no longer have to wear “good clothes,” they are less likely to be careful about good behavior.
Long ago, the Talmud taught, “Your Shabbat clothing should not be like that of the weekday.” It has long been our tradition to dress up a little bit for Shabbat, and, in most congregations, that tradition continues. And that’s a good thing, because when we put on special clothes it’s a sign that we’re about to do something special.
When the kohen wore his special linen garments to do something as messy and mundane as clearing away the ashes on the altar, he must have stood a little taller, knowing that even this was a holy task. His special clothing helped him see his work as special.
And so we dress up for Shabbat — not to try to impress our neighbors and certainly not to impress God. But because the way we dress, our outward appearance, helps to shape our inner attitude.