Dressing for the Occasion


Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 – 30:10.

When did “clothes make the man” come into our vocabulary and/or belief system?

Popular explanations attribute the expression to Mark Twain. But that is inaccurate. Yes, Twain did become a fashion statement when he began wearing white suits in his career.But the words go back much farther than that.


The maxim actually originated during the Middle Ages in the works of Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian, who created an annotated collection of 800 Greek and Latin proverbs, and years later an expanded version containing 4,251 essays — a proverbial encyclopedia of proverbs. Recorded in Latin, Erasmus was “vestis virum facit,” meaning “clothes make the man.”

Quintilian’s work “Institutions” cites his source as Homer, who wrote his epics in the 9th or 8th century B.C.E. In “The Odyssey,” the key lines are: “From these things, you may be sure, men get a good report,” meaning Ulysses made his impact — a good impression — by way of fine threads and bling.

Not to be one-upped by classical writers, Shakespeare (who wore his fine Elizabethan white ruff with great pride and dignity) weighed in on the matter through Polonius: “The apparel oft proclaims the man” (“The Tragedy of Hamlet,” written c. 1600).

Professor Baruch J. Schwartz (Hebrew University) wrote that “the holy garments” were exclusive for a high priest. Moses first places them upon Aaron at the consecration of the priests [Leviticus 8:7–9]. Aaron wears them until his death, transferring them to his son and successor Eleazar immediately before he dies [Numbers 20:25–28]. All successive high priests are commanded to wear them as well [Exodus 29:30; see Leviticus 21:10].]

Donning four elaborate garments worn by the priests figure prominently in the Torah portion Tetzaveh, filling the entirety of Exodus 28. But it is the Kohen Gadol’s robe that has fascinated me for years. It is the first “real bell-bottoms” in fashion history. But, why “bells” on the hem?

There are multiple theories. The one most often heard: to let everyone know that the Kohen Gadol is alive hearing the bells move. Other theories of the original bell-bottoms include (1) signifying the teaching of the law by the high priest; (2) they were a musical praise to God; (3) they symbolize royalty like kings in neighboring cultures; (4) and they call for priestly vigilance to all ritual details.

As he wrote: “Whether verbally or dramatically, to worship God apparently involves making Him (!) accessible, imaginable, familiar — in ancient times as in our own.”

However, I agree with Schwartz. The robe has bells to alert the Divine presence to Aaron’s approach as he enters the sanctuary so “that he does not die,” as the Torah records. Just that: Those were the instructions and the promise for Israel.

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner writes from Philadelphia.

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