the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
The Jewish Dress Code for Prayer
Rabbi S. Tvi Tal (Teich)
Discussion Leader in the Program for Religious-Secular Dialogue
This week’s reading gives a detailed description of the priests’ garments, both for the High Priest and the ordinary priest.
The Mishnah gives an extensive and detailed account of the clothing and accoutrements that the priests had to wear when ministering the sacred service, including in its account those things that might render the clothing unfit for being used by the priest, and specifying what happens when a priest ministers the sacred service in inappropriate garb. The Torah and the Sages viewed these garments as more than simply a covering; they were not only concealing but also revealing – revealing the inner content of the person and the status of the priest as he was ministering in the Lord’s Sanctuary. Perhaps one could say that the halakhah concerning proper dress for prayer, both for public prayer in the synagogue and for private prayer, including the clothes of the cantor and of any person praying, were influenced by the status given the clothing worn by the priests in the Tabernacle and the Temple; the Sages wished thereby to establish more firmly the status of the synagogue as a “minor temple.” The relationship between a person and his clothing can also be seen as paralleling the relationship between body and soul, between outer envelopment and inner content; hence the importance of garments in general, and when standing before the Lord in particular.
Parashat Tetzaveh, which on most years is read close
to Purim, calls our attention to the function of clothing in the Scroll of
Esther as well. It seems that the
author of the Megillah wished, through the various descriptions of clothing,
robing and disrobing, to intimate to us something about the hidden significance
of clothing, especially in view of the fact that the story of the Megillah
takes place at the time of the return of the Babylonian exiles to
Later commentators on the Talmud investigated the commandments pertaining to priestly garb: is the very preparation of the clothing a commandment, or is wearing the garments a commandment in its own right, or are part of the preconditions for the sacred sacrificial service that one be dressed properly? In other words, are the garments a means or an end? 
Commandment 99 in Sefer Ha-Hinukh says:
The person delegated to perform the atonement service must direct all his thoughts and intentions towards worship and therefore it is fitting he should wear these special garments. When he looks at any part of his body he will immediately be reminded and become mindful of Him before whom he worships, and this is somewhat like the tefillin that we are all commanded to place on parts of the body to serve as a remembrance of proper comportment.
Looking at what the posekim (halakhic authorities)
have to say, we see clearly that when they set out to formulate the rules for
prayer they had in mind the priests in their special garments, ministering in
In Orah Hayyim 91, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) wrote:
How should one dress? In Tractate Shabbat (11a), Rabba bar Rav Huna used to adorn himself in fine clothing and wear a belt, because it is said, “prepare to meet your G-d, O Israel.” Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Tefillah that one should learn from this that a person must gird himself with a belt when praying, even if he has a sash, for his heart should not see his nakedness, and he should cover his head. He should not stand in prayer dressed in undergarments, nor bareheaded, nor barefoot if it is the custom in his region not to stand in the presence of important personages without footwear.
The Beit Yosef added, “But for praying he should view himself as if he were standing before the King, and he should stand in awe.”  Ba’al Ha-Terumah wrote, “From this one learns that a person must gird himself with a belt when praying,” but Mahzor Vitri says that this is not necessary, only that he must gird his loins so that his heart not see his nakedness. Nowadays we wear a sash and trousers, but they did not wear a sash and trousers. For all that, Rosh wrote, “Indeed, it is a commandment to wear a belt because it is said, ‘prepare to meet your G-d, O Israel.’” Based on the words of the Sages, all the posekim ruled that the correct way for a person to stand before the Lord is as the priest performing the sacred service.
The Kitzur Shulhan Arukh summarized: 
It is written, “Prepare to meet your G-d, O Israel,” which means that one must prepare oneself to stand before G-d, blessed be His name, dressing oneself in respectable clothing when going to pray, as if one were going to present oneself before a lofty official. Even if one is praying alone, at home, one must dress properly. In those places where it is customary to wear a belt, it is forbidden to pray unless one has girded oneself.
The references to sash,
trousers and headwear emphasize the Sages’ awareness of the
When Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was asked about the rules of prayer, he answered at great length: 
Query: May a person wearing a short-sleeved shirt in the summer lead services?
Response: In Tractate Berakhot 30b it is said that Rabbi Judah used to adorn himself in fine clothes when he prayed, since it is written, “Bow down to the Lord majestic in holiness.” In Tractate Shabbat 10a it is said that Rabba bar Rav Huna was punctilious about wearing important shoes on his feet when he prayed, and he based this on the Scriptural saying, “prepare to meet your G-d, O Israel,” that is to say, put on finery before Him when you pray. Maimonides said as follows (Hilkhot Tefillah 4.5): “Before praying a person must first see to it that his clothes are proper and he must dress himself up before praying, as it is written, ‘Bow down to the Lord majestic in holiness.’ Therefore one should pray neither bareheaded, nor barefoot, if it is the custom in his region not to stand in the presence of important personages without footwear.” In the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim (par. 98.4) we find: Prayer is instead of sacrifice, and therefore it is fitting that a person wear especially fine garments for prayer, just as the priests had special priestly garments, except that not every person can afford this, but in any event it is right and proper that he have specially clean trousers for prayer. The leader of prayers must take care all the more so.
The remarks by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef sum up the approach taken by the halakhah, that when we stand before the Lord in prayer we must take care to dress appropriately, ideally in special garments for this important occasion, garments which meet the criteria of clothing for sacred worship.