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On Changing Clothes
Prof. Jacob Spiegel
Department of Talmud
Every morning the priest ministering in the Temple had to clear the ashes that had accumulated on the altar from burning the sacrifices. This action was called "lifting" or gathering the ashes (haramat ha-deshen, terumat ha-deshen). "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 vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place" (Lev. 6:3-4). After gathering the ashes to a certain place on the altar known as the ash-heap, a second priestly duty was to remove the accumulated ashes to a place outside the camp. This procedure, known as removal of the ashes, was done regularly, but not every day.
We shall not go into the details of these two procedures here, since this not our primary concern. We would like to dwell on the Torah's remarks here concerning the priest's raiments. The two verses cited above tell us that the priest had to change his clothing before removing the ashes to a place outside the camp. What purpose was served by this change of garb?
In Tractate Shabbat 113b and 114a we read: "Rabbi Acha bar Abba cited Rabbi Johanan as saying: How do we know that changing clothing is commanded in the Torah? Because it says, 'He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments.' As the school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: The Torah instructs us in proper etiquette; in the clothes that a person wore when he cooked for his master he should not pour out a glass of wine for him." Rashi explains in his commentary on the Talmud, "How do we know that changing clothes is a way of showing respect for the Almighty? It says, 'He shall ... put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside..." Scripture required him to wear lesser garments when removing the ashes, which is not important work, so that the fine clothes in which he performs the rituals which are called 'eating and drinking', namely offering incense and libation, will not become soiled."
Rashi here provides a simple and practical explanation for changing clothes. The priest performs his tasks in priestly vestments, and should do likewise when taking out the ashes. However, since taking out the ashes is work that might dirty his priestly vestments, it is better for him to change out of his regular priestly vestments, to keep them clean for his other tasks. Rashi's commentary on the Scriptural verse in our Parasha follows the same line: "'He shall then take off his vestments' -- This is not compulsory but is a matter of decency, so that when he removes the ashes he not soil the garments in which he has regularly to minister at the altar; in the clothes that he wore when he cooked for his master he should not pour out a glass of wine for him. Therefore he shall put on other, inferior garments, instead of those in which he ministers at the altar."
Let us take a closer look at the teaching of the school of Rabbi Ishmael. To better understand, we must ask what the law would rule regarding a priest who has gathered the ashes in his priestly garb and no longer wishes to wear those garments to minister at the altar: Is he allowed to wear those garments to remove the ashes? Rabbi David Pardo (born in Venice, 1710, served as a rabbi in several Bulgarian cities; Moved to Jerusalem towards the end of his life and died there in 1790; Author of many works) wrote in Maskil le-David on Rashi's commentary on the Bible, that this is permissible. His view is based on the words in Rashi's Biblical commentary that it was "a matter of decency." In other words, there are instances in which changing garments is only a matter of decency, and not an halakhic injunction. Generally the halakhah requires a change of garments when the priests proceeds from gathering the ashes to removing them. In this special case, however, where the priest will no longer use the garments to gather the ashes or for any other Temple function, he is not obliged to change clothes; for changing his garments between gathering and removing is simply a prudent suggestion based on notions of decency--derech eretz.
Now let us consider another question. If a priest has removed the ashes and observed that his clothes remained perfectly clean and were not soiled by this task at all, may he wear the same garments to gather the ashes the next day? The answer, as we shall see, is negative. This can be learned if we pay close attention to the teaching of the school of Rabbi Ishmael.
The remark about "the clothes that a person wore when he cooked, he shall not wear to pour the wine" does not agree with the order of these tasks. For first the priest lifts the ashes, a task analogous to pouring the wine, and then he takes out the ashes, a more base kind of task, the analog of cooking. But in the remarks of the school of Rabbi Ishmael, the order is reversed. From this we may deduce that the clothes worn by the priest to remove the ashes (=cook) may not be worn the next day for lifting the ashes (=pouring wine). Why? Because it is simply a matter of respect. Rituals performed in the Temple must be done in suitable attire, in accordance with the place and the service ministered.
This can also be seen from a close reading of Rabbi Johanan, cited above. At first it might not be clear what further point Rabbi Johanan was making about the change of clothes, since he directly quotes the school of Rabbi Ishmael. The answer is that while the school of Rabbi Ishmael was speaking about the two duties of the priest in removing the ashes, Rabbi Johanan was talking about the universal practice of changing clothes in general to suit a particular role or task. As Rashi's commentary cited above indicates, "How do we know that changing clothes is a way of showing respect for the Almighty?" Rabbi Johanan bases his point on the teaching of the school of Ishmael (and therefore says, "as the school of Rabbi Ishmael taught..."), and believes that the lesson to be learned from this is that changing clothes to suit the task indicates respect.
Jewish sources present this view on changing clothes with respect to many other walks of life, but we have not the time to go into this here. Nevertheless, we shall give cite one example from the prophet Isaiah, in the matter of the Sabbath: "If you honor [the Sabbath] and go not your ways,..." (Is. 58:13). What sort of honor did the prophet have in mind? The Talmud says, "'Honor it' -- that your dress on the Sabbath not be the same as on the weekday." In other words, respect for the Sabbath is shown by wearing different clothes from the weekday.
The question remains, how do we know that "honor" is related to clothes? To this, the Talmud replies: "Rabbi Johanan referred to his clothes as 'his respect'." That is to say, the same Rabbi Johanan whom we cited above used to say that a person's clothes are what bring him distinction, what dignify him. In modern idiom, we say that "the clothes make the man".
Notice that there is an interrelationship between the person, the Sabbath, and the clothes. People are commanded to change their clothes, because special clothes show respect for the Sabbath. Thus one could almost speak of the clothes having an impact on the specific day. Changing clothes gives the day special significance. Conversely, changing clothes also has an impact on the person. A person who wears different clothes on a specific day, feels that this day is different from others, and this has a spiritual impact on the person. As Rabbi Bahye put it: "The heart follows the hand," or, one's heart follows one's actions. A person who acts a certain way will ultimately be influenced in his thinking and attitudes by his actions. Hence, a person wearing special clothes is spiritually affected by his garb.
This idea about the impact of clothing on a person's soul comes up repeatedly in Hassidic thought. We cite one example: when Rebekah was preparing Jacob to take the blessings from Isaac, Jacob was appreheand therefore said to his mother Rebekah: "But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me,..." (Gen. 27:11-12). Rebekah solved the problem by taking "the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on; and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids" (Gen. 27:15-16).
Ostensibly it would have sufficed for Jacob put on the kid skins to make himself hairy. It is not clear why he had to dress in Esau's best clothes, nor do we understand what Rebekah sought to achieve thereby. Rabbi Naphtali of Rupschitz offered the following explanation: Jacob was a straightforward person, truth being his guiding light ("You will give faith to Jacob," Micah 7:20), and Rebekah knew it would be difficult for him to utter a lie, however small. So she dressed him in Esau's clothes, because "when a person is dressed like Esau, he becomes somewhat like Esau". This shows the powerful influence of one's dress.
To conclude, let us return to the original subject. The priest ministering in the Temple was commanded to wear special vestments, and to change them in accordance with the task being performed. This he did in order to show respect. It showed respect for the Temple as well as for his service, which was sacred too. But wearing specific clothes and changing them also had an inner purpose, connected with the soul. The priest would sense that he was in a sacred place doing sacred service; his behavior would be influenced by his vestments and would be dignified as they were.