Jewish mother and daughter bake challah for Shabbat. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
Jewish mother and daughter back challah


There is the bare minimum, and there is “beauty.”

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Tetzaveh” (Exodus 27:20-30:10) and it is devoted almost exclusively to the priestly garments. The regular priests would wear four garments and the High Priest would wear eight garments. The Torah says that the priestly clothes were worn for “honor and glory.”

There were two strange requirements related to the priestly clothing.

The first is that these garments were “shatnez” – they contained both wool and linen…something forbidden by the Torah! That’s right, for those who might not be familiar, it is forbidden for a Jew to wear a garment that contains both wool and linen.

So why was an exception made for the priests?

The second strange requirement was the emphasis on garments’ being “beautiful.”

Make no mistake, we should always be serving God in the most beautiful manner possible. That’s why a person should buy the most beautiful mezuza he can afford, the most beautiful tefillin, the most beautiful Kiddush cup, and so on. Nevertheless, one can use any ritual item, regardless of its level of beauty, and one can fulfill the mitzvah with it.

The preference for “beautiful” ritual objects is admirable, but not truly required. “Not beautiful” ritual objects are not disqualified. With regard to the priestly garments, however, it was an absolute must that they be “beautiful.” For example, any rip or stain in the priests’ garments disqualified them.

Why was “beauty” so vital for the priestly garments?

In order to understand both strange requirements we need to go back into history and understand the reason that the Torah forbids wearing garments of wool and linen. According to one interpretation, the ban is related to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain had offered God a simple sacrifice of basic linen while Abel offered quality…wool! As we know, that story didn’t turn out well (jealousy and murder!). As such, the ban on wearing garments made of both wool and linen is intended to recall this sad episode.

The question is asked: Why was Cain cheap? Why couldn’t he make his offering more impressive, more beautiful?

It is explained that Cain had no feeling for doing something in a more beautiful or preferred manner. He was a “let’s-just-get-this-over-with” type a guy. The bare minimum. Lazy, perhaps. But we know that effort and beauty is important in the performance of mitzvot.

When one gives a check as a gift to a bride and groom at a wedding, one does not merely take out a checkbook, write an amount, and hand the check to the couple. Rather, one writes a card and puts the check and card in a nice envelope, and presents it with a few nice words.

There is the bare minimum, and there is “beauty.”

This is why the priestly clothes had to contain wool and linen AND be beautiful objects. In this way, we recall the tragic Cain and Abel episode, and hopefully, learn the lessons from it to better our service of God as well as our service between man and man.

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