THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei – פרשת ויקהל-פקודי
March 10, 2018 – כג אדר תשעח
Exodus 39 describes the priestly vestments in great detail. While officiating at the Tabernacle, the descendants of Aaron wore white tunics. In rabbinic literature, the four articles of clothing worn by ordinary priests were known collectively as בגדי לבן “white garments” (Tosefta Parah 4:6). The High Priest wore additional vestments, including a turquoise robe, golden diadem, and bejeweled breastplate. The sages referred to the eight items of the high priestly costume as בגדי זהב “golden garments” (Mishnah Yoma 3:4). The priestly uniforms were intended to add glory and splendor (Exodus 28:2), whether for the priests themselves (Ramban) or in regard to the Almighty (Sforno).
In the absence of the Holy Temple, Kohanim have been replaced as religious functionaries by synagogue officiants. Moreover, religious instruction, once the domain of the priestly class, is now provided by a non-hereditary caste of rabbis. What, then, should rabbis wear in their capacity as halakhic authorities, when presiding over services, or when conducting ceremonies (marriage, funeral, brit milah, etc.) in the house of worship or elsewhere? Should they emulate their priestly predecessors and adopt a rabbinical uniform of sartorial splendor, or is there no such requirement, since the ways of the Temple are not to be mimicked in the post-Temple era?
The Talmud rules that Torah scholars are forbidden to go out in public wearing tattered shoes or stained garments. If people were to see a rabbi in a disheveled or slovenly state, their esteem for him, the Torah, and even God would be thereby decreased (Shabbat 114a). A sage must appear presentable, lest onlookers be repulsed and develop disdain for all Torah learners (Rashi). Maimonides ruled that Torah scholars must be dressed in clean and respectable attire, and that their garments ought not to be those either of the aristocracy or the impoverished, but instead of the middle class (Hilkhot De’ot 5:9).
In modern times, most Orthodox rabbis wear black clothing. What began as the sartorial choice of a small circle of Ashkenazi yeshivot has spread across ethnic and ideological lines. Even leading Sephardic rabbis have eschewed their more colorful, Middle Eastern garb and dressed themselves in the style of their “Lithuanian” colleagues in the hope of being taken seriously as Talmudists and halakhists.
This cultural phenomenon might seem surprising in light of the Talmud’s utterly negative view of black clothing. Here are three examples: (a) When a priest came for the first time to officiate at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, his genealogy was first investigated by the Sanhedrin. If the court found a disqualifying flaw, the disappointed kohen would don black garments and exit the premises (Yoma 19a). (b) If one’s evil inclination is too powerful to be repressed and sin is inevitable, it is suggested that one dress in black garb, travel to a distant land, and there satisfy one’s lustful urges (Moed Katan 17a). (c) When Simon the Righteous entered the Holy of Holies annually on Yom Kippur, he found an angelic being dressed in white. On the Yom Kippur immediately preceding his death, he encountered a black-clad figure (Yoma 39b).
In early modern times, rabbis in some western and central European communities began wearing canonicals, or ministerial vestments. These costumes included a cassock (ankle-length robe), hexagonal hat, and collar bands. The practice began in England and Holland in the late 17th century, shortly after the readmission of Sephardic Jews to the British Isles. By the early 1800s, even the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of England wore distinct clerical garb. The rabbis of late 18th century Italy wore vestments resembling those of the professorate, physicians, and Protestant clergy. Gershom Mendes Seixas, Hazzan of Shearith Israel in New York (1768-1816), wore a black robe and white collar-bands. In his portrait, he is clearly identifiable as a religious minister, but not as a Jew. At the Napoleonic Sanhedrin in Paris in 1807, dozens of rabbis attended wearing robes and collars. By the mid-19th century, rabbinical costumes approximating those of the Christian clergy were common throughout Germany and Austria-Hungary, not only among the heterodox but even among such prestigious Orthodox rabbis as Isaac Bernays, Jacob Ettlinger, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Seligman Ber Bamberger.
Scripture prohibits copying the ways of the heathens. “And according to their statutes you shall not walk (Leviticus 18:3).” The prophet warned the Judahite aristocracy that it would pay a terrible price for copying the sartorial style of its idolatrous neighbors: “And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD’S sacrifice, That I will punish the princes, and the king’s sons, and all such as are clothed with foreign apparel (Zephaniah 1:8).” As Metzudat David explains, it is the way of the social elite to expropriate the cultural practices of other societies as a means of distinguishing themselves from their socially inferior fellow countrymen. Maimonides, in codifying the ban on copying the practices of idolaters, stresses the need for Israel to remain distinct with respect to its attire and grooming (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 11:1).
Rabbi Joseph Colon (15th century Italy) interpreted the ban on aping heathen cultural modes as being applicable only if the behavior in question is without apparent logical foundation – like the Biblical חק – or if it is lewd and provocative. Concerning professional uniforms, specifically for physicians, he ruled that they were permissible because they serve the useful purpose of permitting rapid identification of duly authorized members of a critically important professional guild (Shu”t Maharik 88). Rabbi Moses Isserles ruled that seemingly purposeless heathen cultural modes are forbidden lest they stem from idolatrous rites (Yoreh Deah 178:1). Rabbi Moses Feinstein noted that if one could ascertain that a given behavior did not have its roots in false religion, but was merely a benign, though senseless, cultural development, then Maharik would still forbid it while Isserles would permit it (Iggeroth Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:81). The Vilna Gaon, in contrast, firmly ruled that any behavior in which Jews would not have engaged absent their having seen gentiles do so is necessarily prohibited (Biur Ha’Gra Yoreh Deah 178:8).
Is any legitimate purpose served by having Jewish clergy (rabbi, cantor, and choristers) wear canonicals, or was the practice nothing more than a disgraceful attempt to copy the ways of socially superior gentiles? One could plausibly argue that ministerial vestments add dignity to the worship service. Moreover, the rabbinical cassocks often differed from those of the Catholic and Protestant clergy. (Abraham Geiger used this argument in Breslau in 1843 to justify his wearing a clerical robe against the objections of the conservative Prussian monarch who opposed Jewish religious reforms.) A counter argument is that the entire notion of Jewish “clergy” is itself a foreign concept. The rabbi is a halakhic scholar and occasional sermonizer; he is not a synagogue ecclesiastic in any real sense. The cantor is merely a precentor designated by the worshippers to lead them in that particular prayer service. Any liturgically competent adult male could serve in that identical capacity. More importantly, dressing the clergy in special clothes may create the impression that it is only the synagogue officiants who truly pray to God and that the passive parishioners merely watch that religious leadership execute the ritual.
Mid-19th century Hungarian Orthodox rabbis railed against the use of canonicals, though their focus was not on rabbinical robes but on cantorial outfits. Rabbi Judah Aszod included cantorial gowns in a list of unacceptable innovations then becoming prevalent in Neolog “Choir” Temples. He berated the innovators and regarded their changes as violations of Judaism (Shu”t Yehudah Ya’aleh 1 Orach Chaim 39). Rabbi Hayyim Sofer, a leader of ultra-Orthodoxy, condemned the use of cantorial robes. He called the cantor a “destroyer” of Israel, and in a skillful play on words accused the youthful choristers of being devoid of mitzvoth המנערים מן המצוות (Machaneh Chaim 2, Orach Chaim 2). Rabbi Moses Greenwald, late 19th century rabbi of Chust, regarded the square cantorial cap as an imitation of the Christian priest’s hat, and therefore a violation of Leviticus 18:3 (Shu”t Arugat Habosem Orach Chaim 31).
Eliezer David Greenwald, early 20th century rabbi of Satmar, noted that the communal custom had formerly been for the prayer leader to wear a special cap. When the reformers changed the shape of the cap to imitate Christian practice, Greenwald abolished the custom and required the precentor to cover his head with a Tallith. He compared the cantor’s hat to the Biblical מצבה monument. The forefathers, most notably Jacob at Beth-El, erected monuments. Yet, Deuteronomy 16:22 expressly forbade the erecting of monuments because God hates them. How to reconcile seemingly conflicting passages? Monuments were beloved in God’s eyes in Patriarchal times. Later, when the practice became common among idolaters, God’s attitude turned toward hatred. Similarly, cantorial hats were acceptable in the pre-acculturation era, but subsequently became detestable (Shu”t Keren L’David Orach Chaim 13).
Though leading 19th century German Orthodox rabbis wore canonicals, they did not necessarily do so enthusiastically. Rabbi Shmuel Salant, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, once visited Germany and stayed with the Wurtzburger Rav, Seligman Ber Bamberger. Although Bamberger was a fierce defender of Orthodoxy and an antagonist of Reform, he wore western-style canonicals. Bamberger said to his esteemed guest, “Surely you have a question about my behavior.” Salant, ever the respectful visitor, denied that he had any problem with his host’s religious comportment. Nevertheless, Bamberger proceeded to explain that he wore canonicals as a concession to the religious progressives in his community. He reasoned that it was better to yield on inconsequential matters like vestments if he could thereby maintain his influence over liberal communal elements regarding more serious areas of Torah observance.
Rabbi Marcus Horovitz, the gemeinde-Orthodox rabbi of Frankfurt, corresponded with his colleague Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann about the halakhic status of a synagogue organ. Some Orthodox rabbis claimed that playing an organ during services violates the Biblical prohibition on copying idolaters. Horovitz disagreed. While trumpeting himself as one of the German rabbinate’s greatest opponents of the organ and recognizing that it is prohibited by rabbinic decree to play an organ on the Sabbath or Yom Tov, he rejected the claim that an organ falls under the halakhic category of חוקות עכו”ם, or “heathen statutes.” He noted that the organ has a secular usage in the concert hall and that Jews who employ the instrument in their synagogues merely want an impressive sound. Horovitz noted that a much stronger case could be made against clergy vestments. He claimed that if not for the fact that Christian clergy wear canonicals, the rabbis most certainty would not wear the talar robe (Shu”t Mateh Levi Orach Chaim 6). Horovitz did not explain how or if he reconciled this thought with his personal practice of wearing the talar.
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski was asked about rabbis’ wearing robes. As chief rabbinical judge of Vilna between the two world wars, Grodzinski did not directly encounter the western practice of rabbis’ wearing cassocks, hats, and collar bands. But his generation coincided with the golden era of Eastern European chazzanut, and Eastern European cantors did wear professional garb in the cathedral synagogues of Poland and Lithuania. Rabbi Grodzinski opined that even within the lenient view of Maharik, canonicals would still be prohibited. He speculated that the Western European rabbis may have worn cassocks because they were close to government קרוב למלכות and needed to dress like European clergymen. But, even if that were true in western countries, it was not true in Poland and Lithuania. He further noted that even those rabbis with impeccable Orthodox credentials who wore the talar did so much to their personal dismay and spiritual discomfort. He concluded by ruling that canonicals are religiously inappropriate and that every effort must be made to protest their use (Shu”t Achiezer 4:38).
On a personal note: While the Assistant Rabbi at Park East Synagogue (2006-2011), I wore a black robe on Shabbat and on holidays. At no point did I feel that I was misappropriating the trappings of another religion. Rather, I felt that this specialized clergy attire was simply one component — along with cantorial music, choir, conductor, acoustics, and decorum — of the High Synagogue experience. That style is not for everyone; and it is rapidly decreasing in popularity. Yet it is certainly Jewish in every respect.