February 14th-15th, 2003
13 Shevat, 5763
This is a revised version of an essay from our
We wish a hearty mazal tov to the Gordon Family, on the upcoming marriage
of Sara Bracha!
Some people have the impression that the Torah does not attach any
importance to aesthetics. This is not true at all. Although I would agree
that "Art for art's sake" is not a slogan of classical Judaism, neither is
"pleasure for pleasure’s sake," or anything else for its own sake alone.
Everything in our lives, ultimately, is meant to be utilized for
G-d’s sake--that is, to further G-d’s purpose in creation and help us
human beings achieve our highest (spiritual) purpose: to glorify G-d, and
to elevate ourselves (and the world) through joyfully carrying out the
Torah’s commandments. The beauty we experience--either in the natural
world, or of human artistic creations--can be an integral part of helping
us appreciate the joy of being alive…and, thereby, helping us become
better servants of G-d.
An in another sense as well, "Art for G-d's sake," is very much a part of
our Torah tradition. "This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him (anveihu),"
sang the Jews after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and Rashi notes
that the word, anveihu, is related to the word, noi, which means, "beauty"
or "splendor." The Talmud explains that we should beautify the mitzvos we
perform in the service of G-d: have beautiful tzitzis, mezuzah, lulav,
Just take a look at this week's parsha, which details the special garments
that the kohanim-- Aharon and his sons, and their descendants--wore while
performing the divine service in the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and the Temple.
And I mean reallyLOOK, if you can: there are many books illustrating the
Mishkan that help make the Torah's descriptions jump to life, including a
gorgeous volume entitled, The Tabernacle (Soncino Press), a collection of
photographs of an actual model of the Mishkan and its vessels constructed
by the Israeli artist, Moshe Levine.
After giving the commandment to take pure olive oil for the Menorah,
Hashem tells Moshe:
"Bring near to yourself Aaron, your brother, and his sons with him, from
among the Children of Israel...to minister to me. You shall make
vestments of sanctity for Aaron, your
brother, for glory and splendor. And you shall
speak to all the wise-hearted people whom I have invested with a
spirit of wisdom...they shall make vestments of
sanctity for Aaron, your brother, and
his sons, to minister to Me. (28, 1-4; Artscroll Chumash, pp. 465,
We see clearly that the garments were supposed to be beautiful. But their
beauty was not just for the eye's delight: it was, explains the Rambam (as
quoted in Rabbi Elie Munk's Call of the Torah), intended to increase
reverence for the Temple. Just as a lovely synagogue brings honor to the
Torah and can enhance one's appreciation of what takes place there, so,
too, does the unique clothing of the kohanim inspire us--even today--with
a sense of the grandeur of our Holy Temple and its service. Ramban further
points out that the garments resembled clothing worn by kings at that
time--nothing but the finest for the ministers of G-d in the Beis
But the priestly garments were more than just aesthetically pleasing and
finely crafted; they were invested with deep symbolic (and mystical)
signifigance, as evidenced by the fact that the craftsmen needed a divine
"spirit of wisdom" to make them (Ramban). The Talmud and Midrash delineate
how each garment was intended to achieve atonement for the Jewish people
for a particular sin: the multi-colored ephod (apron) of the Kohen Gadol,
recalling the apron worn by idolaters, atoned for idol worship; the
embroidered avneit (belt), which every kohen wore over his heart, atoned
for impure thoughts, and so on.
Let's take a brief look at the symbolism of one of the garments of the
Kohen Gadol, the me'il:
"You shall make the Robe (me'il) of the Ephod entirely of turquoise wool.
Its head-opening shall be folded over within, its opening shall
have a border all
around of weaver's work...it may not be torn. You shall make
on its hem pomegranates of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, on
its hem all around,
and gold bells between them, all around; a gold bell and a pomegranate, a
gold bell and a pomegranate on the hem of the robe, all
around." (28, 31-34; Artscroll Chumash, pp. 471, 473)
Our Sages tell us that the me'il atoned for the sin of loshon hara--gossip
and slander--spoken publicly. What's the connection? The Talmud says that
the bells on the bottom of the me'il, which were meant to announce the
entrance of the Kohen Gadol into the Sanctuary, produce a kol, or voice,
just as the one who speaks loshon hara uses his voice; the one kol atoned
for the other.
The Ba'al Haturim points out that there were 72 bells and 72 pomegranates
on the hem, a number alluding to the 72 shades of white which the Mishna
says could confirm that a person had tzara'as--the malady which, in
ancient days, afflicted those who spoke loshon hara.
The Kli Yakar beautifully explains that the blue color of the me'il would
lead a person to reflect on the sea, about which Hashem tells Iyov (Job),
"...I prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said,
'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further...'" So, too, say our Sages, G-d
made two "walls" to restrain the tongue and keep it from overspeaking its
bounds: the teeth and the lips. Just as G-d keeps the sea in check, so,
too, are we meant to keep our tongues in check.
The Alshich, quoted in Lekach Tov, asks why the Torah needs to emphasize
that the gold bells were between the woolen pomegranates on the hem of the
me'il: "You shall make on its hem pomegranates...and gold bells between
them, all around..." It would have sufficed to say that bells and
pomegranates were next to each other on the hem. He answers that the bells
represent the spoken voice, and the pomegranates, the closed mouth; the
Torah comes to teach us that we should be silent twice as much as we
speak—this is why it specifies one bell between two pomegranates.
As in so much of Jewish life, aesthetic delight and ethical instruction
were (pun intended) deftly woven together in the priestly garments. The
experience of beauty--truly one of the greatest delights on earth--is
meant to help elevate us to become better human beings, and better
servants of the Almighty.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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