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Tzav 5776-2016

“Dressing Properly for Special Occasions”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, opens with detailed instructions to the Kohanim, the priests, regarding taking the ashes from the sacrificial altar and attending to the fires on the altar.

The very first service of the day for the Kohanim was to scoop up a shovelful of ashes from the sacrificial altar and place the ashes on the floor of the Tabernacle courtyard near the side of the altar. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that by taking a portion of the ashes that were created from the sacrifices of the previous day and placing them at the side of the altar before beginning the new day’s service, the priests symbolically declare that they will continue serving G-d today, as they had yesterday and be certain to conduct themselves according to the dictates of the Al-mighty’s will.

If, after separating the ashes, there was still a significant accumulation, the priest would clean the excess ashes from the altar, and proceed with the offerings of the new day.

Before beginning the task of cleaning the altar, the Torah, in Leviticus 6:4, states that the Kohen must change his clothes, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהוֹצִיא אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל מָקוֹם טָהוֹר, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, and don other garments, and he shall remove the ash from outside the camp, to a pure place.

The parasha begins with the word צַו, (“Tzav”) indicating that G-d told Moses to “command” Aaron and his sons regarding the duties they must perform with respect to the burnt offering. Nevertheless, Rashi maintains that despite the Torah’s declarative tone, the words, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, is not a command, but rather a recommendation of proper conduct, so that the priest not dirty his good clothes. Rashi cites Tractate Yoma 23b, arguing that the garments in which a person is dressed when he cooks a pot of food for his master, must not be worn when pouring a cup of wine for him. The sacred duties, with which the priest is charged, must be performed in a dignified manner. However, the cleaning should be done while wearing inferior garments, and not the fine clothes he had been wearing.

The commentators note that this suggestion to the priest for “proper conduct” may very well be the source of the Jewish custom to wear one’s best clothes in honor of Shabbat. However, when performing menial tasks on Shabbat one should wear inferior clothes and change into one’s finest clothes for celebrating the Shabbat meals or going to synagogue.

I have often written and spoken about how much contemporary society takes for granted having clean, well-tailored, clothes to wear, and what a special gift clothes are. Clothes in Jewish tradition are regarded as a reflection of the Divine, since they were the only gift that G-d personally gave the human beings in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21).

Not long ago, perhaps, in some instances less than a hundred years ago, if one wanted clean clothes in the middle of the winter, it was necessary to go out to the river or the lake and break the ice to wash a shirt or a blouse in the freezing cold water. Today, we take all that for granted. A good shirt that may have a slight ring-around-the-collar is often thrown into the rag bag.

There are today still people in certain parts of the world who have barely a loincloth with which to cover themselves and others who shiver at night because they do not possess warm coats or blankets. When a religious Jew puts on a significant new garment it is customary to say the blessing, מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרֻמִּים, thanking G-d for clothing the naked, followed by the blessing שֶׁהֶחֱיָנו, thanking G-d for being kept alive, and experience this wonderful occasion.

In many “chareidi” or “chasidish” circles it is still customary to wish a person who dons a new garment for the first time: “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health.”.

This brings to mind a rather haunting story that my father would tell me when I was young. It was written by the Haskalah writer, David Frishman (1859-1922, a Polish poet, essayist, storyteller, critic and journalist, one of the first major writers of literature in modern Hebrew) and is actually entitled, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ “Titchadeish.”

The story is about a little boy, the son of a very poor tailor. Frishman, anticipating a strong reaction to this story by the reader, even warns readers not to take the story too much to heart or become depressed, because it is, after all, only a story about the son of a poor tailor.

The story opens on the eve of Passover. The impoverished tailor has been working nonstop, for three days and three nights, trying desperately to finish tailoring the new clothes for the wealthiest man in town and his family. At the last minute, just before sundown, the tailor delivers the new clothes to his clients, has a few minutes to wash his and his son’s hands and face, before running off to the synagogue.

At the synagogue, all the congregants are dressed in their new holiday clothes and wishing each other  “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health,” except for the tailor and his son.

Despite his best efforts to involve his son in the seder ritual, the only question the boy wants to ask is why no one wished him, “titchadeish.” His father explained that only those who are wearing new clothes are greeted in this manner. When his mother saw the pained face of her child, she tried to encourage him by saying that hopefully next year he will receive new clothes for Passover.

But he did not receive new clothes for the next Passover, or the next, or the next.

At age twelve, the young boy was sent to apprentice at another tailor in town, where he was treated harshly. On one occasion, when he was instructed to deliver new clothes to a client, he stopped at his own home first to try on the new garments. When it was discovered, he was punished harshly by the tailor’s wife.

Never jealous of those who had new clothes, the young boy was only hurt that he could never have his own new garments, and spent many hours dreaming about being dressed in new clothes.

Unfortunately, he never did obtain a new set of clothes. When he was about eighteen, he started coughing and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was hoped that he would recover, but instead he became weaker, developing a high fever. When he closed his eyes, he saw an incredible sight of thousands of angels descending upon him. In their hands they carried pure white clothes and sang together, repeatedly: “titchadeish, titchadeish, titchadeish”. And then, the dark angel appeared…

He was buried in his new white clothes, the shrouds, but no one wished him, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ.

It is hard to relate to such intense poverty, or even conceive of any teenager who never had a single new set of clothes! This sad story drives home, in a most tragic way, how important are the gifts of good health and the garments we are fortunate to possess.

As we celebrate the joyous month of Adar II, and start preparing for the wonderful Passover holiday, may we all be blessed with good health, and be privileged to acquire new clothes for the holiday, so that we be in a position to be wished, “titchadeish,” and have the opportunity to wish others “titchadeish,” May we all wear our new garments in good health!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 23rd-24th, 2016.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.