My interest in the relationship between a person and his or her clothing goes back to my early days in graduate school. I was taking a course on human personality, under the tutelage of a remarkably insightful and erudite woman, Dr. Mary Henle. I was so enthusiastic about the courses that I took with her that I asked her to supervise my master’s degree thesis.
I remember the morning I shared my proposed topic with her. I thought that one of the ways to assess personality was to take note of the kind of clothing that a person wore. I further postulated that not only does a person’s clothing tell us a lot about him or her, but the clothing that we wear actually has an impact upon us. Our clothing helps make us who we are.
Dr. Henle tactfully deflated my ego that morning. She said, “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Our personalities are very profound, subtle, and complex. At most, our clothing reflects just a superficial aspect of our identity. You give too much credit to the saying, ‘Clothes make the man.’ It is really only a wisecrack attributed to Mark Twain. There is nothing more to it than that.”
I subsequently chose another topic for my master’s degree thesis.
Many years have passed since that disappointing encounter, and Dr. Henle has long since passed away, although I remember her respectfully. During those years, I have learned that she was mistaken on many grounds. For one thing, the saying, “Clothes make the man,” did not originate with Mark Twain. Centuries before the American humorist, the 16th century Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus wrote: “Vestis virum facit,” which translates as, “Clothes make the man.” Not long afterwards, none other than William Shakespeare put these words into the mouth of the character Polonius in his famous play Hamlet: “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Truth to tell, statements about the relationship between a person and his clothing go back much further than a mere several centuries. Such statements originate in the Bible, and a passage in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), is a case in point. We read:
“You shall bring forward your brother, Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests…Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. Next you shall instruct all who are wise of heart… to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.”
Maimonides, codifying the concepts which emerge from the Biblical text, writes: “A High Priest who serves in the Temple with less than his eight vestments, or an ordinary priest who serves with less than his four required vestments…invalidates the service performed and is subject to punishment by death at the hands of Heaven, as if he were an alien who served in the Temple… When their vestments are upon them, their priestly status is upon them, but without their vestments their priestly status is removed from them…” (Hilchot Klei HaMikdash, 10:4).
We are left with the clear impression that these vestments are external manifestations of the royalty and majesty of the priestly role. The clothing literally makes the man. Without the clothing, each priest is “ordinary”—one of God’s subjects for sure, but without any regal status. With the clothing, he is not only bedecked with “dignity and adornment”, but has become a prince, and can play a royal role.
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Ramban, makes this even more explicit. He writes, “These are royal garments. These cloaks and robes, tunics and turbans are even today (he lived in 13th century Spain) the apparel of nobility…and no one would dare to wear the crown…or the tekhelet (blue yarn) except for royalty.”
From this perspective, clothes make the man. With them, he is imbued with the spirit of royalty and can carry himself with regal bearing.
Others interpret the function of the sacred garments differently, but all agree that garments influence the wearer in some fashion. For example, Rashi, commenting on the verse, “Put these on your brother Aaron, and on his sons as well; anoint them, and fill their hands” (Exodus 28:41), points out that in the Old French language with which he was familiar, when a person received a new official position the nobleman would put gloves upon him, indicating that he now had the authority of a new position. Rashi uses the Old French word gant, which the reference books that I consulted translate as a “decorative glove.” This would indicate that the garments were a type of official uniform, not necessarily regal, but symbolic of a specialized responsibility. With the donning of the gant the person himself gained the self-assurance of authority and power.
The late 15th century commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama, in his classic Akedat Yitzchak, provides even stronger support for our contention that clothes make the man. He identifies a similarity between the Hebrew word for the Kohen’s uniform and the Hebrew word for ethical character. The Hebrew word for uniform is mad, plural madim, and the Hebrew word for a character trait is midah, plural midot.
Rabbi Arama notes that in Latin, too, the word habitus refers to both a special garment (e.g., a nun’s habit) and a character trait (e.g. a good habit). He persuasively argues that “just as it can be determined from a person’s external appearance as to whether he is a merchant or a soldier or a monk, so too, the discovery of our hidden inner personality begins with our external behaviors.”
For Rabbi Arama, that our clothing is metaphor for our moral standing is evident in this biblical verse: “Now Joshua was clothed in filthy garments when he stood before the angel. The latter stood up and spoke to his attendants: ‘Take the filthy garments off him!’ And he said to him: ‘See, I have removed your guilt from you…’” (Zechariah 3:3-4).
Finally, there is another biblical verse which demonstrates the central role of clothing in “making the man.” And here we go back even further in history than this week’s parsha. Indeed, we go all the way back to the first parsha in the Torah, Bereishit: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).
Nechama Leibowitz comments: “Everything in the way of culture and civilization was given to man to discover and develop on his own, with his own capacities. Nothing in the way of repairing the world and settling it was given to him by God. Neither the discovery of fire nor farming nor building houses was revealed to man by God. Rather, he was required to invent all these procedures on his own. Only clothing was given to him from Above. “And the Lord…made garments.”
God made clothing for man. And clothing makes the man.
Ah, do I now wish that I had not abandoned my original idea for a master’s degree thesis. What a fascinating thesis it would have been!
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union