Our parsha expends an enormous amount of detail on the special garments of the kohanim, the priests in the Temple and Tabernacle. More than eighty verses are used to describe the intricate nature of the clothes that these men wore.

The Talmud points out that it was essential that the kohanim wore their garments when on official business in the Temple. Indeed they only attained their proper sanctity when they were properly attired (Zevachim 17b.) In fact they were not allowed to wear their special clothes outside the Temple precincts. Their garments were ‘officiating robes’ that were a fundamental part of Temple service.

It is significant that the style of these garments was unchanging. There was no Temple ‘fashion designer’ offering this year’s version of a turban and sash to new kohanim. A kohen in the Temple would know that he was performing the exact same service, bedecked in the exact same way as his father and grandfather before him.

By contrast, the prophet had no specific dress code. Whilst the prophet Elijah is famously described as ish baal seir v’ezor or azur bemotnav – ‘a hairy man wearing a leather belt’, this was not standard prophet-wear. There was no connection between the clothes a prophet wore and the status he represented.

Rabbi J B Soloveitchik (d. 1993) explains that the sartorial difference between priest and prophet reflected the difference between their respective leadership roles. The kohen represented the continuity of Judaism. As Jews, we embrace eternal truths that are handed down, unchanged, from generation to generation. This is symbolised in the kohen’s clothes, in style and appearance, as absolute replicas of his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor and so on. It powerfully represents the unbroken masorah or continuity of tradition, from the times of its origin at Mount Sinai.

The prophet, by contrast, represented a message for the age. In each generation that message had to be adapted to speak to the needs of the time. As Rav Soloveitchik says: “the essence of the navi is the flexibility and relevance of his or her message.” The various prophets spoke in vastly different styles, tailoring their teachings to the audience of that time and place. The absence of a special ‘prophet's uniform’ symbolised the possibilities of different expression of G-d’s message, according to the needs of the hour.

Today’s rabbis are heirs to both the priests and the prophets in that they are required to represent both the timelessness and the timeliness of Judaism. Do you think the style of clothes a rabbi wears has a bearing on his ability to communicate the Jewish message?

Dayan Ivan Binstock