What’s in a Sash?

Every morning, Jews thank G‑d for “girding Israel with strength.”1 According to the Talmud, this blessing is offered when we strap on our belts.2 The sash is associated with strength; for example, in Psalms, King David describes G‑d as “girded with strength.”3 As a warrior, he certainly thought of the girdle as a garment that stiffens the spine and carries the warrior’s weapon.

But Jewish tradition gives the sash an additional, more spiritual, dimension. It is strapped to the body between the heart and the loins, symbolically separating the lower and baser parts of man from his heart and mind.4 In fact, many Jews, particularly chassidim, wear a special sash (colloquially known as a gartel) during prayer, as a reminder to banish their inappropriate thoughts.

So, in our morning prayers, we thank G‑d for girding us with strength of character, thus empowering us to attach ourselves to all that is holy and G‑dly.

Indeed, one of the earliest commentators on Jewish liturgy, the Abudraham, linked this blessing with the verse in Jeremiah, “As the girdle is attached to human loins, so have I attached the entire house of Israel to Me.”5 The girdle was usually worn over loose-fitting garments, and was the only garment that cleaved tightly to the body. As we tie the sash around ourselves, we pray that G‑d bind us to Him. And as we do, we remind ourselves that this attachment demands both purity of spirit and strength of character.

Thus, when G‑d told Job, “Gird like a warrior your loins,” we understand the phrase on two levels. The literal meaning is that G‑d was telling Job, “Prepare to arise from your afflictions.” But on a deeper level, G‑d also told Job to strengthen his relationship with Him, thus addressing both Job’s physical and moral strengths.6 As one commentator explains, for the Jew spiritual strength translates into physical strength, for G‑d protects His children when they follow in His ways.7

This brings us to the sash worn by the priests in the ancient Temple, which is described in the Parshah of Tetzaveh. The sash was worn below the heart, prompting the Talmud to comment that the sash atoned for impure thoughts carried in the heart.8

Here we have the perfect amalgam of the sash’s two dimensions: a sash that girds the priest with strength also purifies his heart, attaching it to higher, holy thoughts related to his worship of the divine.

Tying the Priestly Sash

A fascinating Talmudic debate discusses the order in which Moses tied the sashes onto the high priest Aaron and his sons on the inaugural day of worship.9

The Torah presents the narrative about this day twice, once as G‑d’s instructions to Moses, and then again as the description of the actual day. But a discrepancy appears between the two narratives.10 In the book of Exodus, G‑d first instructs Moses to dress Aaron, the high priest, in his priestly vestments, and then to dress Aaron’s children. At the very end, G‑d instructs Moses to tie the sashes around everyone’s waists. In the book of Leviticus, where the inaugural ceremonies are described, we read that Moses dressed Aaron in his vestments and sash, and then dressed Aaron’s children in their vestments and sashes.

The Talmud assumes that Moses didn’t deviate from G‑d’s instructions. The question is merely why the Torah portrays G‑d’s instructions differently from how Moses executed them.

As usual in the Talmud, there are two opinions. One opinion is that Moses tied all the sashes at the same time; the Torah implied that they were tied separately to teach us that the high priest’s sash was made from a unique fabric, and was not interchangeable with the sashes of ordinary priests. Though they were tied at the same time, they were separate sashes.

The second opinion is that Moses tied the sashes separately; the Torah implies that they should be tied together to teach us that the sashes were all made from the same fabric, and were interchangeable.11

A Parent’s Use of Discipline

How is this 3,300-year-old event relevant to us? Allow me to suggest a lesson.

We demonstrated earlier that the sash represents both physical strength and purity of heart. When raising children, we must sometimes use a stern demeanor and strict discipline. However, we must also retain our love and purity of heart. We must remember that the purpose of our efforts is not to maintain control of our homes, and certainly not to gain the upper hand over our children. It is to raise them as emotionally balanced and productive members of society.

Aaron wore his sash, his symbol of strength, alongside his children because his strength inspired them to be strong. Similarly, we discipline our children not to destroy them, but to empower them. Remembering this ensures that our discipline is effective and laced with love.

Both Talmudic opinions agree that the belt must combine strength and love. Their difference lies in whether we ought to reveal that love while disciplining. According to the first opinion, there was a moment when Aaron stood before his children in free-flowing vestments, representing free love without discipline, and then he tied his sash in front of them. Thus, even when his sash was tied, they knew they were loved. This teaches us that parents must demonstrate their love for their children even while disciplining them.

The second opinion disagrees, and feels that there is a time for everything: a time for love, and a time for discipline. When love is called for, it is disastrous to address the child with firm discipline. Conversely, when discipline is delivered with loving softness, the message is diluted and the child is left confused.

Woe to parents who discipline out of anger and, in their rage, forget their love. A harsh word or angry action, once expressed, can never be taken back—and worse, can affect a child for life.12 Discipline should be meted out only with love. The love can be in the forefront, according to the first opinion, or in the background, according to the second opinion; but there must always be love.