I recently carried out a social experiment. I changed into an unusual outfit before I walked into my third-period class. I teach Jewish history and a few other subjects at an excellent girls’ high school in Florida. And I really surprised my students. The outfit was technically modest according to the parameters of Jewish law, but not quite the conservative look I usually wear. I announced that we’d be having a pop quiz, and I slowly said each question while the students wrote down the answers. When I got to the third question, I asked: “Do you have any opinions or feelings about my outfit today?”

I gave them a moment, and then I excused myself and changed back into my original outfit. When I returned to class, we discussed their answers to question three.

“Do you have any opinions or feelings about my outfit today?”

Gila Manolson, author of the book Outside/Inside, notes that in the vast majority of societies, people wear some type of clothing, even in climates where the weather is hot all year round. Clothing does much more than protect us from the elements, she says; it is used as a tool of self-expression. Clothing becomes a message about ourselves that we convey without ever opening our mouths. Some clothes highlight what’s on the outside, while some manage to focus attention on what’s inside. I guess that’s why a female attorney likely wouldn’t wear something skimpy while arguing her case before the jury; why have them focus on her body instead of her mind?

The Torah spends an entire chapter talking about clothing—the first chapter of Parshat Tetzaveh. G‑d had a specific architectural design in mind for the Mishkan, but before laying out the specs for the Mishkan’s structure and design, the Torah talks about the clothes that G‑d intended for the High Priest to wear: a robe, a tunic, a turban, a sash, linen trousers and an exquisite apron. On top of the clothing, he was to wear a breastplate with 12 precious stones set in three rows of four. There was also specific clothing for all priests to wear while doing their service.

Just in case you were wondering why G‑d cares what the priests wear, the Torah opens the discussion of their clothes by saying: “You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.”1

If the service in the Mishkan is a template for the service in our personal sanctuary,2 what isWhat is the eternal message about our garments? the eternal message about our garments? How does this verse shift our instinctive perspective about the clothes that fill our closets and tantalize us from window displays?

Perhaps the first message that’s apparent from the words “for honor and glory” is that clothing does more than play the functional role of keeping us protected from the elements. Neither is clothing a mere modest cover-up. Clothing brings honor and glory to the wearer. It’s not just that clothing can make you look good, it makes you look respectable and dignified. Rabbi Yochanan, one of the contributing authors of the Talmud, went as far as calling his clothing “my honorers”!3

Interestingly, the first two verses of Parshat Tetzaveh seem out of place. They discuss the oil for the menorah,4 and then the subsequent verses are consumed with the clothing of the priests. The Sfat Emet,5 the first rebbe of the Ger Chassidic dynasty, gives a fascinating insight about the unusual juxtaposition of these ideas.

Oil, the Sfat Emet says, represents knowledge. The oil that burns in the menorah, then, represents the knowledge that illuminates our existence and generates light in our sphere of influence. Clothing can convey this wisdom and set the stage for a wise conversation. These kinds of clothes bring“honor and glory.”6

My students saw me in a new light

The interrelationship between knowledge and clothes is also seen in a verse from Ecclesiastes: “At all times, let your garments be white, and let oil not be missing from your head.”7 King Solomon is alluding to the white priestly garments but talking to the general populace: “Let your garments be as dignified as the priests’ garments, and don’t let your reservoir of oil (wisdom) run dry. Let your clothes absorb your wisdom and display who you are on the inside!”

Which brings me back to my “social experiment”: When I walked into that classroom dressed in an outfit that focused too much on my body, it became difficult for my students to hold on to their perception of me as their wise teacher. All of a sudden, they saw me in a new light, and I think that was disappointing for them. My clothes may have made their heads turn, but it didn’t bring me honor.