You Are What You Wear?

Friday, 23 February, 2024 - 7:33 am

I once received a phone call from a family I did not know. The father was deathly ill and they wanted a rabbi to visit him in the hospital. I rushed over, recited a prayer for recovery and the final prayers.  I offered my support, wished them well and told them to call me any time of day or night if there was a need or if the situation worsened.

The next day I was informed that their father had passed.  I inquired whether arrangements had been made. “Yes,” I was told. We have a funeral home taking care of it.  I asked about a Jewish burial. There was none planned. “Rabbi, we are so grateful for your support in our time of need.  Please tell us how we can give our father and husband the proper Jewish rites of passage and we will do exactly as you say.”

I quickly sprang into action. The funeral home was not familiar with Jewish tradition. As I rabbi, especially in a smaller Jewish community, I sometimes need to muscle my way forward to ensure Jewish traditions are afforded. Everyone was on board. But, no one imagined it was remotely possible to hold a funeral that same day, as Jewish tradition – and the family – insisted.

In short, I left home that morning and did not return home until after the funeral. Baruch Hashem – and thanks to wonderful volunteers in the community, we got it done.

It was only when I showed up at the funeral, a mere 30 minutes before the cemetery was to close and very close to sunset that I realized I was not in Rabbinic attire. The day had been a whirlwind and there was no time to rush home and change. I apologized and officiated.

It was at that moment that I pondered the famous saying, “Clothes make the man.” Is that really true? Here I was, not quite the look of a Rabbi – but acting like one.

After the funeral, a congregant approached me and said, “Rabbi, that was a remarkable commitment you showed to the deceased – someone you never knew until hours before their passing. Oh, and about the clothes – with the yarmulke, tzitzit, and beard, you always look Jewish to me.”

So, is it true that our garb informs who we are? Or, outside of the red carpet, are clothing meaningless gestures to society?


In this week’s parsha Tetzaveh, the Torah dedicates a fortune of time to describe and instruct on the exact garments of the priests who officiated in the Holy Temple. Why do much attention to technical details? Far fewer words are expended on describing the spirit of the service?

The Talmud wonders why the garments were so important – and explains that in a palace every person must be dressed in a way that expresses the king. In the Holy Temple, the priests were always in the presence of G-d – and constantly expressed that in their dress.

Clothing may not make the man. But, what we wear reminds ourselves and others what we are doing – be it sports, coal mining, or neurosurgery.

I'm not sure if you are what you wear, but you wear what you are. 

From a Jewish viewpoint, wearing a kippah or other Jewish expression is not reserved only for the Synagogue. If I consider the rest of my day to be sacred – in the furtherance of my Divine mission on earth – then I ought to dress accordingly. 

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