The fashion industry is a one that employs millions of people worldwide and both reflects and molds societal trends. Top designers are paid astronomical sums for creating both popular and exclusive lines of clothing. Clothes literally do make the man –and woman.

We instinctively know that how we dress impacts both upon how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. Clothes we wear affect our behavior, attitudes, personality, mood, confidence, and even the way we interact with others. Not surprisingly, scientific research has confirmed these truths.

However, it is not the clothes themselves that are crucial but how we perceive them that matters most.

A study (see here) published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Dr. Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, found that if one wears a white coat that one believes belongs to a doctor, one's ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if one wears the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, one shows no such improvement.

Wearing a white coat has a long tradition. The Mishna (Taanit 26b) records how the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dancing on the two most festive days of the year–the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Men too wear a kittel on Yom Kippur so that all can be dressed in white, the colour of purity[1]. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 178:1) quotes with favour the practice for doctors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to wear special i.e. white coats, as a mark of their expertise.  

While it is doubtful that our Sages conducted scientific experiments to study the impact of clothing they intuited the impact that it can have. And they understood that not all clothes are created equal.

“Rabbi Inyani bar Sasson says: Why is the passage of the offerings juxtaposed to the passage of the priestly vestments? To teach us that just as offerings effect atonement, so too, priestly vestments effect atonement” (Zevachim 88b).

Seeing the high priest bedecked in his royal garb in the Temple is meant to inspire us to repent for our sins and aspire to do better moving forward, thereby making ourselves worthy of atonement. The clothes of the kohanim, just like the korbanot, are but a means to an end.  

Undoubtedly, clothing can achieve atonement - provided we are attuned to its meaning and act accordingly.

Rav Inyani bar Sasson continues: “The ketonet, tunic, atones for bloodshed, as it is stated ‘And they [Yosef's brothers] killed a goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood’ (Breisheet 37:31). The michnesai'im, breeches, atones for sexual immoraltiy, as it is said: ‘And you shall make them linen breeches to cover the flesh of their nakedness’ (Shemot 28:42). The mitznefet, turban, atones for arrogance. How do we know? Rav Chanina said: Let an article placed high up come and atone for an offence of haughtiness. The avnet, belt, atones for [impure] meditations of the heart. The choshen, breastplate, atones for [neglect of] civil laws, as it is said, ‘And you shalt make a breastplate of judgment’ (Shemot 28:15). The ephod, apron, atones for idolatry, as it is said, ‘Without ephod [there are] teraphim, i.e. idolatry (Hosea 3:4). The me'el, robe, atones for slander. How do we know? Rav Chanina said: Let an article of sound come and atone for an offence of sound. The tzizt, head plate, atones for brazenness: of the head plate it is written, ‘And it shall be upon Aaron's forehead’, whilst of brazenness it is written, ‘And you had a harlot’s forehead” (Jeremiah 3:3)” (Zevachim 88b).

The obligation to recall the sale of Joseph is one that we must never forget. The Torah subtly reminds us of this during our holidays, holidays that recall the Exodus from Egypt. On Rosh Chodesh and on every Yom Tov a he-goat is offered as a sin offering. This serves as an eternal reminder to the awful crime of the brothers dipping the kutonet, the coat, of their brother Joseph into the blood of a goat. We may celebrate the Exodus but had the brothers not sold Yosef there may have been no need for one[2].

It is noteworthy that Rav Inyani teaches that the kutonet atones for the sin of murder. While the brothers did not kill Yosef they had plotted to do so and that awful thought requires atonement - for murder. Moreover, Yosef easily could have died in the pit and the fact that he did not die may be attributed to luck. And luck alone cannot obtain atonement. Moreover, they intentionally tricked their father into believing Yosef was dead – so as far the impact on Yaakov is concerned they really were guilty of murder. 

That the pants of the kohen would atone for–or shall we say remind us not to violate-sexual transgressions needs little explanation. Nor does the fact that mitznefet the turban worn by the kohen serves to remind us of the sin of haughtiness. While we no longer have kohanim wearing the mitznefet its message has been replaced by the kippa, meant to help us attain the trait of humility[3].

The laws of tefillah, prayer, require that one have a separation between the upper and lower halves of our bodies, between the seat of our intellect and emotion, and our bodily functions. If one assumes that the avnet, belt, serves a similar function we can readily understand why the avnet would atone for, hirhur halev, thoughts of the heart.[4]

The Urim Vetumim, part of the breastplate was the medium through which G-d communicated with the high priest – with the letters reflecting G-d’s message lighting up on the Urim Vetumim, for the kohen to then interpret. G-d, the embodiment of truth, (Shabbat 55b) wants to ensure that justice be properly carried out before communicating with man. This explains why the Torah places Yitro’s advice to Moshe to set up a judicial system immediately before Divine revelation at Sinai; and hence it is the breastplate that atones for civil laws not properly carried out.

As we discussed in our last post the discussion of clothes and atonement follows on the heals of the discussion regarding whether the me'el, the robe of kohen gadol had 36 or 72 bells. Bells, which can be heard from afar, remind us of the dangers of lashon hara as our inappropriate words travel far and wide.

The tzizt, the golden head piece worn on the hat of kohen gadol, like the turban itself, atones for brazenness or shall we say chutzpah. That we need two pieces of clothing to fully atone for chutzpah indicates how rampant this character trait is and how it is the antithesis of forming a relationship with G-d. “Rav Chisda says, and some say that Mar Ukva says: Concerning any person who has arrogance within him, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: He and I cannot dwell together in the world” (Sotah 5b).

Of all the garments only the ephod, a type of apron onto which the chosen was placed, atones for a specific sin between man and G-d, namely that of idolatry. It is sins between man and man where greater efforts at atonement are required.

The breastplate, apron, robe and head plate are worn by the kohen gadol only, the religious leader of the Jewish people. These four garments atone for the sins of a miscarriage of justice, brazenness, idolatry and lashon hara. It is these areas that are especially important for our leaders. They must recognize at all times that they are to carry out the will of the Creator and not be enticed by the false god of power. It is they who must ensure justice for all and it is their speech that sets the tone for society[5]. “Sages, be careful in your words” (Pirkei Avot 1:11).



[1] Our Sages recommend that one wear black if one is afraid they will sin (see Moed Katan 17a). It is interesting to note that almost all chassidic groups wear at least some white whereas “the mitnagdim” tend to dress in black. The former stressed the love of G-d while the latter stressed the fear of G-d.

[2] Similarly as we begin the seder, we allude, and only allude, to Yosef with the eating of karpas. Rashi (Breisheet 37:3) explains that the kutonet passim was “like karpas and techelet. While a later addition to the seder, we again allude to Yosef as we end the seder; “Eleven are the stars”. While the focus of seder night is on redemption we must not forget the sin of the sale of Joseph.

[3] This may explain why the custom of wearing a kippah was accepted by men only. Scientific research (see here) has demonstrated that overall men are in fact more arrogant than women. A very different explanation, suggested to me by Dr. Arnold Goodman, is that wearing a kippah is a reaction to the Christian demand to remove one’s head covering when in prayer (something that has carried over to the playing of the national anthem at sporting events). In the gospels (Corinthians 11:4) that command is directed only at men and hence in reaction Jewish men insisted on wearing a kippah.

[4] This assumption can be challenged as the kutonet also served to separate the parts of body. Nonetheless, with the kutonet serving as atonement for murder the avnet served as atonement for our thoughts. Interestingly, in Rav Inyani's teaching linking the clothes and atonement, only regarding the avnet is there no proof text or explanation given in the Gemara.   

[5] It is striking that the exhortation to keep our vows and oaths is directed “to the heads of the tribes of Israel” (Bamidbar 30:2). While we all must keep our word it is our leaders who must be especially vigilant in this regard.