The role played by dress codes is a topic that, every few years, sparks discussion and debate. Whether the question is school uniforms or the influence of “casual Friday,” people usually have strong opinions. One aspect of the debate focuses on the impact of clothing choices on a person’s mind-set and work performance. Many proponents of uniforms and dress codes believe that being dressed appropriately for work/school allows a person to focus more on the task at hand.
This opinion may be supported by the rules that applied to the ancient kohanim (priests).
The Torah defines a very specific “uniform” for the kohanim - tunic, pants, hat and belt, all made of specific materials (with additional special clothing for the kohain gadol - high priest). The uniform itself is not unexpected. Around the world, clergy figures often dress distinctively from the rest of society. What is interesting, however, is the level of importance placed on the priestly garments.
A priest who performed his duties without the proper dress is one of several categories of priests listed as being “liable to death [at the hands of heaven]” (Talmud Sanhedrin 83a). The sages explained that this was understood from Exodus 29:9: “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind headdresses on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute” - since Aaron and his sons had to wear the special garments for their induction into the priesthood, it follows that they could not function without the priestly garments.
The sages further explain, “When wearing the appointed garments, they [the priests] are invested in their priesthood. When not [wearing the garments], they lack their priesthood and are considered zarim (a non kohein)” (ibid 83b).
The fact that there was the possibility of such severe repercussions for a priest performing the service without the proper garb demonstrates support of the belief that dress sets a tone.
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