This week’s parshah, Tetzaveh, describes the clothing the ancient Kohanim (priests) were obligated to wear while conducting rituals. After the destruction of the temple, the role of the priests was largely replaced by prayer; however, specialized clothing for spiritual purposes remains—most notably, tallit and tefillin.
This week, we wondered with our students why the Torah would dedicate so much detail to clothing worn for ritual purposes and why clothing matters when we pray.
Traditionally, the tallit serves as a reminder of the 613 mitzvot. A declaration of kavannah (intention) is said before wrapping the tallit, associating the 613 mitzvot with the number of bones, main organs, and muscles in the body. While the numerical values are not meant to be precise, the idea is that when we wrap the body in a tallit, we focus not just the mind, but all parts of the body together in the act of prayer.
A parallel statement of intention before laying tefillin declares that it is placed on the head and arm in order to unite “the soul that is in my brain, together with my other senses and capabilities.” Both tallit and tefillin help create a fully embodied focus and mindfulness for prayer.
Clothing is one of the most basic elements of all human culture. When Adam and Chava ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge and became fully conscious, their first act was to create clothing. We think about the clothing we wear for different purposes and contexts, and how this clothing represents our intentions. By adopting special clothing for prayer, we channel the consciousness we have around clothing toward forms of spiritual mindfulness.
This Shabbat, may we have the opportunity to experience clothing as a reminder of mitzvoth and mindful spiritual practice.