DON'T TEAR ACROSS THE DOTTED LINE
One of the items included in the detailed descriptions of the garments made for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is the me'il, a special full-length robe.
One of the items included in the detailed descriptions of the garments made for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is the me'il, a special full-length robe. The Torah states, regarding the robe: "Its head-opening shall be folded over within it, its opening shall have a border all around of weaver's work. . .it may not be torn" (Exodus 28:32). The robe stands out from among all the other Temple garments in that the positive commandment to fashion the priestly robe is linked with a negative commandment not to tear it.
The Rambam, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, points out that if the robe becomes impure it is also treated differently than the other garments. When most of the priestly garments become stained by sacrificial blood and are worn outside the Temple courtyard, they are to be slightly torn outside the courtyard and then brought back inside to be cleaned. However, if the priestly robe becomes stained, it is cleaned within the courtyard, but not torn. Again we see a positive commandment regarding the robe that is associated with a negative commandment of not tearing. Why does the robe differ from all the other priestly garments regarding tearing?
Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, begins to provide some insight about the robe. The Torah states that the robe's edges were adorned with bells and pomegranate-shaped tassels. Rashi points out in his commentary to the Talmud that the robe was fashioned to atone for the sin of lashon hara, speaking poorly about someone else. As the Kohen Gadol, adorned with the priestly garments, walked, the bells noisily announced his presence, and because the noise emanated from the robe, it served as a unique reminder for people to refrain from speaking lashon hara. The Talmud also states that the tassels between each bell on the robe were made of three materials: turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool. Using three materials to craft the edges hints to the three people who are injured when lashon hara is spoken - the speaker, the listener, and the one who is discussed.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, a contemporary Torah scholar in Israel, points out that there is another vehicle which atones for the horrible sin of lashon hara - tzaraat, a gruesome skin disease contracted by those who ignore the Torah's warnings and continue to speak lashon hara. One who is afflicted with tzaraat must remove himself from the community and his garments are torn (Leviticus 13:45). We see that the final punishment for one who disregards the Torah's warnings and speaks lashon hara is the tearing of his clothes as a symbol of his remorseless behavior. Just as the tear cannot be removed, so too the words spoken against another can never be retracted.
Perhaps we can now understand a reason for the prohibition against tearing the priestly robe. The robe, and indeed all clothing, represents the way we present ourselves to others. If we accidentally speak poorly about someone, we may be able to remedy the situation, just as the robe can be purified if it becomes stained with blood. However, one who continually speaks poorly about others, not only destroys the reputation of the individuals he speaks of, but also impairs his own reputation. Through the punishment of tzaraat, the violator is removed from the community to prevent further damage to others and must tear his clothing as a symbol of the reputations that he has tarnished. The robe, therefore, warns us of the dangers of speaking against others and symbolizes the purity that can be developed by avoiding lashon hara.
Eyal Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a graduate of Yeshiva University, resides in New York.
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