As the Spring/Summer collections start to come into shops on the high street, I like to play a game called ‘Kittle or Zara Dress?’ There is a wide array of similar looking loose, white garments seemingly designed for High Holy Day dressing, if wearing white is your custom but you can’t face a full shroud or a set of robes. I have always been a sucker for Jewish or themed merchandise, and I am quite proud of the pair of vegan shoes – white, decorated with whales – I bought last year to wear on Yom Kippur. I always chuckle when matzah ties are donned during Pesach, and at jumpers with slogans such as ‘All I want for Chanukkah is EU’.
In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, Aaron is commanded to don sacral vestments before entering the Holy of Holies with the Yom Kippur offerings. Rabbi Anani b. Sason asks, in bArachin 16a, why the portion about priestly garments is placed next to the portion about sacrifices. The Gemara answers that it is ‘to tell you that just as sacrifices procure atonements, so do the priestly garments’. The tunic atones for bloodshed; the breeches for incest; the miter for arrogance; the girdle for sinful thoughts of the heart (lust?); the breastplate for errors in legal decisions; the ephod for idolatry; the robe for slander (lashon hara); the golden plate for impudence.
The eight vestments worn by the High Priest grant atonement for eight different sins; I suppose, it is an ancient declaration that ‘you are what you wear’.
Now there is no High Priest, there is no real uniform for clergy, or for those who come and participate in services. I firmly believe that we should not police what people wear – and we shouldn’t be telling our teenagers, like I was so often told, that their clothes are inappropriate or skirts “too short” for synagogue – but what we wear in a spiritual setting is important. This is why we wear tallitot: literally wrapping ourselves in the mitzvot we cannot help but remember.
The boundaries between what we wear to synagogue and everyday life are blurring, and it is not enough to just wear ritual items to remind us of God’s commandments. The High Priest’s clothes atone for the sins alongside the sacrifice, and this demonstrates the sacrifices we need to make in our consumer behaviour. It is not enough in our modern world to just think about the items of clothing, but we need to think about where they come from. Feminist slogan t-shirts, or clothes made by workers paid next to nothing, are not ethical, regardless of what is written across them.
In Lauren Bravo’s book How to Break Up with Fast Fashion (Headline Publishing Group 2020), she writes insightfully about the problematic trope of ‘retail therapy’. Particularly now, at a time when we are seeking small comforts wherever we can, it is important to be reminded of this. At the beginning of the lockdown, fashion retailer ASOS was heavily criticised as their warehouse in Barnsley was visited by three ambulances in one day, with over 98% of workers saying they felt unsafe and unprotected while having to work during the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, prompted by their ‘flash sale’, we frantically ordered unnecessary items in a desperate attempt to soothe our anxious souls.
The global fashion industry produced an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions in 2015, suggesting that the most responsible behaviours are those that aim not only to reduce, but to reuse and recycle (or “up-cycle”) their clothing. Every year in the UK, an estimated 300,000 tonnes of used clothing now ends up in landfill – a fact to which Bravo wryly comments that ‘the word ‘used’ is disputable seeing as garments are reportedly worn on average just seven times before they’re thrown.’
To this effect, journalist and fashion lover Daisy Buchanan started a project called #notnewyear, committing to re-wearing old garments and only buying second-hand clothes throughout 2019. The comedian Aisling Bea started a hashtag at the end of 2018 (#aisling-recommends-eco-or-socially-conscious-brands-everyday-until-xmas) suggesting alternative, ethical companies for fashion and beauty products. Although she has since ditched the long and specific hashtag, she is one among many who are using their social media presence and influence to shift the public towards more sustainable fashion. These are just two examples, but it is a place to start. For just as the High Priest’s garments atoned for (his) sins, so too should what we wear be reflective of the ethical lives we are commanded and strive to live.
Daisy Bogod LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.