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Do Clothes Make The Man?
‘When [Kohanim Are] Wearing Their Garments’
(Zevachim 17b)



Our Gemara explains that a kohen must wear his special garments (bigdei kehunah) while performing the avodah; if he doesn’t, the avodah is disqualified. We can seemingly define this obligation in two ways: (1) the kohen must wear them to do the avodah; (2) the avodah of the Beis Hamikdash requires that the garments be worn.

In other words, it could be that a kohen needs the garments to serve in the Beis Hamikdash and it could be that he is missing nothing without them – that he is fit for the avodah but the avodah cannot be performed without bigdei kehunah being worn. The garments, in other words, are not needed by the kohen but by the avodah.


Two Levels Of Kehunah

From our sugya, which says “when their garments are on them, their kehunah is on them,” it is evident that a kohen must wear bigdei kehunah to perform the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash (the first possibility). But we still have to clarify if the avodah requires the garments too.


A Kohen Hedyot Who Serves On Yom Kippur

In his Asvan D’oraisa (kelal 19), Rabbi Yosef Engel considers the following question: What happens to a kohen hedyot who performs the avodah of the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur? If the avodah requires the garments, then the Torah’s command that only the kohen gadol may perform the avodah on Yom Kippur may be due to the fact that he is the only one who wears eight garments. And since this kohen hedyot only wore four garments, he can be sentenced to death, as our sugya teaches about a kohen lacking any of his garments.

However, if wearing the garments is a kohen-centric requirement, this kohen wore all his garments and only transgressed the positive mitzvah that the avodah of Yom Kippur should only be performed by a kohen gadol.

Nadav And Avihu

Rav Engel resolves this question in the following manner. The Torah (Vayikra 10:1-2) relates that Nadav and Avihu died in the midst of their service before Hashem. The Midrash (Vaykrah Rabbah 20:6) offers numerous reasons for their death, one of them being that they lacked the proper garments – they did not wear a me’il, one of the garments of the kohen gadol, when they offered ketores in the kodesh hakadashim.

The Rosh comments (Responsa kelal 13:21) that although they were not kohanim gedolim, their offering required a me’il. Thus, we see that the avodah requires certain begadim.


An Atonement

Rav Engel offers support for his opinion from the Gemara (infra. Zevachim 88b), which explains that bigdei kehunah are mechaper (atone) for certain sins. Clearly, then, the avodah requires certain garments, which atone just like the sacrifices etc. atone. Otherwise (if the obligation was all about the kohen), it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the begadim atoning for sins.

(Rav Engel also considers this question in his Beis HaOtzar II, kelal 10, and quotes the Or Hachayim on Shemos 28:2, indicating that, in his opinion, the garments are not required for the avodah. See Chiddushei Rabbi Yitzchak Zeev, on the Rambam’s opinion in Sefer Hamitzvos 33, that donning bigdei kehunah is not an independent mitzvah.)