Judging Value by Appearances

Rabbi Richard Borah


The idea of judging a person's value by his or her appearance is often cited as being unwise. Aphorisms abound regarding the perils of this method of assessment:

"Don't judge a book by its cover"; "All that glitters is not gold"; "Looks can be deceiving". In the "Woman of Valor" reading that is traditionally sung before the Friday night Sabbath meal we say:

"Grace is elusive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God -- she shall be praised."

We understand that a person can have a horrendous character or a disturbed, dysfunctional mind and still appear beautiful. And yet, these aphorisms attest to the natural inclination we have to placing too much stock in a beautiful appearance or a charming persona. What is curious is that in the Torah this week we also see what appears to be a major emphasis on appearances and beauty regarding the Kohane Gadol (the High Priest) and his required clothing and bodily form. As we learn, either bodily deformities and any lack in the priest's designated clothing would disqualify him from carrying out his priestly duties.

In the parsha of Tetzaveh the Torah describes the distinguishing of the Kohanim and the Leviim and the requirement for their unique clothing:


And you bring near to yourself your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel to serve Me [as kohanim]: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, Aaron's sons.

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.

Maimonides (“The Rambam”) explains in the “Guide for the Perplexed”:

Also, in order to exalt the Temple, the rank of its servants was exalted, the Priests and Levites were singled out, and the Priests wore the most splendid, finest, and most beautiful garments: Holy garments…for splendor and for beauty” (Exodus: 28:2). And it was commanded that someone who has a blemish should not be employed in divine service; not only one who is afflicted with an infirmity, but also those afflicted with deformities are disqualified from being Priests (Vayikra 21:16-21) as is explained in the regulations of legal science dealing with this commandment (Mishnah, Berachot 7). For to the multitude an individual is not rendered great by his true form (the rational soul or intellect) but by the perfection of his limbs and the beauty of his clothes; and what is aimed at is that the Temple and its servants should be regarded as great by all. (Guide, Book 3, Chapter 45)

The Rambam explains here that the distinguishing and separating out of the “Priests and the Levites” from the other Jewish people is for the purpose of “exalting” or bringing honor to the Temple. It seems that were this not required, then the functions that the Kohanim and the Leviim served could have been carried out by the Jewish people in general. Having the Jewish people observe these designated and privileged groups (privileged to serve in the Temple and to receive the gifts of the sacrifices) created through association, honor for the Temple which, as the Rambam has stated, replaces the idolatrous temples with one that reflected the one true God. So, it seems, the Kohanim and the Leviim were a means to bringing respect to the Temple and the Temple was a means to bringing honor to God.

The Rambam also explains here that the requirements of Kohane having a normal, healthy body and the special clothing of the kohanim were also for the purpose of creating respect and honor for the Kohanim in the eyes of all the people. The Rambam notes that the people, in general, err in judging a person by their physical attractiveness and their clothing as opposed to their true nature (the quality of their wisdom / understanding). But this being the case, the Kohanim were provided with special clothing and the High Priest was provided with the most beautiful and special clothing of all. But, the Rambam seems to hold that this clothing and the requirements of a healthy, normal body without defect would not be needed if all the people were wise and discerning. The term used in translation for the people that require this concession is “the multitude” implying something of a derogatory statement. I would equate multitude with the term “masses”.

So for the Rambam, there is no doubt that the physical normality and special clothing required of the kohanim is not because these are of true value or reflect the essential nature of the kohanim. But the Rambam explains that as it is a natural tendency is most people to attribute these qualities with something or someone of greater value, the Torah concedes to human nature and actually uses this common misconception in order to inculcate a respect and exalted assessment of the kohanim and the Temple service, both of which reflect the service of God which is at the pinnacle of the Jew's true value system.

In contrast to the Rambam's description of the Kohane Gadol’s appearance as being a concession to the “multitude’s” need for beautiful appearance due to their misconception of what is truly important, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Rav” described the recitation of the Avodah by his father and grandfather in the essay “Before Hashem” this way:

They said it with so much enthusiasm, such ecstasy, that they could not stop. They were no longer in Warsaw or Brisk; they were transported to a different reality. Although I am not a musician or musicologist, all one had to do was hear the niggun (tune) of “HaKohanim V’ha’am” to understand….Toward the end of the Avodah, when the scarlet turned white, the piyyut describes how the nation exuded happiness, expressing pleasure and delight, a feeling of closeness to Hashem….The description of the Avodah culminates in this majestic piyyut “Maray Kohane” which describes the luminous appearance of the Kohane Gadol after successfully completing the Avodah. Why the happiness in reciting “Maray Kohane” (“The Appearing of the Kohane”) ? Why was it sung with such a happy tune? The answer is that the Kohen reflected the radiance of the Shechinah. Through witnessing the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol, there could be no doubt about Hashem’s acceptance of Klal Yisrael’s prayer (Before Hashem 148-149)

The Rav, in this explanation, gives a greater significance to the requirement of the Kohane Gadol’s (High Priest's) illustrious appearance. It is not only to bring honor to the Temple, but the Kohane Gadol functions, so to speak, to represent the Shechinah (the Divine Presence), during the Temple Avodah Service and, as such, his appearance must reflect, on a human scale that which is most perfect and most beautiful. The Rav also gave the following explanation regarding the changing of the clothing or “vestments of the High Priest “Kohane Gadol” during the Avodah service of Yom Kippur and its description in the language of the Musaf Avodah Service of the Yom Kippur Services. The Rav states:


“He would remove his clothes, immerse himself”: The Kohen Gadol immersed himself five times on Yom Kippur. The first immersion was required in order to purify him, changing his status from ‘tamai” (impure) to “tahur” (pure), just as anyone who enters the Temple must first immerse himself, as stated by the Gemara in Yoma (30a). The other four immersions, on the other hand, were required in order to sanctify the Kohen Gadol as he was elevated to higher levels of holiness. (Noraot HaRav, Volume 6, pp. 31-34)

The Rav also explains the Kohen Gadol's putting on of the golden vestments on Yom Kippur. The Rav states:

“And don golden vestments”: The clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol allowed him to fulfill the imperative of dressing “for the honor and splendor”, the very purpose of the priestly garments, as identified in the Torah (Shemot 28:2). As a result, the Kohen Gadol provided a form of atonement every moment that he wore the eight vestments of gold, since each of the eight pieces of clothing, as explained by the Gemara in Zevachim (89b), provided atonement for different sins committed by Jewish people. (Noraot HaRav, Volume 6, p. 64) 

In conclusion, I would say that if we are wise we should always be careful not to be swayed in our assessment of a person or place by its appearance. Samuel 1, 16:7 states:  “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.” The cruelest people and the most evil of institutions can and do often have beautiful appearances and elegant ways. However, one must understand in viewing others and in presenting oneself to others, that there are definitely situations where one must use appearances to bring people to accurately value something or someone which is of true worth. Here, appearance is being used to convey a truth, and not for deceptive purposes. The case of the appearance of the High Priest in the Temple is such an example.