Then David got up off the ground, washed, anointed himself and changed his clothes. He went into the house of Adonai and worshipped
-2 Samuel 12
When I was younger, I didn’t think anything of wearing nice clothes to religious services. Why would God care about what I wear? It’s in the heart, after all, not outward appearances.
In Christianity, fresh in our minds is Jesus' rebuking of the Pharisees,
Woe to you hypocritical Torah-teachers and Pharisees! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but inside are full of dead people’s bones and all kinds of rottenness. Likewise, you appear to people from the outside to be good and honest, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and far from Torah.
I’m reminded of the popular Christian tune, “Come, just as you are, to worship.” Show up in a tee and jeans and just worship; God doesn't care.
But in the last year, I’ve changed my thinking on this. I am now convinced outward appearance is important to God. I've arrived at this belief after being presented with stories -- and personal experiences -- of beauty in religion. I believe it also aligns with commandments in the Scripture.
In Mitzvot: Beautiful vs. Functional, Messianic Jewish Rabbi Michael Schiffman showed how the Torah prescribes beauty for God's house:
When God commanded the Ark [of the Covenant] be covered in gold, it was so people would place the highest value on what they were, and what they represented. If the Ark was just a wood cabinet, people would not have thought of it as highly. Covering something in pure gold, indicated it was something special, not something that was just another piece of furniture. Not only the Ark, but the Altar of Incense, the Menorah, the articles used in the Temple were all made of gold.
It was not just that it was gold, but that it made those things beautiful and precious.
Even though the Ark and the Temple artifacts were holy by themselves, and even though they would have functioned without it, the gold covering of the objects made them beautiful. That beauty caused the people to recognize their specialness and assign the highest value to them.
Dr. Schiffman applied that "beautifying the outside" principle to his own religious life:
When I was a younger man, and my children were young, we didn’t have much money and the Judaica items we had were cheap items that we could afford. We had Shabbat table items made of Armenian pottery, that chipped very easily, and by the time we finished using them, were probably 50% Elmer’s glue. I used a silver plated Kiddush cup which had the silver worn off years before, and the base metal made the wine taste awful. The candle sticks were brass, bent in one of many moves over the years. The Challah cover was grape juice stained,and was getting a bit tattered. My wife and I would struggle with our children to get through the blessings until dinner was served.
[Later in life] When I got into the Judaica business, I was able to get (at wholesale), sterling silver cups, candlesticks, wine decanter, beautiful plates for Challah and beautiful covers. When we set the table and lit the candles, the effect on my children was noticeable. It was like night and day. By making the mitzvot beautiful, my children were drawn to them. It was breathtaking. My daughter asked if her friends could come for Shabbat dinner. When one of her friend’s came, and sat at our table, I overheard her telling my daughter how special this was. When we make our mitzvot beautiful, it inspires us and those around us. When we use cheap, common items, it communicates a lack of specialness.
His own kids saw the beauty and specialness in this religious service, and suddenly they had more respect for it, inspiring them.
Schiffman delivers a powerful blow:
When we celebrate a holiday, do we buy the best Matzot or the cheap stuff? On Shabbat, do you make a nice meal and invite people in, or do you light the candles and send out for a pizza?
I see people drive new cars, have beautiful homes, expensive electronic equipment, but have the cheapest junk when it comes to doing mitzvot. It tells me this is something they don’t place much value upon. It makes me wonder what its worth to them.
This principle can be applied to what we wear at religious services.
When I show up for a job interview, or attend a special occasion like a wedding or a 50th Anniversary, or even show up to my daily job, I dress in nice clothes to honor the host.
When I show up somewhere in a t-shirt and jeans with a hole in them, it suggests I don't place much specialness on that gathering.
Showing up like that at a shabbat service reflects in the people present: they see I'm dressed like usual, so they act like usual. There's nothing at all holy -- set-apart -- about that.
Last week at our erev shabbat service, all the children were brought up to the front, and we sang a blessing over them. All the kids behaved like kids: poking each other, talking, crying, goofing around. Kids will be kids, and you can hardly blame them for their behavior. However, if the adults don't treat the service specially -- dressing and acting per usual behavior -- why should the kids be any different?
Fine dress alone won't make the kids behave, but it's a step towards making our religious service special and beautiful. And that will positively affect our kids.
This past Saturday night, I attended a havdallah gathering at another congregation. In a dark room, some 30 folks gathered while a man read the gospels with a passion, retelling Yeshua's "vine and branches" sayings. A guitar played softly as the man read Yeshua's words with a passion and awe I've not encountered for years. The candles flickered as everyone sat quietly as the shabbat blessings were spoken in ernest. They approached the service with such reverence, creating beauty around the traditions, it caused a real impression on me.
Had it been a dude in a t-shirt speed reading through written prayers, I wouldn't have cared at all.
One of the 10 commandments is to keep the sabbath holy. That's what it means to sanctify something. If we dress like usual to our sabbath services, we fail to carry out the command; the sabbath and the religious service is nothing special. When one dresses in his best clothes, he places the highest value on the service and creates beauty in religion. That beauty and that deliberate placement of priority subconsciously affects us. It affects our kids. It affects those in attendance.
For the sake of beauty and priority of our faith, and for the sake of the commandment, for the sake of inspiring the people in my congregation, I encourage Messianic and Hebrew Roots folks to wear fine clothes to religious services. Maybe that sounds silly and old-fashioned, but it's a small, visible thing that sanctifies God.