Holy Schmattes!

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Last week we sat down to the Seder garbed in our white Kittels

The Maharal explains this is done to accentuate our role at the Seder as equivalent to the High Priest who wore ‘white garments’ during the special service performed on the holiest day of year — Yom Kippur. 

The High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies once a year wore four white garments comprised of linen alone, shedding the additional four golden garments he is accustomed to wear all year long.

We are told this reflects on the stance of the High Priest on this holiest of days in resembling an angel, who the prophet Yechezkel describes as, ‘robed in linen’.

These four white linen garments correspond to the four camps of angels who tend to His Divine countenance on high. The High Priest is not merely serving in this earthy realm but is being elevated to the level of those servants who dwell in His Presence. (

The Holy Kohen of Tzefas in his Sifsei Kohen suggests therefore we clothe the dead in white linen garments as well, so that they too may enter the holy realm above dressed in the same dignity and stature of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.

The Torah when describing these four garments being fashioned from linen uses the word בד to indicate its exact nature. This word literally means, alone or isolated, but is used to describe the flax plant from where it comes from, as this plant contains buried within each individual plant’s single stem the flax contained therein that will be formed into fibers used for clothing. This is in opposition to other plants that possess many branches that divide off from each plant. It also emphasizes the character of each fiber that remains genuinely indivisible in contrast to single wool hairs that naturally split apart. (יח:)

Rabbeinu Bechaye sees in this not simply a botanical observation but the expression of the very greatness of the High Priest who stands firmly focused on the singular goal of devotion to G-d never permitting outside influences or instincts to distract him from his goal. 

The early Kabbalists points out that in the א ב cypher system, where there exists a correspondence between the first and last letter of the Alef Beis — continuing the parallel with the second letter to the next to the last letter and so on with all the letters — the twin letters for the word בד – the second and fourth letters in the Alef Bais, are שק, with ש the second to the end, and ק fourth in receding position. 

A שק is a sack made generally from coarse goat hair — schmatte — ragmaterial. 

Our job in life is to transform the abrasive moments in life into fine and exquisite fine linen garments.

The word בד itself colloquially refers merely to a swath of material not necessarily the entire garment, perhaps to indicate that what may appear as an inconsequential schmatte may well be the vestment of greatness equivalent in stature to that of the High Priest.

Reb Boruch Mordechai Ansbacher, a ninety-two-year-old holocaust survivor, who ‘graduated’ 

Theresienstadt, Birkenau and Aushwitz, described in an interview his indoctrination to the concentration camp. 

“The confusion, terror and charging dogs are memories still embedded within me. They forced us off the trains with screaming threats. Amid the S.S. soldiers, the angel of death himself, Mengele, presided. With the casual wave of his hand and the subsequent beating of his stick I was separated from a dear friend, with my friend being dispatched to death and I to life.

“Who could believe what was transpiring?

“We were sent to the showers where we were instructed to disrobe and deposit our personal effects in a container and directed to grab and don quickly one of the striped prison uniforms.

“I followed their directive and discovered that each pant had two pockets. I instinctively placed my hand into one of the pockets and felt a schmatte situated there.

Before I even had a chance to check what it was the commandant shouted out that in each pocket was a schmatte to remove the ‘snot’ off our dripping noses amidst the freezing weather.

“I dutifully drew the schmatte out to wipe the mucous away only to discover that my schmatte was actually a talis kotton, a pair of Tzitzis. It was the size appropriate for a seven-year-old or so. It was clearly lovingly hand-knitted by a loving Bubbeh – grandmother, embroidered with a Magen Dovid and the year 5698 – 1938.

“Reality stunned me, as I realized how not long before this young child undressed as he prepared for his death in the gas chamber and placed his cherished talis kotton on the random pile, so that it would serve as a ‘schmatte’ for someone else.”

Years later in 1988, Reb Boruch Mordechai returned for the first time to this hallowed ground.

In the presence of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau and surrounded by other rabbinic figures and dignitaries he once again pulled out of his pocket this ‘holy schmatte’.

After repeating his poignant story, he declared:

“From the moment I received it until the very last day of the war, each morning at daybreak I’d procure the ‘holy schmatte’ recite a blessing and return it deeply into my pocket.

“This tallis kotton accompanied me after the war as I merited to ascend to Yerushalayim. 

“It was with me when I established my home… when my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born… when I fought in the War of Independence… when I battled in the Six-Day War, worthy to liberate the Me’arat HaMachpelah and pray in the Tomb of Yitzchok Avinu…

“It is by my side every night of the Seder when we cry out, ‘Not only one has sought to obliterate us…’ 

“It is a living memorial to my surviving the horrors of the Holocaust. It is the source of my strength, because just as it survived so too did our people endure the most unimaginable atrocities. It is still here, strong and firm, brimming with faith and hope.” (Mispacha Magazine – Pesach/ Hebrew edition 5779)

The legacy continues. We have been privileged to have been touched by individuals who have taken difficult moments and transformed them into inspiring greatness.

May we never complain that we were handed schmattes in life, for in the world of a Jew every moment is laden with the greatness worthy of the High Priest. We can each access that realm. It’s all a matter of perspective. 

May we emulate those who wear the garments of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, in inspiring the good times with faith and passion, and even when facing challenge to transform them into ‘holy schmattes!’

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