Fig Leaves and Coats of Skins

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Translated by Kaeren Fish



“And they sewed fig leaves together and made for themselves loincloths.” (Bereishit 3:7)


“And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skins, and He clothed them.” (3:21)


Commenting on the relationship between these two verses, Rabbeinu Behaye writes:


“He made them superior, respectable garments from skins, with which they covered their entire bodies in a dignified manner, for their dignity would be gone if they remained with the loincloths which they had made to cover only their private parts.”


According to Rabbeinu Behaye, the fig leaves and the coats of skins are qualitatively different from one another: the loincloth is meant “to cover only their private parts,” while the coats of skins are more dignified garments.


Interestingly, a similar duality is to be found in the Torah’s enumeration of the priestly garments:


“And for the sons of Aharon you shall make coats, and you shall make for them girdles, and turbans shall you make for them, for honor and for beauty.” (Shemot 28:40)


“And you shall make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the loins to the thighs.” (ibid., 42)


Here again, there are garments that are meant “for honor and for beauty” and there are others that are meant simply to cover the private parts.


The next verse goes on to teach:


“And they [the garments] shall be upon Aharon and upon his sons when they come into the Ohel Mo’ed, or when they approach the altar to minister in the Sanctuary, so that they will not bear iniquity and die.”


To which garments does this verse refer? Rashi maintains that it applies to all of the garments.  In his view, the verse teaches that a kohen who performs the priestly service while not clothed in a full set of priestly garments, is subject to the death penalty. However, the Gemara (Zevachim 17b) derives the prohibition of performing the service while not properly dressed from a different verse:


“‘And you shall gird them with girdles – Aharon and his sons – and you shall place turbans upon them, and the priestly office shall be theirs as an eternal statute’ (Shemot 29:9) – [this teaches that] so long as they are wearing their priestly garments, they are imbued with the priestly office; when they are not garbed in their garments, they are not imbued with the priestly office.”


The Tosafot (Sanhedrin 73b) question why this verse is the source for the lesson that we derive – “So long as they are wearing their priestly garments, they are imbued… if they are not garbed… they are not imbued.” Does the earlier verse not state explicitly that the kohanim are forbidden to perform their service unless they are dressed in full priestly garb – “And they [the garments] shall be upon Aharon and upon his sons… so that they will not bear iniquity and die”? This question causes the Tosafot to explain the earlier verse differently from Rashi’s interpretation. In their view, 28:43 refers specifically to the breeches, while the Gemara in Zevachim is talking about the other garments.


Further on, the Tosafot cite an opinion that the difference between the breeches and the other garments goes further than just the question of which verse serves as the source for the prohibition. There is also another fundamental halakhic difference: for the sin of the absence of the other garments, the kohen is deserving of death only if he was performing the priestly service; but for the absence of breeches he is subject to the death penalty the moment he enters the Temple, even before he performs any part of the service, in accordance with the literal text: “when they come into the Ohel Mo’ed.”  The Tosfot ultimately reject this view, but this is clearly the literal meaning of the text.


According to the possibility raised by the Tosafot, we understand a different aspect of the qualitative difference between the breeches and the other garments. The breeches represent the minimal necessity for covering the private parts; they are not a garment that brings dignity and beauty to a person, but are instead just the most basic covering. Therefore, the kohen is deserving of death merely for entering the Temple without breeches. The other garments, in contrast, are not just for elementary modesty, but also elevate and lend dignity to the person who wears them, bestowing a certain element of beauty and glory. This elevated level is essential for performing the Temple service, but not for mere entry into the Temple precincts.


Let us now return to the story of Adam and Chava:


“And the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made for themselves loincloths.” (3:7)


Rashi (ad loc.) comments:


“Even a person who is blind knows when he is naked! What, then, is the meaning of the phrase ‘[the eyes of both of them were opened] and they knew that they were naked’? They had been given only one commandment, and they had strayed from it.”


The most prominent emotion manifest in the behavior of Adam and Chava following their sin is shame. They are ashamed of having violated the sole commandment that was imposed on them. According to Rashi, the fig leaves were sown as a covering for their nakedness out of this same profound sense of shame. Indeed, the next verse describes a further reaction of shame:


“And Adam and his wife hid from the Lord God amongst the trees of the Garden."


Did Adam and Chava then believe that they could hide from God?! Unquestionably, the attempt to “hide” is simply another expression of the deep shame that overwhelmed them in the wake of their sin.


It would seem that a sense of shame following sin is an important idea in Judaism. Many of the prayers on the Yamim Nora'im revolve around the idea that “My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to raise my face towards You, my God, for our sins have multiplied over our heads, and our guilt has grown to the heavens”; “Behold, I am before You like a vessel full of shame and embarrassment”; etc. Clearly, this shame motivates a return to God and brings a person to mend his ways.


It must be emphasized, however, that shame can lead to fear of sin – but it is not fear of sin itself. To perform true teshuva (repentance), it is not sufficient that a person feels shame; the fig leaf is not enough. True repentance also requires a sense of guilt and revulsion for the sin. To return to God, a person must feel what a great injustice he has done to himself; he must sense the separation that has been created between himself and God, and then he must decide to transform himself. Shame is a sense of discomfort, but it does not necessarily lead a person to the realization that he cannot remain in his present state; that he must “change his skin” and become a different person!


In light of this we may now perceive another dimension of the sin of Adam and Chava. Adam and Chava sewed for themselves only fig leaves: they were ashamed of their sin, but did not comprehend fully the profundity of its significance; they did not understand that they had to engage in teshuva and change themselves. They made loincloths to cover their nakedness, but did not prepare new clothes. By clothing them in coats of skins, God brought them up to a new level: the garments gave them honor and beauty; it changed them and transformed them into new people: “While their garments are upon them, they are imbued with the priestly office.”


Man is the pinnacle of creation, and it is clear that from the outset God had made him in such a way as to embody great dignity and glory: “With dignity and glory You crowned him, making him just a little less than God” (Tehillim 8:6) – but this dignity and glory that preceded the sin were not like those that followed it. Adam in his original state was a natural embodiment of dignity and glory. He was the natural ruler of all of creation; he had no need to compete with it. The same may be said of his Divine service: in his original state, Divine service came naturally to man; it did not require any sort of inner battle. The sin changed all of this completely. Man lost his natural inner dignity; likewise, his relationship with nature, which he had used contrary to God’s command, was altered. He no longer ruled naturally over creation; from now on he would face a continual battle with his environment. His Divine service would no longer be natural and obvious, since from the moment he sinned he would now have to continually guard himself and control himself so as not to sin again.


Therefore, in order that human beings would be able to function in their new reality, God gave Adam and Chava “coats of skins." The Midrash cites a number of opinions as to the actual material from which these coats were made; Ibn Ezra quotes the view that man was created with only flesh and bones, and it was only now that God added skin. According to this view, the “coats of skins” were an altogether new creation.


However, even if we do not accept this rather extreme view, it is nevertheless clear that the “coats of skins” were a most significant change for man, since in the natural world there is no creature that wears clothing. In other words, God gave Adam and Chava something that was un-natural. Until now they had lived in the Garden of Eden in harmony with nature, serving God in tranquility. Now, following the sin, man emerged from the Garden of Eden onto a new path: a path of continual competition with nature, on the one hand, and of Divine worship requiring constant effort and unceasing inner struggle, on the other. The primal, natural man who served God with tranquility, fully integrated in nature, was replaced by historical, cultural man – a completely different creature in terms of both his personal standing and his relationship with nature.


Before man embarks on this new, long road, God equips him with coats of skins, which envelop him with new dignity and beauty and transform him into a new person.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Bereishit 5757 [1996].)