All Dressed Up: The Meaning of Mordechai’s Clothes, by David Mandelbaum

“And the Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor” (Esther 8:7). Perhaps more interesting, and often overlooked, as we move towards the conclusion of the Purim story, is the pasuk that comes before the one quoted above: “And Mordechai exited from before the king wearing royal clothing of techeilet v’chur, a big gold ateret, a robe of butz and argaman, and the city of Shushan was jubilant and happy” (8:6). At first glance, this pasuk seems relatively normal in the context of the Jews being victorious and Mordechai proving that he was an important player in Jewish affairs as well as in town politics. But why is it important to describe the clothes that he was wearing? And why was Shushan so happy when they saw this?

Clearly there must have been something significant represented in Mordechai’s attire. There is an interesting parallel between this pasuk and one that appears at the very beginning of the Megillah. When the first party that Achashverosh throws is over, he makes a second one. The party’s decorations are cited in the story: “Hangings of chur, wool and techeilet, fastened to ropes of butz and argaman, on silver poles and marble pillars, couches made of gold and silver on the marble floor” (1:6). The Megillah uses five of the same specific and descriptive words that are found in the pasuk regarding Mordechai as well (tcheilet, v’chur, gold, butz, argaman). Additionally, the second party was only for people left in Shushan (1:5), the same city that witnessed Mordechai’s regal presentation. What does the connection between these two pesukim reveal?

Let us first understand the pasuk about Mordechai. According to the Ibn Ezra, butz was very fine and precious linen of the type found in Egypt. Rashi translates butz as fine linen like of a tallit made to be wrapped in. Some commentators relate this pasuk to a similar description of what Yosef wore when Pharoah crowned him second-in-command (Bereishit 41:42), highlighting the parallel between Mordechai and Yosef’s respective rise in political power and influence.

The Gra’s explanation (based on the Zohar) takes our understanding to a new level: Mordechai leaving in royal clothing means that he was wrapped in a tallit of mitzvah, not just any garment, and wore tefillin. The techeilet was the actual techeilet of tzitzit strings. The chur was the white of the tzitzit strings. The gold ateret refers to the tefillin worn on the head, and the robe of butz refers to its straps. The argaman refers to the the tefillin worn on the hand. There is a basis for this explanation in the Targum of the Megillah, which translates the pasuk after Mordechai’s appearance, “And the Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor,” as follows: “The Jews now had permission to learn Torah…and to place tefillin on their hands and on their heads.”

The Gra’s remarkable explanation goes deeper than the simple understanding and gives a new meaning to the Jew’s salvation and the symbolism inherent in Mordechai’s outfit. But the question still remains, why was Shushan so happy to see this?

The Malbim points out that this is the first time in the Purim story that Mordechai flaunts any greatness or shows off any power. This exemplifies his commitment to save his people, as he only showed how politically exalted he was once he was sure that the Jewish people were saved. As to why the entire city of Shushan was happy, the Malbim explains that this was a fulfilment of the words of Sefer Mishlei: “when the tzadikim are greater, the people are happy” (29,2). This means the entire people, not just the Jews, were happy to see Mordechai’s ascension, since he was a tzadik. Additionally, some commentators explain that the non-Jews were happy because they saw that an honest person was taking the place of Haman.

If we combine the Gra’s approach to what Mordechai wore with the Malbim’s explanation of why the entire city was happy, and our comparison to the similar posuk about the decorations in Achashverosh’s second party, we can attempt to gain a new perspective.

It is almost ironic that Mordechai dresses up in the same materials that were used to decorate Achashverosh’s second party when he leaves the presence of the king, as he was probably the only person in the whole city of Shushan who did not attend. Perhaps were could suggest that while the Jews focused on Mordechai’s tallit and tefillin, the city of Sushan focused on the similarity between Achashverosh’s decorations and Mordechai’s garments. Aware of Mordechai’s straightness and justness as a representative of Hashem, the juxtaposition demonstrated to Shushan that one does not need parties and delicacies to live happy and meaningful lives. This was Mordechai’s universal message. But to the Jews, Mordechai sent an even stronger message. The Jewish people saw their leader, emerging from the presence of the king, wearing tallit and tefilin, a Jew’s primary reminder of his Jewish identity. This was a great chizuk for the Jews, living in a time and place where their Jewish identity and existence was being threatened. After having witnessed this event, we are told: “And the Jews had light and happiness and joy and honor,” on which the Targum explains that the Jews now felt able to learn, wear tefillin, and become strong, Torah-committed Jews again.

It is no coincidence that many of the materials found in both Mordechai’s clothes and Achashverosh’s party also appear repeatedly in the Torah’s description of the building materials for the Mishkan and the Kohanim’s clothing. Perhaps this also connects Mordechai’s appearance to the avodah of the Beit HaMikdash and the Mishkan. Much like the Beit HaMikdash and the Mishkan guided Jews in the proper direction, Mordechai’s appearance helped guide them too

The Gemara itself may hint to this idea in Massechet Megillah (16b). The Gemara wonders why Yosef gave Binyamin five changes of clothing, something he did not do for the other brothers. Would this not make them jealous of Binyamin, through the very same means that caused their original jealousy against Yosef, the giving of clothing? Rabbi Binyamin bar Yefet answers that Yosef’s gift to Binyamin was a hint to Mordechai, his descendant, who would wear “techeilet v’chur, a big gold ateret, a robe of butz and argaman.” The Gemara then quotes a teaching from Rebi Elazar. Yosef and Binyamin cried on each other’s shoulders because they were crying over the destruction of the future Temples that would reside in the other’s territory. Certainly, this statement of Rebi Elazar can be seen as a stand-alone statement quoted in the Gemara because it also deals with Yosef and Binyamin. But it is possible that the two statements are connected. If we understand that Mordechai was wearing the same types of materials that were used in the Mishkan, it makes sense to place the teaching that they were crying over the destruction of the Batei Mikdash next to a reference to Mordechai’s clothes.

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