A person’s inner state and outer garment should match, according to the Torah.
And God said to Moses: Go to the people and consecrate them, today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their semalot. Then they shall be ready for the third day, for on the third day God is coming down before the eyes of all the people on Mount Sinai. (Exodus/Shemot 19:10-11)
semalot (שְׂמָלוֹת) = plural of simlah (שִׂמְלַה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak. (A variant spelling is salmah (שַׂלְמָה), plural salmot (שַׂלְמֹת).)
If you are consecrated, made holy enough to behold God, then your simlah must also be purified. Although men remove their semalot to do physical labor, stripping down to a less bulky garment underneath, the Israelites in the Bible wear their semalot for public appearances, as well as for protection from wind, sun, and rain. At night one’s simlah serves as a blanket.
Three of the laws in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, assume every individual has the right to a simlah. Even an impoverished debtor and a captive of war must be allowed to sleep in their semalot. Depriving someone of a simlah would not only expose them to the elements, but deprive them of human dignity. (See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.)
Two other laws in the portion Ki Teitzei (4 and 5 below) show how a simlah can reveal something about the essential nature of the person who wears it. And this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), ends with miraculous semalot that reveal the nature of humankind.
Abominable or godly?
One of the laws about the simlah in Ki Teitzei has become notorious:
The equipment of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not put on the simlah of a woman, because anyone doing this is to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)
to-eivah (תוֹעֲבַה) = abhorrent, abominable, anathema.
The first clause in this verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite myth (discovered in the ruins of Ugarit) about Paghat, a young woman who wears weapons under her female clothing and sets out to avenge her brother’s murder.1 The Bible frequently denounces Canaanite religions, and the Talmud (Nazir 59a) agrees that the “equipment of a man” consists of weapons of war.
The second clause in the verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which male temple functionaries cross-dressed and offered themselves as surrogates for gods in homosexual religious acts. According to the Bible, this happened even at the Temple in Jerusalem until King Josiah put an end to it.2
A man wearing a woman’s simlah may be to-eivah because the only men who appeared that way in public were those paid for sexual rituals from another religion—a practice God clearly abhors according to a later law in Ki Teitzei:
No daughter of Israel shall be a female religious prostitute, and no son of Israel shall be a male religious prostitute. You shall not bring into the house of God, your God, the fee of a harlot [female prostitute] or the price of a dog [male prostitute] for any vowed offering, because both of them are to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 23:18-19)
Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.)
Today many people reject the idea that every individual must squeeze into one of two gender roles defined by a particular society. Some individuals in the 21st century C.E. choose apparel that blurs gender lines in order to reveal their own nuanced identities.
In the 7th century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah, a man who wore the simlah of a woman also revealed an essential part of his identity: he was dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel, and he served these gods by providing ritual sex for worshipers.
Fraud or honesty?
The remaining law in Ki Teitzei that mentions a simlah is about the virginity of a bride. It begins:
If a man takes a wife and he comes into her, and then he hates her, and he brings charges against her and gives her a bad name, and he says: “I took this woman, and I approached her, but I did not find evidence of virginity in her!”— (Deuteronomy 22:13-14)
This was a serious charge in ancient Judah. A marriage was a contracted alliance between two households. The legal contract included the dowry paid to the groom’s household, and the bride-price paid to the bride’s household. When the bride and groom had intercourse, the marriage was completed. The bride (but not the groom) was expected to be a virgin (unless the contract stipulated otherwise).
So if a man claimed, after the wedding, that his bride was not a virgin, he was not only defaming her and her parents, but also suing her family for contract fraud. If the village elders ruled in his favor, he got a divorce, the bride (if she was permitted to live4) became unmarriageable, and the bride’s father had to return the bride-price to the groom. The grooms’ household, on the other hand, got to keep the dowry, the bride price, and the family’s good name.3
What if a groom tells a lie in order to get a divorce with a lucrative financial settlement? Then, according to Ki Teitzei, the bride’s parents should bring “evidence of the girl’s virginity” to the elders sitting as judges, and the bride’s father should say:
“But this is evidence of the virginity of my daughter!” And they shall spread the simlah before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22:17)
The evidence is the simlah the bride wore on her wedding night. When the couple goes to bed, she lies on top of her own simlah—and leaves a bloodstain if her hymen breaks.
In much of the ancient Near East, a bride’s parents collected her wedding simlah the morning after—just in case they would need to display it.
The law in Ki Teitzei affirms that a bloodstained simlah is evidence of virginity, and punishes the lying husband. He is flogged; he pays 100 shekels of silver to the bride’s father (to compensate for impugning his honor); and he may never divorce the bride.
The good name of the bride’s family is restored. The bride herself at least has the consolation of a salvaged reputation and a guaranteed home (even if she might prefer to be the property of a different man).
Thus the condition of the bride’s simlah proves something about her character: she was honest when she affirmed she was a virgin.
Natural or miraculous?
“And I led you forty years through the wilderness. Your salmot did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot. Bread you did not eat, and wine or alcohol you did not drink, so that you would know that I, God, am your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)
During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites did not need to grow grain and grind it into flour; manna miraculously appeared every morning. They did not need to cultivate grapes and make wine; God provided fresh drinking water in the desert. They did not need to make leather for sandals, or weave cloth for semalot; God continuously renewed their clothing.5
Instead, the Israelite women wove cloth to make God’s sanctuary. All the weavers were generous volunteers.6 And God generously volunteered the small miracles that kept the people clothed and fed. All God wanted was acknowledgement “he” was their god.
The Israelites in the books of Exodus and Numbers did praise God for saving them at the Reed Sea and for giving them victories in battles. But in ordinary daily life, they complained about the food, were impatient when they ran out of water, and did not even notice the condition of their semalot.
Moses introduces God’s words at the end of Ki Tavo by saying:
But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day. (Deuteronomy 29:3)
Only at the end of 40 years in the wilderness to the people notice God’s daily generosity.
The portrayal of God’s character must be taken with a grain of salt. The Torah sometimes portrays God as a patient parent, sometimes as an angry mass murderer. This is the result of trying to explain everything in terms of an anthropomorphic god.
Yet the passage at the end of Ki Tavo does offer insight into the character of human beings. Human nature takes good situations for granted—until we are deprived of them, or until we grow wise enough to see how fragile our lives are. To find that wisdom—a mind to know, eyes to see, ears to hear—might take 40 years. And we cannot force ourselves to become wise. It comes as a gift.
- She emerges, dons a youth’s raiment, puts a k[nife] in her sheath. A sword she puts in her scabbard, and over all dons woman’s garb. (“The Tale of Aqhat”, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958, p. 132)
- And he smashed the houses of the male religious prostitutes that were inside the house of God, where the women wove fabrics for Asherah. (2 Kings 23:7). The book of Deuteronomy was probably written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), and encouraged his campaign to wipe out the practice of other religions in Judah.
- Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social world of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1993, p. 127-128.
- But if this charge is true, evidence of the girl’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of the town shall stone her with stones. And she will die because she did a serious offense in Israel, fornicating in the house of her father. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
- Deuteronomy 8:2-6 and Nehemiah 9:20-21 report similar miracles. (See my post Eikev: Not by Bread Alone.)
- Exodus 35:20-29.