One of the special garments worn by the kohen gadol was the me’il (robe), which was made with an extra lining around the neck to ensure it would not tear (“lo yikarei’a” – 39:23). The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (72a) comments on the basis of this feature of the me’il that tearing one of the bigdei kehuna (priestly vestments) constitutes a Torah violation. Although this command was issued specifically in reference to the me’il, it in truth applies to all bigdei kehuna.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda (Parashat Tetzaveh), suggests explaining the significance of this command, and why it is introduced specifically in regard to the me’il, in light of the symbolic meaning of the bigdei kehuna developed by Rav Yitzchak Arama, in his Akeidat Yitzchak. Rav Yitzchak Arama claims that the beautiful priestly garments symbolize our middot, our character traits. Just as a kohen is required to wear the special bigdei kehuna while serving God in the Beit Ha-mikdash, similarly, we must perform our service of God while “donned” with fine character traits. If we conduct ourselves discourteously, arrogantly, dishonestly or insensitively as we perform mitzvot, then our service is invalid and unacceptable – just as a kohen’s service is invalid if it is performed without the special bigdei kehuna. In light of this symbolism, Rav Ginsburg writes, we easily understand the significance of the prohibition against tearing one of the priestly garments. We are to preserve our characters and not allow them to be tainted or corrupted. A prerequisite for our service of God is the effort to keep our characters intact, to remain honest, kind and well-mannered in all settings and under all circumstances. These qualities are the “garments” that we must wear as loyal servants of God, just as the beautiful bigdei kehuna are worn by God’s attendants in the Mikdash. Like the kohanim, we are to carefully preserve these “garments” and pay close attention to ensure that our characters are never “torn,” that they are never soiled or contaminated.
Rav Ginsburg adds that this might explain the specific relevance of the neckline of the me’il in this regard. The Torah introduced the prohibition against tearing the priestly garments in the context of the requirement to reinforce the thin edge of the neckline of the me’il with a special lining, because this material was more vulnerable to tearing. The Torah forbids tearing any part of any of the priestly garments, but it introduces a unique provision requiring adding a lining to reinforce the part of the me’il that might otherwise be susceptible to ripping. Symbolically, Rav Ginsburg writes, this requirement represents the need to take special precautions in areas of particular weakness. We are to know ourselves and identify those aspects of our characters which are more vulnerable, and make a special effort to ensure that they are not “torn,” that our characters remain as close to perfect as possible.