(I am greatly indebted to R' Chanoch Waxman for many of the ideas presented here).
In this past week's parashah (Torah reading) all of Exodus 28:1-43 consists of an extensive and detailed description of the garments of the kohen gadol, the high priest. A question that is of great interest is why the Torah goes to such great lengths to describe the garments in such great detail. This is a question that we will explore in this post.
Rather than investigating the general question of the significance and importance of the priests' attire, we will begin by focusing on the specific question of the meaning, function and purpose of the garments, garments which are unique to the high priest.
One of the general themes discernible in the description of the high priest's clothes may be understood by focusing on the last of the specific garments mentioned, the tzitz, head-plate or crown. After commanding the inscription of the words kodesh laShem, Holy to the L-rd, on the tzitz and detailing its fastening to the forehead of the high priest, the text states the following:
. . . and Aharon shall bear (ve-nasa) the iniquity (avon) of the holy things that the children of Israel consecrate . . . and it shall win acceptance (le-ratzon) for them before (lifnei) the L-rd. (Exodus 28:38)
While a term based upon the stems 'nsa' and 'avn' can sometimes mean "bear the iniquity" in a negative sense (cf. Leviticus 5), the Sages understand that most often such a term carries connotation of "carrying the sin" for another, removing the sin and achieving forgiveness. For example, G-d is described in the thirteen attributes of mercy (cf. Exodus 34) as nosei avon, meaning "forgiving sin." Therefore, the primary role of the tzitz appears to be atonement. Rashi argues that in the formulation of the text, the message "wins acceptance" for the less than perfect people and their flawed offerings in the eyes of G-d.
The theme of atonement is also apparent in the instructions for the ephod-choshen, ephod and breastplate. The Torah informs us that Aharon will carry (ve-nasa) the names of the tribes of the children of Israel, which are inscribed on the stones set into the choshen, le-zikaron lifnei HaShem tamid, for remembrance before the L-rd continually (Exodus 28:29). Similarly, in the very next verse after commanding the insertion of the urim ve-tumim into the choshen, the Torah states that Aharon will carry (ve-nasa) the judgement of the children of Israel lifnei HaShem tamid, before the L-rd continually.
Earlier, Aharon had been commanded to carry (ve-nasa) the avnei shoham (shoham stones) engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel on the shoulder straps of the ephod as a remembrance (zikaron) before the L-rd (lifnei HaShem). As pointed out previously, the term nasa, "bearing" often carries connotations of atonement. Likewise, the conjoining of zikaron, remembrance, and lifnei hashem resonates with a near identical note.
In Bemidbar (Numbers) 10:9-10, G-d commands the sounding of the chatzotzrot, the trumpets, in both times of war and trouble, and on holidays. In the case of war, the purpose is to be remembered (ve-nizkartem) before G-d (lifnei HaShem) and subsequently, be saved. In the context of holidays, the purpose is to be remembered by G-d (ve-hayu le-zikaron lifnei HaShem) and to have the holiday offerings accepted. A "remembrance before G-d,", in other words, arouses G-d's mercy and action on behalf of the children of Israel.
Not only does the terminology of the text express connotations of God's mercy and forgiveness, and hence atonement, but also the materials used to craft the ephod-choshen. The centerpiece of the choshen consists of four rows of precious stones, twelve all together, with the name of one of the tribes of Israel engraved on each individual stone. Each stone is framed in a gold setting (vv. 17-21).
Interestingly enough, in Sefer Yechezkel (Ezekiel) 28:12-13 the prophet develops a strikingly similar image involving nine of the twelve stones utilized in the choshen. Yechezkel laments:
You were the seal of perfection full of wisdom and flawless beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of G-d, every precious stone was your adornment: carnelian, chrysolite, and amethyst; beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper; sapphire, turquoise, and emerald; and gold beautifully wrought for you.
In the passage, which also strongly alludes to HaSatan (The Adversary), Yechezkel informs the sinner that once he had been the perfect work of a Divine Craftsman. Once he had been in Eden and existed in a pure state before having sinned.
Sefer Bereshit (Genesis) 2:11 confirms the linkage of the central materials of the ephod-choshen and Eden. One of the four rivers that emerges from Eden, the river Pishon, leads to the land of Chavila, the place of gold and shoham stones. These are some of the exact materials collected for and utilized in the construction of the ephod-choshen in Sefer Shemot (Exodus 25:7, 28:6,9-11,13-27).
Apparently, the engraving of the names of the tribes of Israel on the precious stones of Eden (28:9-11,17-21) and their framing in a golden setting (28:11,13-14,20, 22,24) may be understood as a symbolic re-enactment of an Eden-like state in that it figuratively transforms the tribes of the Children of Israel into the man who was the perfect work of the divine craftsman, the man who still deserved adornment with jewels and gold, the man who had not yet sinned. By carrying the names of the tribes of Israel before G-d (lifnei HaShem) adorned with the setting of Eden, the high priest finds favor for Israel in the eyes of G-d and achieves mercy and atonement.
What does the ephod-choshen atone for? The text does not say explicitly. But our Sages offer a few suggestions. Some argue that the key may lie in the phrase choshen mishpat, the proper name of the choshen. Normally, this term is translated as "breastplate of judgement," a translation reached by following the standard meaning of mishpat. Perhaps atonement is necessary for the children of Israel's errors in keeping the mishpatim, the judgements commanded by G-d in Parashat Mishpatim (cf. Exodus 21:1).
Alternatively, perhaps atonement is necessary for errors in justice, the process of mishpat, whereby divinely ordained norms are applied to human reality. Yitro had already advised Moshe that the process of justice was too heavy for him to bear alone and that he required others to help him carry (ve-nasu) the burden of teaching and applying the laws of G-d (18:14-16,22-23).
In fact, Yitro grasped only part of the problem. The very act of mishpat, teaching and applying the transcendent Torah to mundane human reality, is inevitably fraught with error and requires atonement. Perhaps this is the burden of mishpat that Aharon carries in order to achieve divine favor and atonement (cf. Rashi on Exodus 28:15).
There exists yet a third possible interpretation. In contrast to the standard translation of "judgement" and the resulting translation of "breastplate of judgement," the term mishpat can also be interpreted as "decision," yielding a translation of "breastplate of decision." As Rashbam points out (on Exodus 28:15), the sections that describe the ephod-choshen system close with the command to insert the urim ve-tumim into the choshen.
The mysterious urim ve-tumim constitute a type of oracle, a sort of decision-making device (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra and I Samuel 28:5-7). The first conversation between G-d and Moshe concerning Moshe's death and the impending transfer of leadership testifies to this interpretation. G-d informs Moshe that national decisions will be made in a slightly different manner after Moshe's death.
Yehoshua will lead with the assistance of Elazar the high priest and will consult "the decision (mishpat) of the urim before the L-rd" (Numbers 27:21). By this means, the intermediary of the high priest and urim ve-tumim, decisions will be made about war and other matters of national importance.
Accordingly, the "breastplate of decision," the ephod-choshen system, constitutes the point of G-d-Israel interaction on matters of national importance and survival. When the high priest and leader request guidance from G-d, it is attempted in a context that displays the names of the tribes prominently, a context that may even set them in Eden, while adorning them with the purity of Eden. In other words, the ephod-choshen attempts to arouse the mercy of G-d (via remembrance), and achieve atonement for Israel in preparation for receiving guidance from G-d.
The theme of atonement surfaces not only in the specific passages that describe the tzitz and ephod-choshen, but also in the interaction and joint symbolism of the three pieces of apparel. The Rashbam (Exodus 28:36) claims that the tzitz and its inscription of "Holy to the L-rd" function and achieve atonement by virtue of their relation to the engraving of the names of the tribes of Israel at other points on the high priest's body.
As mentioned previously, the names of the tribes of Israel are engraved on the stones of the choshen, to be located at the high priest's heart (Exodus 28:29). The choshen is then fastened tightly to the kitphei ha-ephod, the shoulder straps of the ephod, by means of golden rings and chains (Exodus 28:22-28). These shoulder straps once again carry the names of the tribes of Israel, engraved on the shoham-stones located at the top of the straps, on Aharon's shoulders (Exodus 28:9-12). The final engraving occurs near the highest point on the body of the high priest, his forehead.
Here G-d commands Moshe to engrave not the names of Israel, but the formula of "Holy to the L-rd." The inscription of "Holy to the L-rd" constitutes the peak of a pyramid that begins at the heart of the high priest. So, we observe that the names of the tribes of Israel merge upwards into the declaration of "Holy to the L-rd" thereby elevating, sanctifying and consecrating the tribes of Israel to G-d. By virtue of this elevation, the high priest achieves atonement for the children of Israel.
In sum, when the High Priest dons his garments and serves before G-d, he transforms his very body into a device for achieving sanctification and atonement for the children of Israel! Are we not aware of Someone else, in another priestly order, Who has done the same, and yet has achieved what no earthly priest ever could?
(To be continued . . . .)
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch