“The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, opens with a full accounting of the precious metals-–gold, silver and copper–that were used in the building of the “Mishkan”–the Tabernacle. Despite Moses’ greatness and the people’s full trust in him, Moses felt that he needed to be beyond reproach. Thus, he ordered that a strict accounting be taken of all the valuables that passed through the people’s and the leaders’ hands.

Immediately following the accounting in Exodus 39, the Torah records the actual manufacture of seven of the eight priestly garments. Not listed are the pants worn by both the lay priest and the High Priest. Perhaps the pants are omitted because they only serve a functional purpose, while the other priestly garments are described in the Torah as serving (Exodus 28:2): “L’cha’vohd ul’tif’ahret,” for glory and for splendor.

The Abarbanel explains that each of the eight priestly garments had symbolic meaning.

1. The Mich’nah’sahyim, pants or breeches that were worn by all priests, were designed to ensure modesty. The priests were expected to be more modest than the average citizen, who in Temple times did not necessarily wear breeches under their robes.

2. The Kutonet, the robe, that was woven of white linen with a honeycomb pattern, represented the purity to which the priest was expected to aspire. Every act that the priest performed with his body was to be pure and wholesome and directed to a higher purpose. All social transgressions and, of course, the ultimate transgression–spilling human blood–were to be negated by the priest’s own unblemished conduct.

3. The Ahv’nayt, the belt, served not only to hold up the breeches, but also to remind the wearer of his duty to “gird” his loins to do battle against evil temptations. It was to serve also to separate the “subgartilian” desires of the flesh from the spiritual desires of the heart and mind. That is why a belt is always worn during prayer.

4. The Mitznefet, the hat, was formed of a single white linen ribbon that was wound about the head of the priest, resulting in different designs for the lay priest and the high priest. The purpose of the mitznefet is very similar to that of the yarmulke that is worn by men today, serving as a reminder that the Al-mighty is always above. It is also meant to underscore humility and to banish conceit, directing the priests’ pure thoughts to G-d at all times.

The four special garments worn only by the High Priest also had profound meanings.

1. The Meh’eel, the pure blue poncho-like robe was to serve as a constant reminder to the High Priest of the oceans and the heavens. The golden bells and the woven pomegranates affixed to the bottom hem of the Meh’eel served to remind the priest that G-d above hears everything, and that one who wears the mantle of duty for a holy nation must be exceedingly careful to avoid improper and evil speech.

2. The Choshen, the breastplate, made of a weave of multi-colored threads of wool, linen and gold, had twelve stones affixed to it, one for each tribe. Inside the fold of the breastplate was the Urim v’Toomim, which contained the ineffable name of G-d and enabled the priest to receive and convey Divine messages. The Choshen represented the people’s commitment to justice and morality.

3. The Ay’fohd was an apron-like vestment with both waist and shoulder-straps. At the top of each of the two shoulder straps was a gold setting in which was affixed an onyx stone engraved with the names of six tribes. The priest was to have all the people of Israel in mind at all times. The Ay’fohd was the most unusual of all the priestly garments because it was a garment that was commonly associated with the service of idolatry, but was transformed into a holy garment for the priesthood to show that even vestments utilized in the service of evil can become holy when properly directed.

4. The final garment of the High Priest was the Tzitz, a gold plate fixed by blue threads to the forehead of the High Priest. The Tzitz bore an inscription of “Kodesh la’Hashem,” holy unto the Tetragrammaton. The firm gold plate represented unwavering commitment to the service of G-d.

Not only do each of the eight priestly garments have profound symbolic meanings, but even the way the garments are worn is meant to convey a life lesson to the priests and the people whom they serve.

In Exodus 39:21 the Torah describes how the breastplate, the Choshen, was to be attached securely and carefully to the Ay’fohd (the apron). The verse reads: “Va’yir’k’soo et ha’choshen mee’tah’b’oh’tahv ehl tah’boht ha’ay’fohd bif’teel t’chay’let, lee’yoht ahl chay’shev ha’ay’fohd, v’lo yee’zahch ha’choshen may’ahl ha’ay’fohd ka’ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem et Moshe.” They attached the breastplate from its rings, to the rings of the Ay’fohd with a blue woolen thread, so that it would remain above the belt of the Ay’fohd, and the breastplate would not be loosened from above the Ay’fohd, as the L-rd had commanded Moses. The prohibition of the breastplate separating from the Ay’fohd, the apron, is one of the 365 negative mitzvot of the Torah. Why must these two vestments be so carefully secured to each other?

Rabbi N. Bloch, in his Peninei Hatorah, offers the following explanation (cited in Eisenberg’s Iturei Torah). The Talmud, in Erechin 16a, suggests that the breastplate comes to atone for legal injustices, whereas the Ay’fohd, the apron, comes to atone for the sin of idolatry. Both of these garments atone for two fundamental categories of sins. One for sins committed between human beings and G-d, the other for sins committed between fellow human beings. The Torah therefore demands that the breastplate must never become loosened from the Ay’fohd, teaching that there must be no distinction made between trespasses committed between a human being and his fellow human being and those committed between the human being and G-d. A moral person must be fully moral. One may not be good to heaven and evil to humans, or vice versa. They must both be bound to each other in a profound way.

When religion is properly understood, justice and worship can never be separated from each other.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is also Parashat Shekalim. It is the first of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, on which an additional thematic Torah portion is read. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.