“Keeping the Priests Humble”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, we read in rather minute detail, about the garments that were worn by the Kohanim, the priests.

As opposed to last week’s parasha, which was an architect’s dream, this week’s parasha is a tailor’s dream–and a rabbi’s nightmare! In parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 28:39-40, 42) we find mention or description of the four basic garments that were worn by all priests: the Mich’nah’sah’yim–the knee-length pants, the K’to’net–the honeycomb-patterned linen robe, the Mitz’neh’fet--the miter or hat made of a single long linen ribbon, and the Ahv’nayt--the multi-colored belt, wound about the waist of the priest.

In addition to the basic four garments, the High Priest was attired in four additional garments: the Meh’eel--a sky blue-colored poncho-like covering, with bells and pomegranates attached to the bottom; the Ay’phod–the multicolored apron upon which the breastplate was affixed; the Cho’shen–the holy breastplate adorned with twelve beautiful stones and containing the U’rim v’tu’mim–the ineffable name of G-d; and finally, the Tzitz–the golden plate inscribed with G-d’s name that was worn on the forehead of the High Priest.

The role of the priest and the priesthood in Jewish tradition is complex and challenging. The first allusion to the selection of the priests may be found in the story of the midwives who refused to abide by Pharaoh’s command to kill the newborn male children. In Exodus 1:21, we read that G-d was impressed by the sincerity of the midwives and that He rewarded them. “Va’ya’as la’hem bah’tim,” He [G-d] made for them houses. The Rabbis in Sotah 11a, explain that because of Yocheved’s (Moses’s mother) heroic acts, she was blessed to be the progenitor of the houses of Priesthood and Levites. And so it seems, that essentially from the womb, the priests were marked for greatness. The Torah informs us as well (Numbers 3:12-13) that the Levites (which includes the family of the priests) were chosen to replace the first born as the ministers of the People of Israel in the service of G-d, because they did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf.

Judaism accords a special sense of sanctity to human garments. The Torah records that clothes were a gift of G-d to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Genesis 3:21: “Va’ya’as Hashem Eh’lo’kim l’Adam oo’l’ish’to kaht’not ohr, va’yal’bee’shaym,” The Lord G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and He clothed them. In effect, clothes reflect the Divine element of the human being. Clothes, of course, tend to reflect a person’s profession, and often by examining a person’s clothes or uniform one may recognize a sea captain, a policeman, a doctor, a nurse, or a religious minister.

Similarly, one can also identify a person’s mental attitude by their proper dress or lack of proper dress. Even a person dressed in the most costly clothes may appear disheveled. And, of course, the economic circumstances of a person may be revealed by the condition and cleanliness of a person’s garments.

While one may express dissatisfaction with the seemingly undemocratic nature of the priesthood, and argue that the priests are given unfair advantages as a result of a mere accident of birth, the priests are also accorded “unfair” responsibilities as a result of that accident of birth.

The benefits of priesthood seem to be bountiful. The priests play a very public leadership role for the Jewish people, serving as the chief ministers in the Tabernacle and the Temple. They are the beneficiaries of the people’s valuable heave offerings, the Terumah, a gift of approximately 2% of all the farmers’ produce, which goes directly to the priest and his family.

On the other hand, priests are not given any land as patrimony in Canaan as are the other tribes. Even today, the priests are accorded great honor–they are always called first to the Torah, they are privileged to lead Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), and they bless the Jewish people with the Priestly blessings in Israel as part of the daily prayer service, and in the diaspora only on holidays. Nevertheless, the priests personal lives are rather restricted. They are not permitted to marry a divorced woman, and may not attend funerals, except for their seven closest relatives.

It is interesting to note that the priests, as direct descendants of Levi, started out as violent “fanatics,” who disgraced their father Jacob by murdering the people in Shechem after the rape of their sister Dina. Apparently, Jacob nevertheless felt that the Levites were redeemable. In his blessing to his sons at the end of his life, Jacob castigates Simeon and Levi. (Genesis 49:7), “Ah’ruhr ah’pahm kee ahz, v’ev’rah’tahm kee kah’shah’tah,” Cursed is their rage for it is intense and their wrath for it is harsh, “ah’chal’kaym b’Ya’akov, va’ah’fee’tzaym b’Yisrael,” I will separate them within Jacob and will disperse them in Israel. This verse is generally understood as the source for the dispersion of the tribes of Levi and Simeon among the other tribes and their not receiving land in Canaan. Once dispersed, we don’t hear much about Simeon. However, the fanaticism of Levi is apparently redirected into a passion for faith, and channeled towards the service of G-d.

It is while performing the service of G-d that the priests are clothed in holiness. While the vestments certainly serve to elevate the priest above the rest of Israel by singling them out as they appear in their divine uniforms, the holy garments also serve as a cogent reminder of modesty and humility. While decked in these noble clothes, the priests know full well that these honorable garments are, in effect, hand-me-downs, produced and tailored from the generous donations of the Jewish people. While decked in majesty, the priests are at the same time clothed in humility. Hence, the priestly garments are subject to multiple restrictions. The garments may only be worn while the priest is on duty, while serving in the Tabernacle. Priests are not permitted to sleep in their holy garments, and the rabbis even question whether they are allowed to walk around in them when not performing the holy rituals. That the priestly vestments are clearly not the private possession of the priests is underscored by the fact that the Talmud in Sukkah 21a informs us that worn out priestly garments are fashioned into wicks for the torches used in the celebration of Simchat bet Hashoeyva during the joyous festival of Sukkot.

Perhaps the most effective way of keeping the priest humble is reflected in a slight, almost imperceptible, textual nuance that appears in the verse regarding support of the priests. While the Torah instructs the people of Israel to give their tithes–Ma’asrot, directly to the Levite “who lives in your midst” (Deut. 12:12 & 14:26), there is no such parallel instruction or obligation for the Jewish people to give their heave offerings, Terumot, directly to the priests who live in their midst. In order to make certain that the priests were effective in their mission, the Israelites could choose to give their gifts to the priest they felt served them most diligently. Clearly, while the priests are accorded many privileges, their ultimate sustenance depends squarely upon their effectiveness and meritorious work.

Indeed, Judaism tries to provide a balance of priorities in the function and role of the priesthood. While the priest may be robed in glorious garments and vestments, what the Jewish people truly pray for is that our priests be robed in holiness and justice. As we say in the prayer that is recited as the Torah is returned to the Ark, “Cohan’eh’cha yil’b’shoo tzeddek v’cha’see’deh’chah yeh’rah’nay’noo,” “May your priests be clothed with righteousness and may your faithful followers shout with joy.”

May you be blessed.