“Details, Details and More Details”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Tetzaveh continues the Torah’s focus on the innumerable details of the Mishkan–the portable Tabernacle that accompanied the People of Israel during their 40 year journey in the wilderness. Parashat Tetzaveh places particular emphasis on the priestly vestments–the four garments of the lay priest, and the additional four garments of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol.

One of the four special garments worn by the High Priest was the Ephod. It was an apron-like garment that served as the surface upon which was affixed the Choshen, the priestly breast-plate. In Exodus 28:6, the Torah offers a detailed description of the Ephod: “V’asu et ha’ephod zahav, t’chelet, v’argaman, to’la’at shanee, v’shesh mash’zar, ma’asei choshev.” And they shall make the Ephod of gold, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool and twisted linen with a woven design.

Scripture goes on to explain that the Ephod had two shoulder straps attached to its two ends and a belt that was made of the same intricately woven materials. Two shoham (often translated as onyx) stones with the names of the tribes of Israel engraved on them were to be set in gold settings and affixed to the shoulder straps, to serve as a remembrance for the Children of Israel. The chains of pure gold that were used to attach the breast plate to the Ephod, and the twelve precious stones that were mounted on it, are then described in exhaustive detail. Just as no detail was left to chance regarding the building elements of the Tabernacle, its columns, planks, curtains, covers and furnishings, so too no detail is left unmentioned regarding the garments. Every “T” is correctly crossed and every “I,” properly dotted.

The Torah is famously known for its brevity and its precise choice of words. And yet we find that regarding the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the Priestly vestments, four and half full Parashiot are devoted to what seems to be repetitive description. The Bible commentators are divided in their opinion regarding the exhaustive details. While all regard the details as important, some (like Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi and the Abarbanel) say that mortals simply have no way of knowing what the point of the details might be. Others (like Maimonidies) argue that we must strive, even heroically, to find the inner meanings of these details.

For citizens of the 21st Century, appreciating the ancient rabbis’ regard for details should not be difficult. After all, even the paint design and the ornamentation of the space shuttle play a crucial role in a successful space mission. We know only too well what may happen if one little wire, one “O” ring or one obscure tile shield is defective or not cemented properly!

To a certain extent the debate about the details of the Tabernacle and the vestments is part of the ongoing debate of “form” and “function.” All agree that function and deed are what ultimately counts. Does the spacecraft fly? Does a person pray with intensified sincerity? Do the people feel the palpable presence of G-d at the Tabernacle ceremony?

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, when explaining the Torah’s concern with the proper way of building the earthen altar (Mitzvah 41), states that at the root of this mitzvah “lies the purpose we have written about, to set firmly in our minds a reverent awe for the place [the Tabernacle] and its importance.” The excruciating emphasis on detail underscores the importance of maintaining the dignity of the Sanctuary.

The emphasis on detail also serves to diminish or eliminate disputes. The Mishna in Tractate Yoma 22a states that, originally, any priest who wished to remove the ashes of the previous sacrifices had the prerogative of doing so. However, if there were many priests, they would all run up the ramp to the altar and the first to reach the ashes was given the right to remove the ashes. The Talmud tells that on one occasion two priests arrived at the altar at the same time. One priest pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. At that time, the rabbis decreed that the right to cleanse the ashes would be assigned by lottery only, in order to avoid undignified behavior in the Sanctuary.

It is certainly possible to conduct a meaningful and moving prayer service even in an area not specifically designed for prayer, as they are often called upon to do in Israel in their bomb shelters. Some of the greatest Torah thoughts were expounded in caves, while hiding from the enemy in the times of the Maccabees and Bar Kochba. Some of the most brilliant but painful Halachic decisions were rendered in concentration camp barracks, and during the murderous Nazi bombardment of Jews in the ghettos. The extraordinary emphasis on the form and the details that is found in our parashiot reminds us that “form” does indeed play a key role in our efforts to function properly and sincerely, and that our air-conditioned sanctuaries, with their vaulted ceilings and breathtaking arks, should serve to inspire us even further, to reach greater heights of sanctity and sincerity.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion, from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, about remembering Amalek is read. Most authorities consider it to be a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading. Please also note that, since Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, March 3rd and Sunday, March 4th, the Fast of Esther is observed earlier in the week, on Thursday, March 1st from dawn to nightfall. Happy Purim.