“The High Priest Wears the Names of Israel on His Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, contains a number of varied themes, including the oil of the Menorah, the priestly vestments, the inauguration ceremony of the priests, the daily Tamid offering and the Golden Incense Altar.

As we have previously noted (Tetzaveh 5760-2000), the lay priests wore four garments: 1. The כְתֹנֶת, a white linen robe with a checkerboard pattern; 2. מִכְנְסֵי-בָד, white linen britches that reached the priest’s knees; 3. The אַבְנֵט, a multi-colored waist belt; 4. The מִגְבַּעַת, the white linen ribbon that was wound around the lay priest’s head, to serve as a head covering.

The High Priest had four additional garments: 1. The אֵפֹד, the multi-colored apron, strapped around the back and the waist of the High Priest; 2. The חֹשֶׁן, the breastplate with the twelve precious stones; 3. The מְעִיל, the blue poncho-like garment, with pomegranates and bells at the bottom; 4. The צִּיץ, the gold plate with G-d’s name, tied to the forehead of the High Priest. The High Priest also wore a head covering known as the מִּצְנָפֶת, which was also made out of a band of linen, wound in a different manner than the מִגְבַּעַת of the Lay Priest.

The holy vestments worn by the priests are far more than mere garments for the body. As the saying goes, “Clothes make the man,” and often make it possible to distinguish a policeman from a doctor or a scholar. Not only do the priestly vestments serve to identify a priest (lay or High) they also communicate important ideas and messages that have bearing on the priests’ actions and duties.

Among the vestments of the High Priest are two garments that contain engraved stones. When describing the חֹשֶׁן, the Breastplate, the Torah states (Exodus 28:29), וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט עַל לִבּוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ,  לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי הַשׁם תָּמִיד, Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the Breastplate of Judgment when he enters the Sanctuary, as a constant remembrance before G-d. The commentators suggest that these engraved stones teach that a person, or a leader, can carry all of Israel on his heart, implying that a Jew can love and be concerned for the well-being of the collective people of Israel and every single individual.

When describing the manufacture of the אֵפֹד, the apron that the High Priest wears, the Torah states that there are two shoulder straps that are part of the אֵפֹד. Each of the straps has a stone, set in a gold setting on the shoulders. In Exodus 28:9, the Torah states, וְלָקַחְתּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי אַבְנֵי שֹׁהַם, וּפִתַּחְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, You shall take the two shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on one stone, and the names of the six remaining ones on the second stone, according to the order of their birth.

The commentators note that the shoulder stones that contain all the names of the twelve tribes come to teach that it is possible for a human being to carry, and bear the burden of, all of Israel on his shoulders. Some commentators say that this is an allusion to the great scholars who, throughout the ages, have “saved” Israel through their scholarship, like Rabbi Judah the PrinceRashi and Maimonides.

While the two shoulder stones contain the names of all the tribes of Israel, representing the full community of Israel, the 12 stones of the Breastplate are each designated to represent only a single tribe. A leader must carry the needs of the nation on his shoulders, so that he never forgets them. In this sense, it represents the leader who is prepared to carry the load and the burden of the people, even though his personal sense of enjoyment and benefit may not be readily apparent. The leader represented by these two stones is the one who concerns himself with the people and empathizes with their needs and struggles, to be their champion, never shrugging off his load or his responsibility.

The stones of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate, on the other hand, represent a different aspect of leadership. In this instance, each of the 12 stones represents a different tribe, and are worn on the leader’s heart. While it is important to feel for Klal Yisrael, for the general community of Israel, a leader must also be concerned with the individuals, with every single tribe and every single member of that tribe, with love and concern.

Leaders are often called upon to tend to the needs of large numbers of people, who are very different from each other, and have different issues. Some individuals need more attention than others. The concerned leader must empathize in his heart and feel the pain of the people he leads and be sensitive to their needs. The leader must see the people’s needs as his own needs.

Each stone of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate is therefore different, as are the differences amongst the tribes and the individuals. At times, it is possible that quarrels and enmity will develop. That is why the Al-mighty instructed that each tribe have its own stone, and that the High Priest must carry each individual tribe on his heart, to appreciate the differences, the varied customs and personal practices.

When the Al-mighty beholds the love of the priest for G-d’s people and the love of the people for their neighbors, then the Al-mighty’s love will be awakened, and will shower down upon His people as well.

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 4th-5th, 2015.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.