Parashat Tetzaveh: The "Bigdei Kehuna" (Priestly Garments)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #20: The "Bigdei Kehuna" (Priestly Garments)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            After Bnei Yisrael are commanded to build the Mishkan, they are informed of the laws concerning the "bigdei kehuna."  The Torah tells us to prepare "vestments of sanctity" for Aharon and his sons.  The kohen gadol generally wore eight garments, while a regular kohen wore four garments.  On Yom Kippur, the kohen gadol wore only four garments.  The Torah describes these clothes as signs of "glory and splendor" (Shemot 28).


            The Sefer Ha-Mitzvot of Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon consists of several separate sections.  Of course, there is a section of mitzvot asei and another of mitzvot lo ta'aseh (positive and negative commandments).  In addition, Rav Sa'adya also wrote one section of sixty-five mitzvot which he called "parshiyot."  In his lengthy introduction to that section, Rav Y. Perla explained that this section contains the obligations of the community at large and are not mitzvot incumbent upon individuals.  The sixty-second "parasha" is "the eight garments of splendor."  Rav Perla explained that Rabbeinu Sa'adya did not think that there is any mitzva, either positive or negative, for a kohen to wear "bigdei kehuna."  It is a prerequisite for any "avoda" (service) performed by the kohanim, but it is not an end in itself.  If a kohen performs the avoda without "bigdei kehuna," his avoda is invalid only because a kohen without "bigdei kehuna" is not really a kohen.  The Torah said, "They should make the clothes of Aharon to sanctify him to serve as a kohen to Me" (Shemot 28:3).  The gemara (Zevachim 17b), citing additional sources, as well, explains this to mean that "When they are wearing their (special) garments, their kehuna is upon them; if they are not wearing their (special) garments, their kehuna is not upon them."  Thus, the prohibition of performing the avoda without "bigdei kehuna" is not a special prohibition; it flows naturally from the prohibition for any "zar" (non-kohen) to perform the avoda.


            According to Rav Sa'adya, the only specific mitzva concerning "bigdei kehuna" is the communal obligation to make these garments.  These vestments were actually communal property.  If an individual owned or donated such a garment, he had to donate it to the community, and only then could it be used (Rambam, Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash 8:7).  Therefore, Rabbeinu Sa'adya only listed one communal mitzva – to make the "bigdei kehuna."  In this mitzva Rabbeinu Sa'adya includes all eight garments – both the four standard garments and the four additional garments worn by the kohen gadol.  Rav Perla explained that Rabbeinu Sa'adya included all eight garments in this mitzva because the kohen gadol's four special garments were in addition to, rather than in place of, the four standard "bigdei kehuna." (Considerable controversy surrounds this last point, which is subject to a well-known debate among Rishonim cited by Rav Perla.)


            The Rambam, on the other hand, defines the mitzva somewhat differently: "The kohanim were commanded to wear special garments for glory and splendor" (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot - mitzvat asei 33).  In his list of mitzvot at the beginning of Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash, the Rambam writes, "To wear "bigdei kehuna" for the avoda."  Although the Rambam also writes, "There is a mitzvat asei to make these clothes and have the kohen perform the avoda while wearing them" (Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash 10:4), he did not count the preparation of these garments as an individual mitzva.  He apparently understood that making them constitutes only a "hekhsher mitzva" – a prerequisite for the mitzva of performing the avoda garbed in "bigdei kehuna."


            The Ramban (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, ad loc.) cited the Bahag who did not enumerate wearing "bigdei kehuna" as a mitzvat asei because he considered it a hekhsher avoda.  The Ramban proceeds to challenge the Rambam's view, that wearing the "bigdei kehuna" constitutes a mitzva.  If so, he asks, why did he not count three individual mitzvot - one mitzva for the kohen gadol to wear eight garments, a second for a regular kohen to wear four garments, and a third mitzva for the kohen gadol to wear four garments on Yom Kippur?


            The Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveichik, explained that according to the Rambam, there is one mitzva to wear "bigdei kehuna" in order to prepare oneself to perform the avoda.  Although there are three different types of "bigdei kehuna," they all serve one generic purpose: they permit the kohen who wears them to perform the avoda.  The Rambam is careful to describe this mitzva as a "mitzvat asei to wear "bigdei kehuna" la-avoda" (introduction to Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash).  Therefore, it is all to be considered one mitzva.  The Ramban, on the other hand, thought that wearing "bigdei kehuna" is an independent mitzva as one thereby actually becomes a kohen.  Inasmuch as there are, according to the Ramban, three different types of "bigdei kehuna," they should be considered three individual mitzvot (Chiddushei Ha-Griz - Zevachim 18; in Chiddushei R. Ephraim Mordekhai – Yevamot, section nine, the author elaborates upon this idea which he heard directly from R. Soloveichik).


            It should be noted that although the Ramban left these questions against the Rambam unanswered, he later said that he felt that the opinion of the Rambam is valid since a kohen who does the avoda properly, meaning, while wearing the proper clothes, does fulfill a mitzva.  However, the Ramban asked, in that case, the Rambam should have added another mitzva: to perform the avoda while standing.  Based on the pasuk "He was chosen from all the tribes to stand and serve" (Devarim 18:5), the gemara (Zevachim 23b) establishes a mitzva for the kohen to stand during the avoda.  Therefore, the Ramban asks, if we count wearing "bigdei kehuna" as a mitzva, why should we not also enumerate standing?  The Ramban suggested a distinction between these two laws, namely, that the mitzva of "bigdei kehuna" was given in an imperative form - "You should make bigdei kodesh" - while the law of standing was stated in narrative form, rather than as a command.  He adds, however, that this issue nevertheless remains unclear.


            Rav Menachem Genack (Birkhat Yitzchak, addenda to chapter 45) brought an interesting proof to the notion that wearing "bigdei kehuna" serves not merely to confer the formal status of "kohen" upon the kohen, but also as preparation for the avoda.  The Shulkhan Arukh (O.C. 98:4) writes that one should wear special clothes for tefilla "similar to bigdei kehuna." Rav Genack observed that if the entire reason behind wearing "bigdei kehuna" is to establish oneself as a kohen, one could not draw any comparison at all between "bigdei kehuna" and the regular laws of tefilla.  If, however, there is an independent mitzva to wear "bigdei kehuna" for "avoda" (presumably for "glory and splendor"), then at least some basis exists to compare the priestly garments and the special clothing worn during tefilla. 


            We have thus seen various possibilities as to the number of mitzvot involved regarding "bigdei kehuna."  Rabbeinu Sa'adya counted one communal mitzvat asei to make the vestments.  The Bahag enumerated one individual mitzvat lo ta'aseh.  The Rambam counted a single mitzvat asei, while the Ramban suggested that conceivably, we might count three separate mitzvot.