The Robe of the High Priest

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Robe of the High Priest

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Tetzave continues the account of the Mishkan and its vessels by describing the precious garments of the priests or Kohanim. In particular it is the vestments of the High Priest or Kohen Gadol that receive special mention, here referred to as the "garments of Aharon." Aharon is to be clothed in eight special articles, the majority of them fashioned from prized fibers and valuable dyes, and adorned with accents of gold and gemstones. While outwardly, the Kohen Gadol may resemble a regal figure bejeweled with the trappings of majesty, his true power is neither temporal nor political. Rather, he is a human being that ministers to God, living his life in His constant presence. The garments that he wears therefore speak of the inherent dignity of man, a dignity that is a direct function of his unique capacity to apprehend the Deity and to live according to His laws. In short, the Kohen Gadol serves as the exemplar of what it means to forge a connection with God, to experience His immediacy and to act and think accordingly. For the Kohen Gadol who ministers before God, then, there are no moments that are experienced in the absence of His presence.

This week, we will consider one of the garments in particular, the so-called "me'il." This garment was worn by the High Priest on the outside, as the basic outer covering of the torso and legs, extending from the neck almost down to the feet. In form, it resembled a full-length robe or mantle, donned about the neck and shoulders like a protective coat of armor (28:32), while in color, it was as blue as a clear and cloudless sky (28:31). Attached to its hem were curious woven ornaments shaped like pomegranates, alternating with (in accordance with Rashi, 11th century, France) or instead housing (in accordance with Ramban, 13th century, Spain) tiny golden bells (28:33-34). These bells were intended to sound a melodious chime, so that when the Kohen Gadol walked in the holy precincts and ministered before God, "it could be that he may not die" (28:35).

There are therefore a number of elements to consider when attempting to analyze this unusual garment. Why in form, especially as concerns its opening for the neck, did the me'il have the appearance of a coat of armor? What was the significance of its entirely blue color, obtained from the precious dye known as "techelet"? And what might be the reason for the bells on the garment's hem, why the necessity for every stride of the Kohen Gadol to be announced by an audible signal? And what to make of the threat of death hanging over the High Priest for failing to make his steps heard? Before we can consider these specific questions, an analysis of the larger context is in order.


In terms of this broader context, the me'il is introduced by the Torah after the description of the efod and the choshen, the first two garments of the High Priest that the text mentions. The former was an apron-like garment woven of precious fibers, secured by two shoulder straps set with onyx stones. Upon these stones were engraved the names of the twelve tribes, so that "Aharon might bear their names before God upon his two shoulders as a remembrance" (28:12). The latter, often translated as a "breastplate," was a small square ornament containing twelve multi-colored precious stones, each one of which was engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. The choshen was secured to the efod top and bottom with four golden chains, two of them attaching to the front tabs of the shoulder straps and two to their backside. Secured inside the folds of the choshen were the mysterious "urim vetumim," most plausibly explained as names of God (Rashi, commentary to 28:30).

While the efod and the choshen are presented as two discrete elements, it should be clear that together they make up a single larger unit. This is implied not only by the fact of their necessary physical interconnection insofar as how they are worn by the Kohen Gadol, but also by their common fiber content: each of them is woven from a yarn containing gold, blue, purple, red, and linen. Additionally, there is the emphasis that each one of them places upon the names of the tribes, by insisting that they be engraved upon precious stones. In the one (efod) the names of the tribes are borne upon the shoulders; in the other (choshen), upon the heart. In short, the efod-choshen unit highlights the great responsibility of the Kohen Gadol to represent the tribes of Israel before God. It is for their welfare that he carries out his priestly duties, and it is their needs that are uppermost in his heart. When he stands in God's presence, the people of Israel stand with him. His devotion to God and to His laws, his concern for justice and for righteousness, his noble attempt to cleave to the Deity always, these are also the objectives of his people Israel.

Significantly, it is against the backdrop of the efod and the choshen that our me'il is presented. In fact, the verse actually describes it initially as the "me'il of the efod" (28:31), for the efod and its attached choshen are both worn upon the body against the sky-blue me'il. The me'il is worn like a robe over the undershirt and the breeches (28:39-42), while upon that robe are placed both the efod as well as the choshen.


But there is also the passage that succeeds the description of the me'il, namely the account of the "tzitz" or headband. This golden crown-like plate, worn upon the forehead of the Kohen Gadol and secured by threads of blue to his ornamental turban, was inscribed with two single words: "Kodesh LAdonai" or "holy to God" (28:36). While the efod and choshen emphasize the responsibilities of the Kohen Gadol towards the people of Israel, incorporating as they do the names of the twelve tribes engraved upon the precious stones, the "tzitz" addresses his status before God. The service that he performs and the instruction that he provides bespeak his holy mission, his recognition that all of his works are performed under God's watchful gaze. The Kohen Gadol leads a life dedicated to the service of God and to the propagation of the God-idea in the world. His crown of gold therefore proclaims neither regal power nor imperial might, but rather the unique human capacity, possessed by no other creature inhabiting the terrestrial plane, to be "holy to God."

On the one hand, then, we have the efod-choshen formation worn against the canvas of the me'il of pure techelet or sky blue, thus implying some sort of a dynamic relationship between the garments. Presumably, the import of the efod and choshen must be related to that of the me'il. But on the other hand, the tzitz sits upon the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, physically disconnected from the me'il worn upon his body and seemingly unrelated to the latter's significance. While the tzitz crowns his carriage with majestic dignity, it does not appear to incorporate any me'il analog or connection. But here again, a minute textual detail may provide the key to draw the elements together. According to the narrative, the tzitz is to be secured to the ornamental turban by a thread of pure blue (28:37), the very dye that characterizes only the me'il, for all of the other textile elements that make up the garb of the Kohen Gadol are prepared from the hybrid fiber of gold, blue, purple, red and white linen.


It thus emerges that just as the text brackets its delineation of the me'il by the description of the efod and choshen on the one end and by the account of the tzitz on the other, so too are they all also linked by form, function and intrinsic meaning. The efod and choshen are placed upon the sky-blue me'il and worn in combination with it, while the tzitz, although disconnected from the me'il physically, is nevertheless associated aesthetically by its own critical cord of blue. We therefore have a dynamic arrangement of garments that together proclaim the special task of the Kohen Gadol, a mission that pivots exclusively around twinned centers of concern - God and the people of Israel.

It is the Rashbam (Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir, 12th century, France, grandson of Rashi) who begins to unravel the significance of the me'il, in his comments concerning its unique sky-blue color:

The me'il was entirely blue in color. It seems to me that since it was worn below the efod and the choshen that both serve as reminders, it is just like the sky-blue thread of the tzitzit that resembled the hue of the heavens and served as a reminder as well. Our Rabbis have explained concerning the blue thread of the tzitzit (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Menachot 43b) that its blue color was reminiscent of the sea, the sea of the sky and the sky of the Divine throne of glory, and so too the me'il was entirely sky blue in color and incorporated no purple or scarlet (commentary to 28:31).

The Rashbam draws our attention to the fact that the text refers both to the efod as well as to the choshen as "reminders." Concerning the efod, the Torah remarks that the two onyx stones placed upon its epaulettes and engraved with the names of the tribes are "stones of remembrance" (28:12), for they remind Aharon of his august responsibilities towards the people. And in the context of the choshen, the text states that the twelve stones borne upon Aharon's heart serve similarly as "a remembrance before God always" (28:29). Now the sky-blue me'il was prepared with the very same dye that was used to color the thread of blue fastened with the tzitzit as mandated in Parashat Shelach (Bemidbar 15:37-41):

God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the people of Israel and bid them to make tzitzit (fringes) upon the corners of their garments for all generations, and they shall place a cord of blue upon the tzitzit. They shall have the tzitzit and you shall see it and REMEMBER all of the commandments of God and perform them...


The overall theme of these priestly garments, according to the Rashbam, is therefore "remembrance," not in the sense of recalling forgotten facts or reconstructing faded recollections but rather as an ongoing and vital recognition, a constant appreciation of God's overarching presence and a conscious decision to live by His laws. As the Rabbis put it in the context of the tzitzit, the sky-blue color resembled the sea, the sky and the throne of glory itself (see Shemot 24:10 where the throne was spiritually perceived as a "stone of sapphire as pure as the heavens"). In this way, by delineating the steps involved in the association (blue cord-sea-sky-throne of glory), the Rabbis wished to draw a direct connection between the sky-blue and the recognition of God's presence, without succumbing to the human foible of cheapening profound associations by turning bold metaphors into concrete representations.

Of course, by relating the blue of the me'il to the cord of the tzitzit, the Rashbam also parenthetically links the ministering of the Kohen Gadol to the service of the people. Just as the Kohen Gadol was enjoined in our Parasha to pay heed, so too the people of Israel were later called upon to listen. And just as the Kohen Gadol was wrapped in the majestic garb spelled out in Parashat Tetzave, so too the people of Israel affixed the cord of blue, potent symbol of majesty, to the corners of their own garments in accordance with the mandate of Parashat Shelach. Thus, while unable to share themselves in his special service at the Mishkan, the people of Israel could yet partake of the Kohen Gadol's exalted mission.

For the Rashbam, then, the me'il serves as the perfect backdrop for the efod and choshen, for all of them together proclaim "remember!." As for the tzitz (etymologically related to tzitzit!), the Rashbam fails to connect it to the matrix of the me'il, but its fastening thread of blue is its telling link. It too declares the theme of remembrance, and insofar as analogs are concerned, the golden diadem mirrors perfectly the pomegranates and golden bells that gently tinkle upon the hem of the me'il, low down towards the feet of the ministering High Priest. The one (tzitz) is worn high above upon the head, the other towards the feet (hem of me'il). Both highlight precious gold (the headband itself and the golden bells) while worn against a woven backdrop of blue, purple and scarlet (the turban upon the head and the pomegranates upon the hem). And might not the sound of those golden bells down low, announcing the entry of the Kohen Gadol into the holy precincts, be an aural analog to the brief axiom engraved upon the golden plate perched higher up - "holy to God"? In effect, then, the combination of the garments - tzitz, efod and choshen, all of them brought together in perfect conceptual and aesthetic harmony by the sky-blue me'il - affirm the potential of a human being to be enveloped in the experience of God, to be constantly sensitive to His sustaining presence, to be always inspired by His life-giving laws.


While we no longer have a Temple or priestly garments, the eternal Torah has preserved their memory in text. For some people, these textual descriptions are nothing more than archaic curiosities, echoes of dusty articles now irrelevant and strange. But for the devoted student of the Torah who lives his life inspired by God's word, these things are hardly about texts at all, but rather about the fundamental challenge of being receptive to God's immediacy and true to our mission. As the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak, 15th century, Spain) so memorably puts it:

Do not think for a moment that these narratives concerning the Mishkan and its vessels...the priestly garments and the other things that happened in those generations are now irrelevant in our present exile...Rather, all things mentioned in the Torah, no matter what they are, the main objective of their study is to draw us closer to God by perfecting our souls through their comprehension...there is therefore no fundamental difference between when these things were practiced and when they cannot be. Therefore, what we know presently concerning the MEANING of the Mishkan and its vessels is as beneficial to us today as on the very day of the events themselves. In this sense, the sacrificial service and the associated laws of ritual fitness and unfitness have NEVER really ceased. Although the concrete acts themselves are no longer practiced, the study of the matters has not, and a man may yet acquire through their constant comprehension the precious commodity of submission before God...

Shabbat Shalom