• Rav Chanoch Waxman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rav Chanoch Waxman


Shortly after the beginning of this week's parasha, Parashat Tetzave, the Torah turns from the topic of the structure of the mishkan, the central motif in Parashat Teruma, to the topic of the mishkan's staff, the priests. Moshe is instructed (Shemot 28:1-5) regarding the selection of the priests, the manufacture of garments "for honor and beauty" ("le-kavod u-letiferet"), the identity of the manufacturer and finally the specific garments to be manufactured. Strikingly, rather than detailing the role and function of the priests in the mishkan, a topic that surfaces at the very beginning of Parashat Tetzaveh (27:20-21) in a short section describing the kindling of the menora, the Torah focuses solely on the priests' attire. In fact, all forty-three verses of chapter 28 consist of a detailed description of the garments. While outfitting the priests in honorable and beautiful garments is clearly important in order to enhance the status of the sanctuary and the public perception of the priests (Ramban, 28:2), one wonders why the Torah describes the garments in such great detail and at such length.

The structure of chapter 28 constitutes an important tool for sharpening our formulation of the problem. After the brief introductory section (1-5) outlining the for whom and by whom, what clothes and what materials, the Torah focuses almost exclusively on a handful of garments worn by the High Priest alone. If we follow the setumot and petuchot, the traditional divisions of the text, the breakdown goes as follows:

  1. 1-5: the introduction as described above;
  2. 6-12: the instructions for the ephod;
  3. 13-14: the instructions for the "mishbetzot zahav" (gold frames) and "sharsharot zahav" (gold chains), by whose means the "choshen" (breastplate) is to be fastened to the shoulder pieces of the ephod (28:25);
  4. 15-30 – the design of the "choshen mishpat" (breastplate of judgement) and the instructions for its attachment to the ephod;
  5. 31-35 - the instructions for the "me'il ha-ephod" (robe of the ephod) and its decoration;
  6. 36-43 – the instructions for the remainder of the garments including: a) the "tzitz," the plate on the High Priest's forehead (36-38), b) the tunic, hat and belt of the High Priest (39), c) the tunics, hats and belts of the standard priests, and finally d) the pants of all of the priests and the command to dress them (40-43).

As mentioned above, the Torah concentrates almost exclusively on the four garments that are unique to the High Priest. Sections ii, iii, and iv, a sum total twenty-four verses, describe the "ephod-choshen" system (see 28:28), while section v centers on the "me'il" (robe) of the High Priest. Finally, even the last segment, section vi, opens with a detailing of the tzitz before briefly sketching the garments worn both by the High Priest and by the standard priests. Therefore, rather than investigating the general question of the significance of the priests' attire, we must focus on the specific question of the meaning, function and purpose of the garments unique to the High Priest.


One of the general themes discernible in the description of the High Priest's clothes may be glimpsed by focusing on the last of the specific garments mentioned, the tzitz. After commanding the inscription of the words "Kodesh la-Shem" (Holy unto the Lord) on the tzitz and detailing its fastening onto the forehead of the High Priest, the Torah states (28:38),

"And Aharon shall bear ('nasa') the iniquity ('avon') of the holy things that the Children of Israel consecrate... and it shall win acceptance for them before the Lord."

While a term based upon the stems "nsa" and "avn" can sometimes mean "bear the iniquity" in a negative sense (see Vayikra 5:1), most often such a term carries connotations of "carrying the sin" for another, i.e. removing the sin and achieving forgiveness. For example, God is described in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Shemot 34:7) as "noseh avon," meaning "forgiving sin." The primary role of the tzitz appears to be atonement. By symbolizing the process of consecration to God, the inscription of "Holy unto the Lord" achieves atonement for, and repairs the errors that take place during the process of sanctification and consecration. In the formulation of the text, this message "wins acceptance" for the less-than-perfect people and their flawed offerings (see Rashi, 28:38).

The motif of atonement is also apparent in the instructions for the "ephod-choshen" system. The Torah informs us that Aharon will carry ("ve-nasa") the names of the tribes of the Children of Israel, which are inscribed on the stones set into the choshen, "le-zikaron lifnei Hashem tamid," "for remembrance before the Lord continually" (28:29). Similarly, in the very next verse, after commanding the insertion of the "urim ve-tumim" into the choshen, the Torah states that Aharon will carry ("ve-nasa") the judgement of the Children of Israel "lifnei Hashem tamid," before the Lord continually. All of this echoes the statement a few verses earlier regarding the ephod (28:11-12). Aharon had been commanded to carry ("ve-nasa") the "avnei shoham" engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel on the shoulder straps of the ephod as a remembrance (zikaron) before the Lord (lifnei Hashem). As pointed out previously, the term "nasa" (bearing) often carries connotations of atonement. Likewise, the conjoining of "zikaron" and "lifnei Hashem" sounds a nearly identical note. In Bemidbar 10:9-10, God commands the sounding of the chatzotzrot (trumpets) in both times of war and trouble, and on holidays. In the case of war, the purpose is to be remembered ("ve-nizkartem") before God ("lifnei Hashem") and to be saved. In the case of holidays, the purpose is to be remembered by God ("ve-hayu le-zikaron lifnei Hashem") and to have the holiday offerings accepted. A "remembrance before God" activates God's mercy and action on behalf of the Children of Israel.

In addition to the fact that the terminology of the text carries connotations of God's mercy and forgiveness (and hence atonement), the choice of materials used to craft the "ephod-choshen" also strengthens this impression. The centerpiece of the choshen consists of four rows of precious stones, twelve altogether, with the name of one of the tribes of Israel engraved on each individual stone. Each stone is framed in a gold setting (17-21). Interestingly enough, in Sefer Yechezkel (28:12-13) the prophet develops a strikingly similar image involving nine of the twelve stones utilized in the choshen. Yechezkel laments:

You were the seal of perfection,

Full of wisdom and flawless beauty.

You were in Eden, the garden of God;

Every precious stone was your adornment:

Carnelian, chrysolite, and amethyst;

Beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper;

Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald;

And gold beautifully wrought for you.

Yechezkel informs the sinner that once he had been the perfect work of a divine craftsman. Once he had been adorned with precious stones and gold. Once he had been in Eden. Once he had existed in a pure state before having sinned.

Sefer Bereishit (2:11) confirms the linkage of the central materials of the ephod-choshen to Eden. One of the four rivers that emerge from Eden, "Pishon," leads to the land of "Chavila," the place of gold and shoham stones. These are some of the exact materials collected for and utilized in the construction of the ephod-choshen in Sefer Shemot (Shemot 25:7, 28:6,9-11,13-27). Apparently, the engraving of the names of the tribes of Israel on the precious stones of Eden (28:9-11,17-21) and their framing in a golden setting (28:11,13-14,20, 22,24) constitutes a symbolic reenactment of an Eden-like state - a state where man was still the perfect work of the divine Craftsman; a time when man deserved adornment with jewels and gold; a pure state when man had not yet sinned. By carrying the names of the tribes of Israel bGod adorned with the setting of Eden, the High Priest finds favor for Israel in the eyes of God and achieves mercy and atonement.

While the text explicitly states which sins the tzitz atones for (28:38), the Torah makes no such explicit declaration in the case of the ephod-choshen. What, then, does the ephod-choshen atone for? The key may lie in the phrase "choshen mishpat," the proper name of the choshen. Normally, this term is translated as "breastplate of judgement," a translation reached by following the standard meaning of "mishpat." Perhaps atonement is necessary for the Children of Israel's errors in keeping the "mishpatim," the judgements commanded by God in Parashat Mishpatim (see Shemot 21:1).

Alternatively, perhaps atonement is necessary for errors in justice, the process of mishpat, whereby divinely ordained norms are applied to human reality. Yitro had already advised Moshe that the process of justice was too heavy for him to bear alone and that he required others to help him carry ("ve-nasu") the burden of teaching and applying the laws of God (Shemot 18:14-16,22-23). In fact, Yitro apprehended only part of the problem. The burden of properly applying the laws of God is too heavy for any human or group of humans. The very act of mishpat, teaching and applying the transcendent Torah to mundane human reality, is inevitably fraught with difficulty and error and requires atonement. Aharon therefore carries this burden of "mishpat" and achieves divine favor and atonement (see Rashi, 28:15).

In contrast to the standard translation of "judgement" and the resulting translation of "breastplate of judgement," the term "mishpat" can also be interpreted as "decision," yielding a translation of "breastplate of decision." As Rashbam points out (28:15), the sections that describe the ephod-choshen system close with the command to insert the urim ve-tumim into the choshen. The mysterious urim ve-tumim constitute a type of oracle, some sort of decision-making device (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra and I Shemuel 28:5-7). The first conversation between God and Moshe concerning Moshe's death and the impending transfer of leadership testifies to this interpretation. God informs Moshe that national decisions will be made in a slightly different fashion after Moshe's death. Yehoshua will lead with the assistance of Elazar the High Priest and will consult the "mishpat ha-urim lifnei Hashem," "the decision of the urim before the Lord" (Bemidbar 27:21). By this means, through the intermediary of the High Priest and urim ve-tumim, decisions will be made about war and other matters of national importance.

On this interpretation, the "breastplate of decision" of the ephod-choshen system constitutes the point of interaction between God and Israel on matters of national importance and survival. When the High Priest and leader request guidance from God, it is attempted in a context that displays the names of the tribes prominently, that sets them in Eden and adorns them with the purity of Eden. The ephod-choshen attempts to arouse the mercy of God, and to achieve atonement for Israel in preparation for receiving guidance from God.

The theme of atonement surfaces not only in the specific passages that describe the tzitz and ephod-choshen but also in the interaction and joint symbolism of the three pieces of apparel. Rashbam (28:36) claims that the tzitz and its inscription of "Holy unto the Lord" achieve atonement by virtue of their relation to the engraving of the names of the tribes of Israel at other points on the High Priest's body. This requires some explication.

As mentioned previously, the names of the tribes of Israel are engraved on the stones of the choshen, to be located at the High Priest's heart (28:29). The choshen is then fastened tightly to the "kitfei ha-ephod" (shoulder straps of the ephod) by means of golden rings and chains (28:22-28). These shoulder straps once again carry the names of the tribes of Israel, engraved on the shoham-stones located at the top of the straps, on Aharon's shoulders (28:9-12). The final engraving occurs near the highest point on the body of the High Priest, his forehead. Here God commands Moshe to engrave not the names of Israel, but the formula of "Holy unto the Lord." This inscription constitutes the peak of a pyramid that begins at the heart of the High Priest. The names of the tribes of Israel merge upwards into the declaration of "Holy unto the Lord," thereby elevating, sanctifying and consecrating the tribes of Israel to God. By virtue of this elevation, the High Priest achieves atonement for the Children of Israel. In sum, when the High Priest dons his garments and serves before God, he transforms his very body into a device for achieving sanctification and atonement for the Children of Israel.


The interpretation of the High Priest's clothes propounded until this point, i.e. that they are a device for achieving atonement, should go a long way to explaining the length and detail the Torah devotes to their design. Atonement constitutes one of the central purposes of the mishkan and the High Priest (see Vayikra 16:15-18). In addition, this interpretation fits well with the structure of the middle portion of the book of Shemot.

From the beginning of chapter 25 through the end of chapter 30, the Torah relates the command to build the mishkan, detailing its design and listing the necessary materials and personnel. The order runs as follows:

  1. 25:1-9 – the command to construct the mishkan and to collect materials;
  2. 25:10-22 – the ark;
  3. 25:23-30 – the table;
  4. 25:31-40 – the menora;
  5. 26:1-30 – the curtains and pillars of the mishkan;
  6. 26:31-37 – the inner curtain;
  7. 27:1-8 – the altar;
  8. 27:9-19 – the external courtyard and its curtains and pillars;
  9. 27:20-21 – the command to collect olive oil and kindle the menora;
  10. 28:1-43 – the command to designate priests, and details of the manufacture of their clothes;
  11. 29:1-37 – the induction ceremony for the priests and the first operation of the mishkan;
  12. 29:38-46 – the command of daily sacrifices and the description of God's meeting with Israel at the mishkan;
  13. 30:1-10 – the golden incense altar;
  14. 30:11-15 – the collection of money for the maintenance of the mishkan;
  15. 30:17-21 – the lather utilized by the priests when they enter the sanctuary;
  16. 30:22-33 – the command to manufacture "anointing oil" to sanctify the priests and vessels;
  17. 30:34-38 – the command to manufacture the incense.

At first glance, the order of the parshiot appears strange. Sections i through viii, the corpus of Parashat Teruma, concern themselves with the physical structure of the mishkan and its vessels. Sections ix and on seem to represent a change in theme. From this point on, the priests and matters related to the priests constitute the central motif. However, this presents many difficulties. For example, why is the kindling of the menora mentioned first before the selection of the priests? Why are the "golden incense altar" and the "lather" (sections xiii and xv respectively) mentioned in the segment pertaining to priests as opposed to in the segment delineating the vessels of the mishkan, Parashat Teruma?

In fact, the turn at the beginning of Parashat Tetzaveh, delineated as section ix above, should be viewed not as a switch to the general topic of priests and matters related to the priests, but as a move from structure to operation. Sections ix through xvii begin to outline the critical operations of the mishkan and the materials and objects necessary for those operations. Consequently, the segment opens with the daily kindling of the menora, a critical daily operation. This theory also explains the placement of the sections detailing the lather and golden incense altar. Their primary purpose is to play a role in certain daily operations the priests perform in the mishkan (30:7-8 and 30:19-21), not to constitute part of the physical structure of the mishkan, the tabernacle and house of God. Consequently, they are mentioned in the operations section, rather than in Parashat Teruma.

This brings us full circle to the garments of the High Priest. Just as the kindling of the menora constitutes a crucial oof the mishkan, so too, atonement constitutes a crucial operation of the mishkan. In fact, the very first vessel mentioned in Parashat Teruma, the ark, is covered by the "kaporet," the place where the High Priest sprinkles blood in order to atone ("le-khaper") for the sins of the nation (Vayikra 16:14-17). In a similar vein, the operations section (Parashat Tetzaveh and on) dwells extensively on the garments of the High Priest, clothes that are critical for the daily kapara operation of the mishkan.


Let us turn our attention to another aspect of the High Priest's garments. Like the theme of atonement, it is intertwined with the multiple inscriptions present in the High Priest's apparel. If we follow the chronological order of the text, the first of these is the engraving of the names of the tribes of Israel on the avnei shoham that Aharon carries on his shoulders ("al shtei ketefav," 28:11-12). The second is the engraving of the names of each tribe on the stones of the choshen. Aharon carries these on his heart ("al libo," 28:29). The third inscription is the formula of "Holy unto the Lord," engraved on the tzitz, which Aharon bears on his upper forehead right beneath his hat (28:37-38). One wonders: what is the significance of these particular locations?

In fact, one of these locations constitutes a place where matters of great importance are kept. In Sefer Bemidbar, when Moshe divides the oxen and wagons donated by the princes amongst the Levites for the purpose of transporting the mishkan, Moshe refrains from distributing to the Levites descended from Kehat. The text explains (Bemidbar 7:9):

"To the sons of Kehat he gave none, because the work of the sanctuary ('kodesh') belonged to them, they bore it on their shoulders ('ba-katef yisa'u')."

The sons of Kehat were charged with transporting the holiest components of the mishkan, the actual vessels of the sanctuary. Consequently, in accord with the honor and sanctity of the objects, they were required to carry them personally, on their shoulders, rather than by means of beasts of burden. This sheds new light on the Torah's demand that the High Priest carry the names of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders (28:12). Apparently, the names of the tribes of Israel constitute objects that are holy to the High Priest. Consequently, he bears them upon his shoulders.

The places of heart and head also appear in another context in the Torah. Earlier on in Sefer Shemot, when commanding the people to forever remember the day that God redeemed them from Egypt, Moshe informs them that, "It shall be for a sign upon your hand and a remembrance ('zikaron') between your eyes... with a strong hand God brought you out of Egypt" (13:9). This, of course, is the command of tefillin. The people are commanded to place certain texts, in this case one relating to the redemption from Egypt, on their hand (traditionally understood as the upper arm near the heart) and between their eyes (traditionally understood as the area of the upper forehead). Strikingly, the choshen and tzitz also involve writing placed adjacent to the heart and head. Furthermore, just as tefillin are termed a "zikaron," a remembrance, so too the Torah repeatedly utilizes the term "zikaron" to describe the functioning of the garments of the High Priest. What is the meaning of the parallel of the choshen and tzitz to tefillin?

Tefillin serve to remind the wearer of the contents of the texts he is wearing: he must know in both his heart and head that God redeemed him from Egypt. Apparently, the choshen and tzitz function in a similar manner. Placing the names of Israel and the formula of "Holy unto the Lord" on the heart and head of the High Priest serve to remind him of his dedication to Israel and to God. The priest carries consciousness of Israel in his heart and of God in his head.

In sum, we can discern a second theme present in the Torah's description of the High Priest's garments. They function reflexively. The "zikaron" means not only to remind God of Israel, but also to remind the High Priest himself of Israel and of God. Israel must be holy to the High Priest and hence he carries them upon his shoulders. Israel must be located in the heart of the High Priest and hence he carries them upon his heart. The High Priest must remember his dedication to God and his function as a means to dedicate and elevate Israel to God and to facilitate the God-Israel relation. Hence, he carries the statement "Holy unto the Lord" upon his head.


The two themes implicit in the High Priest's clothes presented above - the motif of atonement for Israel on the one hand, and the reflexive definition of the role of the priest on the other - provide an interesting perspective on the development of the institution of priesthood in the Torah. The Torah first mentions priesthood in the narrative describing the revelation at Sinai. God commands Moshe to descend the mountain and warn the people and "the priests who come near the Lord" ("ha-kohanim ha-nigashim el Hashem") to keep their distance (19:22). Who are this spiritual elite, these priests who come near the Lord? Apparently, the group consists of others besides Aharon and his sons (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban). In this light, the command to designate Aharon and his sons as priests (28:1) constitutes not just an act of enfranchising a select group, but also a delegitimization and disenfranchisement of a larger group, "the priests who come near the Lord." One wonders what constitutes the distinction between the priesthood of "those who come near the Lord," the pre-Sinai institution of priesthood, and Aharon and his children, the post-Sinai institution of priesthood?

Perhaps the Torah's lengthy discourse on fashion, and the symbolism of the clothes, provides the key. Previously, priesthood had consisted of a spiritual class, those who strove to come close to holiness for no other purpose than the natural religious tendency to search out God and to attempt to serve Him and cling to Him. The text terms this "the priests who come near the Lord" (19:22). However, in the context of mishkan and post-Sinai priesthood, the universal religious quest is not the sole focus or purpose of priesthood, and perhaps is not a purpose or focus of priesthood at all. The garments of the High Priest define the function of priesthood. The clothes make the man. The priest serves not for himself, not as part of his own religious quest, but as a bridge between God and Israel. As his garments indicate, he serves to elevate Israel and to atone for their sins, to repair and maintain the God-Israel relation.



1) While dealing extensively with three of the four garments unique to the High Priest (the ephod, choshen and tzitz), the above shiur neglects to deal with the fourth garment of the High Priest, the me'il. Look at Shemot 28:31-35 and the comments of Rashbam. How can the me'il be explained according to each of the interpretations presented in this shiur?

2) The Talmud (Zevachim 88b) states that the placement of the section detailing the garments of the priests (chapter 28) near the section of the Torah commanding sacrifices (chapter 29) teaches us that, "Just as sacrifices atone, so too the priest's garments atone." As part of its correlation of the various garments with various sins, the Talmud states that the tzitz atones for "azut panim," arrogance or brazenness. Relate both the general and specific claims of the Talmud to the themes developed in this shiur.

3) See Vayikra 10:1, regarding the sin and death of Nadav and Avihu. As background, read at least 9:7, 9:15 and 9:23-24. How do the themes developed in the above shiur shed new light on the error of Nadav and Avihu?

4) Most commentaries (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, etc.) assume that the firstborn constitute the class of priests mentioned at Har Sinai who are replaced by Aharon and his sons. Some commentaries connect this to the events of the sin of the golden calf. See Shemot 32:4-6 and the comments of Ramban. How different is the theory of the commentaries from the theory presented in this shiur?




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