The Tzitz of the High Priest

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
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The Tzitz of the High Priest

By Michael Hattin






Parashat Tetzaveh continues naturally the thrust of the narratives first introduced in last week's Parashat Teruma.  Recall that last week, the Torah spelled out in exhaustive detail the vessels of the Mishkan as well as the building elements – boards and curtains, covers and courtyard – that together constituted the housing for those sacred articles.  The data was presented in hierarchical format, with the most precious vessels – the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of the Showbread and the Menorah – introduced first, before the text went on to describe the thick planks of acacia wood, the precious embroidered textiles and the dyed hides that comprised their spatial envelope.  The description of the building proper was in turn followed by an account of the dividing curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the complex. 


After the Torah had completed the matter of the building proper and its golden contents, it turned its attention to the outer courtyard, beginning once again with the primary vessel associated with that space, namely the altar of bronze used for animal sacrifice.  This was then followed by a description of the white linen curtains that marked the borders of the outer courtyard, the supporting pillars with their foundation sockets and the associated pegs from which the curtains were suspended.  Finally, the Torah described the elaborate entrance curtain that secured the complex on its eastern side.  Thus, the account of the Mishkan or Tent of Meeting was completed.




The transition to Parashat Tetzaveh is logically sound and thematically seamless, as the text moves from a description of the building and its vessels to a description of the garments worn by the officiating priests who are designated to perform the service:


As for you, draw near your brother Aharon and his sons with him from the midst of the people of Israel so that he might serve Me – Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, El'azar and Itamar the sons of Aharon.  Make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for glory.  As for you, speak to all of the wise of heart that I have filled with a spirit of wisdom so that they will fashion the vestments of Aharon to sanctify him so that he may serve Me…(28:1-3). 


In great detail, the Torah now spells out these precious garments, clearly distinguishing between the attire of the regular Kohen and the more elaborate vestments donned by the Kohen Gadol or High Priest.  The typical priest wears four garments during the course of performing his service: breeches, a tunic, a belt and a turban or miter.  The Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, wears these four basic garments (with some variation in form) as well as four others in addition: a robe, an ephod, a breastplate, and a headband.  This week we will direct our attention to the headband or tzitz, but first we must consider the introductory remarks of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) concerning “the honor and the glory” of these priestly vestments:


Aharon ought to be honored and glorified by wearing garments of honor and glory…for these garments resemble garments of royalty in form.  At the time of the Torah, the monarchy would have worn such clothing.  The tunic signifies leadership just as Yosef was presented by his father with a “tunic of many stripes” (see Breisheet 37:3)…thus, Aharon was to be clothed as a king of ancient times…the miter is still worn by royalty and nobility to this day…the breastplate and ephod are regal attire…and the headband is a type of crown.  The materials used to make these garments, namely gold, sky-blue, purple and crimson, are precious and rare…


Thus, the Ramban understands that the Kohen Gadol represents a kind of sovereign, for his garments of office are to be fashioned out of unique and expensive materials and in their appearance they are to resemble the ornamented vestments of a king.  But 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.




The section concerning the tzitz or headband states:


You shall fashion a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall inscribe it clearly, after the manner of a signet ring, with the words: “holy to God”.  You shall place it upon a cord of sky-blue and it shall be upon the miter, opposite the front of the miter it shall be.  Thus it shall be upon the forehead of Aharon, so that Aharon shall carry the expiation for the sacred offerings that the people of Israel shall sanctify in accordance with all of their sacred offerings.  It shall be upon his forehead at all times to make their offerings acceptable before God (Shemot 28:36-38).


The headband, like the other “royal” clothing of the High Priest, is prepared out of precious and valuable materials.  It is composed of two elements: a highly visible ornamental strip that is fashioned out of pure gold and a fastening cord that is spun out of prized sky-blue wool.  As Rashi (11t5h century, France) remarks, the tzitz is “a thin plate of gold that is two fingerbreadths in width that encompasses the forehead from one ear to the other” (commentary to 28:36).  Like most of the other vestments that are unique to the High Priest, such as the breastplate or the epaulettes of the ephod, the headband also carries with it an engraved text, a concise but charged statement of its purpose and meaning.  Clearly incised on its surface are but two words, but they are the two words that best capture the essential mission of the Kohen Gadol.  He is holy and consecrated to God, for the purpose of his service is to establish a connection with God and to stand before His presence as a representative of the people.




The commentaries wonder about the derivation of the unusual word tzitz and seem to adopt three main approaches.  According to the so-called “long commentary” of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), the word is related to “tzitzit” or tassel, whether of strings or of hair (see BeMidbar 15:37-41 and especially Yechezkel 8:3).  In our context, the word presumably connotes an ornament that is worn on the head next to the hair.  The Rashbam (12th century, France), in contrast, relates the word to the verb form that means to “peak out or to be visible” (see Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs 2:9) and understands that the headband is so called because of its prominent placement upon the forehead.  Finally, the Chizkuni (13th century, France) opines that the word tzitz  is descriptive for “a kind of adornment that sparkles and shines” and he derives the word from verb usages that suggest that meaning (see Yechezkel 1:7 and Tehillim 132:18). 


It is quite possible that all of these possibilities are themselves derivatives of a fundamental definition, for the noun “tzitz” can also mean “a blossom or first flowering”.  Recall that in the aftermath of Korach’s aborted rebellion, with the people of Israel questioning the authority of Aharon to be chief priest, God asked all of the tribal leaders to surrender their staffs.  These were duly placed by Moshe within the holy precinct of the Mishkan and on the next day he entered to retrieve them:


On the morrow, Moshe entered the Tent of the Testimony and behold Aharon’s staff, he of the House of Levi, had blossomed.  It brought forth a bud, produced a blossom (“vayatzetz tzitz”) and then made almonds…(BeMidbar 17:23).


If so, the basic definition of tzitz would be “that which bursts forth like a first flower” and this could then be related to a tassel or shock of hair (Ibn Ezra), a prominent protrusion (Rashbam) or a glint that catches the eye’s attention (Chizkuni).  In any case, the thrust of the matter is to suggest that the tzitz worn by the High Priest is not to be an understated adornment hidden from view but rather a public and prominent display piece, like a crown, that signifies from a distance the high office of its bearer.




Of course, unlike the crown of a king that loudly proclaims his exalted external status while saying nothing about his inner life, the classical commentaries rightly understood that the tzitz of the High Priest was as much about thoughts as about appearances.  The dedicatory “holy to God” engraved upon its surface not only was a reference to the exalted office of the High Priest as some sort of formal abstraction, but to the very personal deliberations that were being processed behind that headband of gold, in the mind of wearer who did God’s service.  Ibn Ezra elaborates by saying that


You must realize that the two temples near the forehead mark the location in the brain where the five senses come together, and there is to be found the seat of the imagination.  From there higher thoughts proceed.  Therefore the Torah indicates that it is through the agency of the tzitz that “expiation for the sacred offerings” is achieved, for perhaps the thoughts of those that sanctify the offerings may have been improper…(commentary to 28:37).


It should not surprise us, then, that in the world of the sacrificial service, some THOUGHTS can actually render the offering unfit!  The Mishna in Tractate Zevachim Chapters 1 and 2 details a number of scenarios in which the sacrifice is disqualified by the thoughts of the Kohen who performs the service, even while the external aspects of the ritual are in nowise altered.  While it is beyond the scope of this essay to go into details, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that THOUGHTS DO MATTER, and the more exalted the context the more those thoughts matter.  Just as a scribe who fails to explicitly have in mind the sanctification of God’s name when he writes that name in the Torah scroll has rendered the scroll unfit (see Rambam, Laws of Tefilln, Chapter 1:15), so too must the High Priest dedicate his exclusive attention – spiritual and intellectual – to God’s service.   




In effect, then, the four special garments of the Kohen Gadol together form a larger matrix of meaning, one that is reinforced by the tzitz provocatively perched above his forehead.  The robe of the High Priest, sky-blue in color and strung at the base with bells in the shape of pomegranates that quietly chime with each of his steps (Shemot 28:31-35), reminds him that he walks before the Lord always.  The epaulettes of his ephod, engraved with the names of the twelve tribes (Shemot 28:9-12), remind the High Priest that the burden of the people of Israel is upon his shoulders, for it is for their sake that he ministers before God.  The breastplate worn over his heart, encrusted with twelve precious stones engraved with the tribal names and containing within its folds the sacred names of God (Shemot 28:21, 29-30), reminds the Kohen Gadol that he must love his people and his God with ardor.  And the golden headband, worn upon the head above the eyes, signifies thought, consecrating the intellect to God's service.  From proverbial head to toe, then, the Kohen Gadol is clothed with potent symbols of his mission and concrete reminders of its gravity.  Every fiber of his being is thus dedicated to this mission for it is acts (robe and ephod), emotions (breastplate), and understanding (golden headband) that together make up the autonomous human being.


Shabbat Shalom