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Parashat Tezaveh

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Tezaveh 5761, Shushan Purim/ March 10, 2001

Hyoscyamus aureus and its relationship to the headdress of the High Priest

Prof. Yehuda Feliks
Land of Israel Studies; Botanics

The most detailed description of a plant in our ancient literature is found in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews. Just as Josephus described with great precision the architecture of such places as Masada, so too, he was precise in his botanical description of Hyoscyamus aureus (Heb. shikhron zahuv) in his attempt to describe the headdress worn by the High Priest.

Although the headdress (heb. mitznefet) is listed among the eight items comprising the vestments of the High Priest - "These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash" (Ex. 28:4) - its description is sparse, essentially not telling us at all how it was made. Later on the headdress is mentioned again in connection with the description of how the frontlet (heb. tzitz) was to be made: "You shall make a frontlet of pure gold ... Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress" (Ex. 28:36-37).

What sort of headdress is a mitznefet?

The word is generally thought to be derived from the root tz-n-f, referring to a piece of fabric that is wrapped around the head like a turban or tarboosh. This hypothesis raises several difficulties, including the location of the frontlet, which commentators have tried to resolve.

Earliest of all was Josephus, who described the covering on the head of the High Priest both in The Jewish War and in Antiquities of the Jews. His description in The Jewish War is briefer:[1] "On his head the high priest wore a linen mitre wreathed with blue and encircled by a crown of gold, which bore in relief the sacred letters - four vowels" (from the Penguin edition, trans. G. A. Williamson, p. 395). In Antiquities he described the headdress in far greater detail, adding to the headdress a gold finial resembling the petals of Hyoscyamus aureus. This is in addition to the gold frontlet mentioned in Scripture. He describes the garment as follows:[2]

For head-dress the high-priest had first a cap made in the same fashion as that of all the priests; but over this was stitched a second of blue embroidery, which was encircled by a crown of gold wrought in three tiers, and sprouting above this was a golden calyx recalling the plant which with us is called saccharon, [this is Hebrew shikhron] but which Greek experts in the cutting of simples term henbane.[3] In case there are any who, having seen the plant, never learnt its name and are ignorant of its nature, or, though knowing the name, would not recognize it if they saw it, for the benefit of such I proceed to describe it.

It is a plant which often grows to a height of above three spans, with a root resembling a turnip...and leaves like those of the rocket. Now out of its branches it puts forth a calyx closely adhering to the twig...this calyx is as big as a joint of the little finger and resembles a bowl in contour. ...gradually converging with a graceful re-entrant curve, it broadens out again gently near the rim, where it is indented like the navel of a pomegranate...while the flower which it produces may be thought to comparable to the broad petals of a poppy. It was, then, on the model of this plant that was wrought the crown extending from the nape of the neck to the two temples; the forehead, however, was not covered by the ephielis (for so we may call the calyx), but had a plate of gold, bearing graven in sacred characters the name of God. Such is the apparel of the high-priest.[On p. 399 of Thackeray's edition there is a sketch of the plant].

The main difficulty in Josephus' description is that he includes a gold finial (nezer) which is not mentioned at all in the Torah, but is mentioned in Ben Sira: "A finial of gold, a headdress, and a frontlet" (45.12, Kahana edition). It is possible that Josephus based his writing on Ben Sira, but in view of his detailed description of the flower that this finial resembled, it appears that Josephus, who himself was a priest and had been in the Temple, had indeed seen the headdress and finial at close hand. If this is indeed so, then the finial on the headdress must have been fashioned like an inverted Hyoscyamus flower (pointed end up). Two of its pointy lobes must have rested on the High Priest's forehead, with the frontlet tied between them.

[1] Book 5, ch. 5.7.
[2] Book 3, ch. 4.172-179. Our translation is taken from H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus, in eight volumes, Jewish Antiquities, Books I-IV, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. IV, London, 1930, pp. 399-403. On the flower itself, see my book, Olam ha-Tzomeah ha-Mikrai, Tel Aviv, 1957, p. 198.
[3] A plant whose scientific name is Hyoscyamus aureus. The Loeb edition identifies this plant with H. Nigrum, known in English as Henbane. Several varieties of Hyoscyamus grow in Israel, but Hyoscyamus niger grows only in Europe.
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