Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tezaveh 5765/ February 19, 2005

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Sacral Vestments

Dr. Yirmiyahu Malhi

Department of Talmud 


Parashat Tezaveh has several features unparalleled in any of the other weekly readings of the Torah.  For example, it is well-known that this is the only weekly reading where the name of Moses is not mentioned.  Also, the words used to introduce G-d’s commands to Moses – “You shall further instruct” (Ex. 27:20), “You shall bring forward” (28:1), “Next you shall instruct” (28:3; as per NJPS translation, although the Hebrew uses verb d-b-r, “to speak”) – are not found in any other reading.

The Priestly Garments

The first part of this week’s reading describes the garments to be worn by the priests, to which all of chapter 28 is devoted.  In the first three verses of the chapter instructions are given in general terms:  “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests ….  Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.  Next you shall instruct all who are skillful … to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.”

Next follows the names of the garments, the materials from which they are to be made, and the manner of their construction.  The garments of the High Priest consisted of eight items, and these are they:  a breastpiece, ephod, robe, tunic, headdress, sash, breeches, and a gold frontlet.  The High Priest officiated in these garments all the days of the year, save for the Day of Atonement, on which he wore white garments for the tasks performed within the Tabernacle.  The ordinary priests had four garments:  a tunic, breeches, turban and sash. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides explains that wearing these garments was a necessary condition for officiating as priest:

A High Priest who officiated wearing fewer than these eight garments, or an ordinary priest who officiated in fewer than these four garments was said to be lacking in his attire, his service was considered unacceptable and he himself was liable to death from heaven as an outsider who performed the ritual service, as it is said:  “And gird both … with sashes.  And so they shall have priesthood” (Ex. 29:9).  While their vestments were upon them, their priesthood was upon them; without their vestments, their priesthood was not upon them, rather they were as outsiders, as it is said:  “and any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death” (Num. 3:10). [1]

Purpose and Function

Bible scholars, halakhic authorities and Jewish philosophers exhibit differences of approach and widely varying views regarding the purpose and function of the sacral vestments. The plain sense of the scriptural text that begins this week’s reading, and especially  verse 2 (“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment”), indicates that the main purpose of the priest’s garments was to impart magnificence. In line with the adage that “Clothes make the man”, the priestly garments elevated and adorned the priests who wore them.  This interpretation fits in well with the commandment regarding the construction of the sanctuary itself, which was to be a magnificent structure, its principal furnishings (the ark, table, lampstand and inner altar) being made of pure gold.  All this was in order to enshrine the idea that the G-d of Israel is King of the entire universe, and His house is the palace of the king of the world.  Accordingly, also His servants who officiate in His house must be dressed in magnificent regal clothes.   This approach was developed and elaborated by Nahmanides in his commentary on this week’s reading (Ex. 28:2):

That he be dignified and magnificent, in garments that are dignified and magnificent…   These vestments are regal garments, the like of which would be worn by kings in the time of the Torah, as we have found with respect to the tunic, … and likewise with the robe, … the headdress is known even today as being a garment for kings and lofty officials, … the ephod and the breastpiece are regal wear, … and the frontlet is a kingly crown, … and even today garments of royal  blue (tekhelet) no one would dare wear save for pagan kings.

Thus the role of these garments is to give dignity and glory to those who serve G-d in His temple, just as the edifice itself bespeaks lofty magnificence.

“To Ordain Them”

A somewhat different emphasis regarding the essence and function of the garments can be derived from another verse in this week’s reading:   “Put these on your brother Aaron and on his sons as well; anoint them, and ordain them and consecrate them to serve Me as priests” (Ex. 28:41).  Note especially the expression, “ordain them” (lit. “and fill their hands”), as interpreted by Rashi (loc. sit.):

Every use of the expression “ordain” is a matter of inaugurating, when a person enters an office to serve in it from that day henceforth; in the vernacular, when a person is appointed to an office the ruler places in his hands a leather glove called a gant, [2] by which he holds him to the thing [and this transmission is called rbyshtir in the vernacular (i.e. Old French)], [3] which means ordaining.

According to this view the priestly garments are “the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary” (Ex. 35:19), the uniforms that people who hold official positions must wear even in our day.  What makes them special is not necessarily the magnificence and glory that they impart, but the power and authority given the person who wears them.   According to this view we can also understand the halakhic ruling cited above by Maimonides that a priest who officiates without wearing the priestly vestments is considered as an outsider who performs the sacred service.

Whether we favor the explanation of clothes that dignify the wearer or that they were uniforms, in both approaches the eight garments to be worn by the high priest and the four garments of the ordinary priest should be viewed as a single entity. Without going into the details of each and every garment, they impart pomp and ceremony to those who serve G-d or confer on them power and authority.  But another approach distinguishes between priestly vestments that are intended to impart honor and glory, and those that are intended as the sign of office.  

The source of the ruling Maimonides recorded above is Tractate Sanhedrin 83b, which cites Rabbi Abahu, quoting Rabbi Johanan, who interpreted the verse, “and gird both Aaron and his sons with sashes.  And so they shall have priesthood as their right for all time” (Ex. 29:9), thus:  “When their garments are upon them, the office of priesthood is upon them; when their garments are not upon them, the office of priesthood is not upon them, and they are as outsiders.   And R. Johanan added:   an outsider who officiates – [is liable to] death.” Thus R. Johanan deduced that a priest missing the garments is liable to the death penalty.  Tosefot s.v. ain bigdeihen (loc. sit.) presents the following question asked by R. Jacob of Orleans: [4]

R. Jacob of Orleans asked, But the death penalty is explicity mandated in Parashat Tezaveh? (meaning why should we learn from R. Johanan, who compares the priest to an outsider based on Ex. 29:9, when we have a specific verse which mandates the death penalty for a priest without his robes—28:43?)   He explained that death in 28:43 is written with respect to whether the kohen is wearing pants or not, as follows from the plain sense of the previous verse, 42, but R. Johanan learned from “and gird them” that when any of their garments are not upon them, the office of priesthood is not upon them; hence they must also wear the rest of their garments.

Shame or Honor

R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk [5] tried to explain why we actually need two separate rulings, one for the priest who officiates without pants and another for one who does the service without any of the other garments:

Regarding anything which by being present confers honor, if it is absent that does not detract; but regarding that which in its absence leads to denigration, when it is present it does not make for perfection and honor.  Now these [other] garments, when they are worn they confer honor; but wearing breeches is not for honor, therefore their absence brings about shame and therefore it is written that [lack of breeches] entails death.

Thus, in his opinion, one must distinguish between a priest who officiated without wearing pants, for whom the death penalty is written in the Torah, and a priest who officiated without the other priestly vestments, which are intended to confer honor, who is considered officiating as an outsider. Therefore we require two separate rulings.

Garments as Atonement

Tractate Zevahim presents the idea that the sacral vestments atone for sin, as do the sacrifices: [6]

Rabbi Einini bar Sasson said:  Why was the passage on sacrifices placed in conjunction with the passage on sacral vestments?  To indicate that just as the sacrifices atone, so too the sacral vestments atone.   The tunic atones for bloodshed, the breeches for illicit sexual relations, the headdress for haughtiness, the sash for one’s inner thoughts, the breastpiece for judgments, the ephod for idolatry, the robe [Heb. me’il, a play on the word ma’al or deceit] for slander, and the frontlet for brazenness.

Here we have a list of transgressions, some of them weighty and some of them light, committed either in deed, word, or thought, for which the sacral vestments atone.   This view does not treat the sacral vestments as a whole, rather takes them item by item, each garment having its own atoning function. No doubt the reader has noted that some connection can be drawn between the part of the body that the garment covers and the sin for which it atones.

It should be noted regarding this list that the frontlet is said to atone for brazenness, but another baraitha in Tractate Menahot (25b) says that the frontlet makes good “for blood, flesh and fat that has become contaminated, be it unwittingly or deliberately, by coercion or free will, individually or publicly.”  In other words, it atones for impurity of the sanctuary and its consecrated things.   This is derived from verse 38 of the chapter at hand, where it is written:  “It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before the Lord.”  Rashi comments on this that it is “to atone for the fat that was offered in impurity.”   Accordingly, the atonement of the frontlet pertained specifically to the realm of impurity connected with the sanctuary and its consecrated offerings. Thus the garments atone for moral and ritual transgressions. [7]

The various views presented here regarding the priestly vestments provide an example of the wealth of ideas, halakhic and philosophical, in the world of the Sages.   May it be G-d’s will that the Temple be rebuilt speedily, in our day, and that we have the fortune to behold the priests and their sacral vestments in all their glory.

[1] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash 10.4.

[2] According to M. Kattan, Otzar La’azi Rashi (second edition), p. 131.

[3] The words in square brackets do not appear in the first printed edition of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, Reggio de Calabria, 1475.

[4] Rabbi Jacob of Orleans was one of Rabbenu Tam’s outstanding disciples.  He lived in France and England in the second half of the 12th century and died a martyr’s death in London on the coronation day of Richard the Lion-hearted (1189). He is R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, who wrote a commentary on the Torah.

[5] Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, Meshekh Hokhmah 28.40, s.v. ve-hineh.

[6] Zevahim 88b, and the parallel texts in Arakhin 16a and Leviticus Rabbah 10.6.

[7] See the article by Dr. Meir Gruzman, “Al Mah Mekhaper ha-Tzitz,” Mi-Perot ha-Ilan, pp. 265-266.   Gruzman showed that the haughtiness mentioned in Tractate Zevahim pertains to the same theme as the sin of defiling the Temple, which signifies contempt and disrespect for the Temple insofar as its laws of purity are not observed, and this is a sort of haughtiness.