Parshat Tetzaveh

Torah Reading for Week of February 18-24, 2018

“Sartorial Splendor”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, ’11

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

“Thus are true Aarons drest” (“Aaron”— George Herbert)

Long before Shakespeare’s Polonius famously opined that “the apparel …proclaims the man,” Parshat Tetzaveh described the special garments that signal the status and duties of the Temple priesthood— the clothing to be worn by the kohanim during their service in the Temple sanctuary. This four-piece ensemble consists of the ketonet (full-length linen tunic), the michnasayim (linen breeches), the mitznefet (linen turban) and the avnet (long sash wound above the waist). These distinctive and distinguishing white linen garments carry deep symbolic meaning, operating as a synecdoche for Divine consecration. As the Mishnah makes clear, donning this clothing confers holiness: “When they [the kohanim] are wearing their (special) garments, their priesthood is upon them; if they are not wearing their (special) garments, their priesthood is not upon them” (Zevachim 17b). As the number four is foundational to Judaism and as Shemot 19:6 had previously established that the Israelites should be “a kingdom of priests,” it is not unexpected that these sacral garments, signifiers of elevation of status and holiness of purpose, become the paradigm for other profound moments of holy purpose, both for the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that when praying, a person should wear special clothes “similar to the way the priests wore priestly garments.” (Orach Chayim 98:4) and for the tachrichim used during Halbasha, the ceremonial dressing of the meit/ah that follows taharah.


Appropriately, since the number eight signifies completion, Tetzaveh specifies an additional four garments to be worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High/Great Priest. These splendid additions overlay the simplicity of the original four garments and proclaim the unique status and responsibility of the Kohen Gadol: the efodan apron-like garment made of blue-purple and red-dyed wool, linen and gold thread—the colors of royalty; the choshen, a breastplate containing twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; the me’il, a cloak of blue wool, with gold bells and decorative pomegranates on its hem and the tzitza golden plate worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription “Holy to G‑d.”  Specific reasons are given for these singular, ornate and labor-intensive garments: “you should make sacred clothes for Aaron your brother, for honor and for glory. And you should speak to all those who are wise of heart who are filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they should make Aaron’s clothes to sanctify him so he can serve me” (Shemot 28:2-3).


While Ibn Ezra suggest that Aaron’s clothing glorifies the status of the Kohen Gadol since no one else is dressed like him and Sforno considers that Aaron’s clothing, worn for sacred service, honors the Divine, the weightiness of the Kohen Gadol’s overlaid garments also suggest his task of sacred service to the people. The stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes that adorn the shoulder of his ephod and the stones representing the tribes of Israel that are inlaid into the choshen mishpat that rests over his heart are, like the mysterious urim and thummim that are used for discernment, visible reminders of the connection of the Kohen Gadol to the people. Like the tzitz that proclaims his sanctification across his forehead and the pomegranates and bells on the hem of his tunic that chime with each step that he takes, the Kohen Gadol is dressed, head to toe, in the beauty and glory of mindfulness of his functions.


If Tetzaveh ’s description of the elaborate garments of the Kohen Gadol has relevance for us today, millennia after the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of the magnificent garments that this parsha describes, the Mei haShiloah proposes ways in which we can connect to the function and purpose of the Kohen Gadol: when praying the Ahavah Rabbah there is a repetition of verbs—lehavin, ulehaskel, lishmoa, lilmod, ulelamed, lishmor, velaasot, ulekayem (to understand, to discern, to hear, to learn, to teach, to guard, to do, and to uphold) that refers to the eight elements of the Kohen Gadol’s clothing. The Mei haShiloah connects each of these words to the corresponding garments of the Kohen Gadol and points out that every one of us has the capacity to engage in sacred service.


May we be filled with the spirit of wisdom. May our work, too, honor G-d, our function as leaders and those we serve.