23.2. The Elevation of the Priests and Their Garments (28:1-5)

 (1) You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.

(2) Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.

(3) Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.

(4) These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me;

(5) they, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen.

(1) You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons: Literally, “Bring close to you your brother Aaron and his sons.” Moses must keep Aaron close to him. That is, even in the Temple service, which is the priests’ domain, Moses leads, and Aaron, in the role of High Priest, is only his assistant.

Your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites: They put the priesthood into practice on behalf of the entire nation.

Here God addresses Moses (“You shall bring forward”), but not by name; only Aaron’s name is mentioned. Moreover, Moses’ name is not mentioned throughout this entire weekly portion Tetzaveh, even when the context would seem to require it. It is thus obvious that the Torah’s intention is to highlight Aaron’s function while remaining silent about Moses.

And conversely, in the previous portion, Terumah, Aaron is not mentioned even when the context clearly requires that. For example, in discussing the table and the bread of display, the Torah only says, quite impersonally, “And on the table you shall set the bread of display, to be before Me always” (25:30), although it was in fact Aaron’s (i.e., the priests’) job each week to replace those breads on the table with fresh loaves.

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron: Moses must draw Aaron close to him, because Aaron is seen as complementing Moses, and not vice versa. Everything begins with revelation; atonement for sin is only an adjunct to that. If Aaron leads, that is, if sins and atonement become the dominant religious theme and capture all the attention, this will inevitably lead to the creation of the golden calf, which is in fact exactly what does happen when Aaron keeps himself at a distance from Moses.

If the essence of serving God is cleansing ourselves from sin, this would mean that sin is something wonderful, because the sin that we are correcting is the vehicle that brings us closer to God. And conversely, serving God would be utterly pointless without the sin that must be cleansed.

That would further imply that this religious approach actually wants a person to sin, and is more interested in a person because he is a sinner. Any such point of view represents God in a truly horrendous form – as having created mankind as sinners, precisely so that there would be someone to whom He could grant atonement. As bizarre as all this sounds, it is exactly what Judaism would look like if Aaron’s approach were allowed to prevail over Moses’ approach.

Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron: The four sons of Aaron who now receive the priesthood are enumerated. Moreover, the priesthood they are receiving will likewise pass to their descendants after them who are here not yet born. Note, however, that Aaron’s grandsons who do already exist are not mentioned here. Thus, those grandsons did not receive the priesthood automatically. This turned out to be a problem for Phinehas, Elazar’s son, in particular (see Bible Dynamics on Num. 25:11).

(2) Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment: The clothes of the priests are designed to impress the people and influence them emotionally. We could say that in some sense, the priests are not personalities in their own right; they are in the category of “Temple vessels”: There is the menorah, there is the table, there is the altar, and there are priests – all having the exact same weight and significance.

While performing the Temple service the priests forfeit their individuality, for there they are only a connecting link between man and God. Just as the table and the menorah and the altar meet well-defined specifications, and cannot otherwise fulfill their designated functions, so too the priests must be dressed in special garments, without which they cannot fulfill their function in the Temple. And just as the Temple utensils must be consecrated to make them fit for Temple service, so too must the priests be consecrated.

We note, however, that there are other situations where the priests, even while performing functions prescribed by the Torah, retain their individuality – for example, when the priests are consulted for rendering legal decisions (Deut. 17:9). The priests appear in such situations without their priestly raiment, which they wear in the Temple exclusively.

(3) Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest: The literal translation is: “And you shall speak unto all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom.” Only individuals who are already wise at heart can be filled with wisdom. Divine light comes to those who are already advancing towards it.

(4) These are the vestments they are to make … for priestly service to Me: The garments of the priests are so important that their description occupies very considerable space in the Torah, notwithstanding that Moses himself needs no sacred garments for entering the Temple.

It should also be noted that the clothes of kings, prophets, and judges are not mentioned in the Torah at all. Only for Aaron and his descendants do clothes assume such an elevated level of importance. Because Aaron’s Temple exists for the cleansing of sins, the priestly garments play a special role in that process. As we shall presently explain, the priestly garments correspond to those aspects of human nature that are the very source of those sins – the reasons that those sins are committed, and must be corrected.

The priests’ clothing is meant to create an impression in the minds of visitors to the Temple – to influence people, not God. The people who come to the Temple and see these clothes focus their attention on deliverance from their sins. The High Priest has to make a particularly strong impression, since he effects atonement for the sins of prominent, high-ranking members of society (see, e.g., Lev. 4:1-26). All this is why the priests’ garments had to be so splendid in their appearance.

A breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash: An ordinary priest wore four garments, and the High Priest four more in addition to those. The four basic priestly garments were designed to counter man’s raw passions and sinful inclinations, to purify him “from head to toe”:

  1. Breeches (michnasayim) – “correction of the legs,” sexual passions;
  2. Sash (avnet) – “correction of the abdomen,” of emotions, “ruminations of the heart”;
  3. Tunic (kutonet) – “correction of the breast,” of actions: refraining from violence;
  4. Headdress (mitznefet, turban) – “correction of the head”: refraining from crudity toward others.

In addition to those four basic garments worn by ordinary priests, the additional four worn by the High Priest were aimed at correcting the passions of a refined personalities:

  1. Ephod (an apron-like accessory) – correction of idolatrous inclinations;
  2. Breastpiece (choshen) – correction of erroneous orders and erroneous court decisions;
  3. Robe (me’il) – correction of the inclination to speak leshon hara (“evil speech”);
  4. Diadem (tzitz) – correction of arrogance.

Thus, two levels of effort are needed – the basic level and the more advanced level – for correcting the human soul, as executed by the ordinary priests and the High Priest, respectively.

The Torah’s description of the priestly garments that follows begins with the special garments of the High Priest, and only then moves on to the garments common to all priests. This is because the kohen gadol (High Priest) represents the very essence of the Temple service, while the status of the kohen hedyot (ordinary priest) can be seen as derivative from the status of the kohen gadol.

The number of priestly robes, eight, symbolizes man’s superiority over nature. The number seven represents nature, and it is nature that leads to sin. To overcome sin, one must rise above nature.

(5) They, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen: The materials needed for making the priests’ garments are the same as the materials use to make the covers of the Tabernacle (26:1), because the priests are seen as “utensils” of the Temple.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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