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Recently, a very erudite scholar was speaking about the BIGDEI CAHUNA (Priestly garments). It wasn’t long before my eyes started glazing over. I apologize, but I find these sartorial sections of the Torah very boring. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that there are Torah studies I find fascinating and those I don’t. But it’s Torah and, therefore infinitely important, so I’ll persevere and endeavor to share an interesting idea about one particular article of the Cohen Gadol’s beautiful clothing. 

 The regular Cohanim wear 4 simple linen garments, however, the Cohen Gadol wears four more splendid articles of clothing: MEIL (tunic of blue), CHOSHEN (breast plate), EPHOD (colorful apron), and the TZITZ (golden headband). I will focus on a detail of the EPHOD: It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends (Shmot 28:7). These ‘shoulder pieces’ or epaulettes, as we’re accustomed to see on soldiers, are further described in verse 9: Then take two AVNEI SHOHAM and engrave upon them the names of the children of Yisrael. 

Okay, we have shoulder pieces of AVNEI SHOHAM with the names of Ya’akov’s children or the Tribes. However, there are two thorny issues, which quickly appear. Number one, we have no idea what these stones of SHOHAM are. This term first appears in the description of the beauty and wealth of the Garden of Eden (Breishit 2:12). The mineral is again mentioned in last week’s Torah reading with the list of valuables to be collected for the fabrication of the portable temple or Mishkan. 

There is no shortage of attempts to identify this material. The most commonly mentioned stone is onyx, a black semi-precious stone. Others suggest the blue Lapis Lazuli stone, famous in the Eilat area. Rav Aryeh Kaplan identifies two candidates, sardonyx (a quartz relative) and beryl (a gem stone family which includes emerald and aquamarine). 

So, because the identity of our gem remains a mystery, many rabbis attempt to find hints at ideas in the name. Some juggle the three letters in the name, SHIN, HEY, MEM, to connect these stones to other ideas and items. These letters can be rearranged to spell MOSHE, our guide in the search for God’s Torah. Others flip the letters to spell HASHEM (the Name), our common reference to God.  More esoteric is that these letters are the first letters in the words SHIR HaMa’alot, the Songs of Ascent which were sung in the Beit HaMikdash, and will be again, please God soon. 

Then there’s the other issue. Why do we have the tribal names on these epaulettes? The Cohen Gadol is already wearing their names on the CHOSHEN, as part of the URIM U’TUMIM, which was used to query God about national issues which arose during the period of the first Beit HaMikdash. The only written material on these holy garments is repeated. Why? 

Rav Ya’akov Medan, of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, suggests that the names of the Tribes play two very different roles. The names on the epaulettes split into two lists representing the SHNEI LUCHOT HaBRIT, the two Tablets of the Law. The twelve names embedded into the CHOSHEN, on the other hand, represent the twelve stones of BRIT (covenant) set up at major events in Jewish history, like the crossing of the Jordan and the convocation at Shechem. In other words, the Tribes define the Torah and the Covenant. 

The Kli Yakar makes a suggestion which, I believe, may be the key to a marvelous context for the repetition and to the central role of the Cohen Gadol. He explains that the two shoulder stones are for atonement for the breaking of the SHNEI LUCHOT HaBRIT.  At that critical juncture in Jewish destiny there was a clear break, not only of the Tablets but of the unity amongst Moshe, the nation of Twelve Tribes and God. These whole stones represent the reconciliation of all the parties. 

On the other hand, I believe very strongly that the Kli Yakar is onto something very important. The two presentations of the names of the Tribes represent the two critical roles of the Cohanim in our midst. The first job is to be spiritual guides for the nation, since they took over the role of the BECHORIM (first born) at the sin of the Golden Calf. This function includes blessing the nation. When we read the BRACHA they recite before BIRCHAT COHANIM, we notice that the Cohen must commit to bless the nation of Twelve Tribes B’AHAVA, in love. That love is represented by the CHOSHEN, which is placed squarely over the COHEN GADOL’s heart.   

The Cohen is also the vehicle for our TESHUVA before God. Many of the Temple offerings were brought as a KAPPARA (atonement) for the individual’s or the nation’s sins. That’s represented by the names of the Tribes on the shoulders of the COHEN HaGADOL M’ECHAV. When the nation, inevitably, sins the Cohen puts us on his back and shoulders to carry us again into the presence of God and plead for our forgiveness. 

The garments of the Cohen help us to visualize the special role of this Tribe in the fabric of the nation. The double inclusion of the names of the Tribes in these vestments reminds us of the crucial reality that to perform his critical task, the Cohen must have every Jew in his heart and borne upon his shoulders. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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