There are few instruction books as detailed as the Torah’s description of the Tabernacle and its vessels. But the construction of the house of G-d cannot compare to the clothes of Aaron, the high priest. Each of the eight garments is enumerated — the wool, its color, its weaving.
Some of the garments were common to every man — breeches, tunic, belt, cap. Others were unique to the high priest and played a critical role in the union of G-d and His people. To communicate with G-d required special clothes.
The Ephod resembled a gold apron and was produced by Moses. He twisted the fine linen and inserted the Shoham precious stones along the shoulder straps.
Moses also made the Choshen. He twisted the fine linen to produce the breastplate of the high priest until it became the “work of a master weaver.”
The Choshen also contained G-d’s sacred name. It was written on a parchment inserted in the breastplate. With this parchment, known as the Urim Vetumim, the high priest could receive G-d’s answers to the life-and-death questions presented by the leaders of Israel: Should they go to war? If so, would they be victorious? Each answer would emerge from the illuminated engraved letters, which only the high priest could decipher.
Moses had help in the project. In the words of this week’s Torah portion, “They hammered out the sheets of gold and cut threads [from them] to work [the gold] into the blue wool, into the purple wool, into the crimson wool, and into the fine linen, the work of a master weaver.” They also made the shoulder straps, decorative band and Shoham stones. The stones were inserted in the four rows of the Choshen, attached by golden settings and rings. The cords used to weave the Choshen consisted of a single strand of gold spun with six others, including linen, scarlet and other colors.
“All the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting was completed; the children of Israel had done [it]; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so they had done.”
The Torah’s refusal to identify those who made Aaron’s garments meant that this was a collective effort. Rabbi Chaim Bin Atar, known as the Or Hachayim, says the garments of the high priest were made by Bezalel, a 13-year-old imbued with the divine spirit. He was helped by a number of anonymous people identified only as those with an “intelligent heart.”
But Bezalel and his cohorts represented all of the Jews. The Jews had contributed to every aspect of the Tabernacle, so the entire community was credited with the production. The Choshen itself symbolized the Jewish people. It contained 12 precious stones, which corresponded to the tribes of Israel. The plate also contained the names of the patriarchs, including all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Indeed, the construction of the house of G-d marked the unity of the Jewish people. One Jew contributed the gold; the other the blue wool; another the crimson; a fourth person the scarlet. Altogether, the effort marked the greatest commandment in the Torah: “You shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The garments of the high priest also highlighted the responsibility that one Jew has for another. After all, only the priests were allowed in the Tabernacle; they were authorized to perform the work — whether burning the sacrifices or the incense. But the great majority that supported this were regarded as part of the service. Nobody was left out.
In this unity, the Tabernacle eradicated the sin of the Golden Calf. If that sin encompassed only portions of Israel, the construction of the house of G-d included everybody. Each Jew performed to the best of his ability, and anything deficient was covered by his fellow.
The same applied to studying the instructions of the Tabernacle as well as the rest of the Torah. Some understood better than others. But in their sincerity, the Jews were infused with the divine spirit that ensured the completion of the project.
Even Moses didn’t understand some of G-d’s instructions. In the end, G-d showed Moses an image of the Menorah, an elaborate vessel that included receptacles and ridges. Moses was corrected by Bezalel when the former ordered the vessels to be manufactured before the Tabernacle. Bezalel gently reminded his teacher that when people build, the first thing is the structure, then the furniture.
But the holiness of G-d’s house could not replace man. After the destruction of the First Temple, the breastplate was silent. It no longer provided answers to the questions of the king or leadership. The Choshen was also meant to atone for the injustice by the court system, but corruption was so rampant that this was no longer possible. The priestly garments made no difference when there were no honest men left to wear them.
With the Jewish people cut off from G-d, the Second Temple period was marked by the occupation of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires. The prophets were gone. The kings of the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods took their frustration out on the only ones who could provide guidance — the sages. As soon as Herod completed his coup, he killed all of them. Only his brother-in-law escaped.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple some 1,950 years ago, there is nothing left of the divine service. The vessels as well as the garments of the high priests were carted off by the Romans and believed stored deep under the Vatican in Rome.
The divine service has been replaced by prayer. The only requirement is that Jews speak to G-d through their hearts. The Talmud says that this ensures that their prayers would be blessed.
The Tabernacle was regarded as holier than either the first or second temples. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, the 15th Century scholar and physician, says the only structure that will surpass the Tabernacle will be the Third Temple, after the arrival of the Messiah. This time, there will not be an option of turning away from G-d. He will protect the Jewish people from any danger — whether physical or spiritual.
“And I will be for it [the Third Temple] a surrounding wall of fire,” the Sforno quotes G-d’s promise in Zechariah, “and for its honor will I be inside.”