Tetzaveh: Priestly vestments for the chosen people

Each garment worn by Aaron atones for a specific sin and reflects a specific aspect of Israel's mission as a 'nation of priests'

In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare advised, through the mouth of Polonius, that one would do well to pay for good clothing, “for the apparel oft proclaims the man.” Through our clothing we express something of ourselves, and what is true of the private individual is all the more true of the representatives of the nation. This week’s parsha specifies eight garments to be worn by the High Priest: coat, robe, breeches, girdle, ephod, breastplate, headplate, mitre. What can be learned from these special garments? What do they say about the people the priest represents?

The priestly garments are introduced with the words, “And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, for honor and for splendor” (Ex. 28:2). Nachmanides explains that, on the simplest level, the garments serve to distinguish the High Priest with dignity and splendor; when it comes to the spiritual plain, however, he explains that the garments act to glorify God with dignity and strengthen Israel in splendor. The spiritual nature of the garments is discussed in the Talmud (Zevahim 88b), which teaches that each garment atones for a specific sin:

Garment Sin
coat (k’tonet) bloodshed (shfichut damim)
breeches (michnasaim) lewdness (giluy ariot)
mitre (mitznefet) arrogance, pride (gasai haruach=ga’avah)
girdle (avnait) impure thoughts (hirurei ha’lev)
breastplate (hoshen) false judgments (din me’uvat)
ephod idolatry (avodah zarah)
robe (meil) slander (lashon hara)
headplate (tzitz) obstinacy, brazenness (aizut panim)

This list of sins is striking in its apparent lack of rhyme or reason. Why are specifically these sins singled out for special treatment? To understand what lies beneath this strange conglomeration of sins, we begin by noting that each garment has an associated counterpart. The coat, which clothed the entire body, can be correlated with the robe, which also clothed the entire body. The breeches, which clothed the lower body, find as their complement the girdle, which was used to separate the lower body from the heart. The ephod is intrinsically connected to the breastplate, as stated, “The breastplate may never be separated from the ephod” (Ex. 39:21). Lastly, the headplate can be related to the mitre, as both are worn on the head.

And just as there is a tight pairing between garments, so too do the respective sins that they atone for pair off:

  • The coat and the robe atone for murder and slander. The Talmud (Arachin 15b), in explaining the verse, “Their tongue is like a sharpened arrow” (Jer. 9:7), teaches that “the tongue kills as an arrow.” Slander is thus likened, conceptually, to murder.
  • The breeches and the girdle atone for illicit relations and impure thoughts. These sins are intimately related, for here, clearly, thought invites action.
  • The ephod and the breastplate atone for idol worship and false judgment. False judgment is that which goes against God’s law — a result of not recognizing the true Lawgiver. As such, both idol worship and false judgment are rooted in the rejection of God. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) equates the two, stating, “One who appoints an unworthy judge is like one who plants an asheira [tree of idol worship].”
  • The mitre and the headplate atone for pride and obstinacy. These two sins are related in that obstinacy is an expression of arrogant pride.

Having brought order to the list, we can begin to appreciate the need to atone for specifically these sins. Murder, lewdness and idol worship are the three cardinal sins of Judaism; and, as explained, the sins of slander, impure thoughts, and false judgment are their conceptual counterparts. Pride and obstinacy, however, remain an enigma.

The presence of two character traits on a list of major sins is simply stupefying! Or is it? In numerous places in the Torah both Moses and God refer to the people of Israel as “stiff-necked” – an appellation connoting obstinacy born of arrogant pride (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Seforno on this term). Inherently, then, these two traits inform the character of the Jewish nation and, as such, it is perfectly understandable why they expend a full quarter of the power of the priestly garments.

This understanding, however, raises a new question: If these character traits are so deplorable as to require atonement alongside cardinal sins, why did God choose a people so disposed to be His “nation of priests”? The answer is in their application; that is, though these traits are to be spurned as applied to the self, they are vital to the mission of being a “nation of priests.”

On obstinacy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Exodus, p.542) writes:

Aizut — inflexibility, stubbornness — is an essential characteristic for the highest degree of moral perfection, yet it can lead equally easily to moral debasement. We find Aizut L’Hashem and Aizut L’Azazel as is represented by the two goats on Yom Kippur. Armed with the noblest, most resistant of metals, the forehead of the High Priest has to bear the truth “Kodesh L’Hashem” as a protest against every misconception or lie that would disturb the purity of the Sanctuary. This gives to stubbornness, obstinacy, inflexibility — the firmness of character which keeps itself in opposition to lies, delusions, and false opinions — the consecration of the noblest purpose.

As such, explains Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato (Path of the Just, p.73), obstinacy is essential if one is to carry out the will of God in the face of ridicule. As members of God’s priestly nation, Jews must have the wherewithal to stand strong against the inevitable antagonism they will face in bringing God’s word to a less-than-accepting world. Indeed, the Talmud (Beitzah 25b) states that it was specifically because of their obstinacy that God chose the Jewish people.

As for pride — King Solomon expressed Jewish revulsion for this trait most succinctly: “The proud of heart are the abomination of God” (Proverbs 16:5). Nevertheless, even this most negative of traits has the capacity to be used for the positive. Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz (Berachot 9:5) explains that pride is a trait that one should employ “to inflame oneself to perform God’s commandments.”  Furthermore, remarks the Talmud (Sotah 5a), while pride is to be shunned, it is necessary, in some small measure, so that one’s words be accepted (Rashi, s.v., ehad). Thus, as a nation with the mission to perform God’s will and to teach it to the world, a modicum of pride is indispensable.

In conclusion, the priestly garments indeed give expression to the essence of the people that the High Priest represents. The garments, as noted, form a dichotomy between body and head. In body, the nation is similar to all nations; in head, however, the nation of Israel is unique. In body, all nations must repudiate actions that undermine the moral fiber of their societies. The three cardinal sins, as well as their conceptual counterparts, top the list, for these are acts – symbolized by the garments being worn on the body of the priest – that cannot be countenanced.  In head, however, the nation’s character traits – symbolized by the garments worn on the head of the priest – are not to be repudiated; rather they are to be sublimated in the service of God. By obstinately persevering in God’s ways and proudly teaching them to the world we fulfill our mission as a nation of priests. It is thus that we merit the High Priest serving in his holy garments “for honor and for splendor.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at