“It shall be always upon his forehead.”
My only prior knowledge of what it meant to be a Kohen was from family funerals when my Father, Brother and Uncle were left standing at the gates of the cemetery. They were not allowed onto the grounds to pray with the rest of us due to the status of our decedents who were High Priests a very long time ago.
It seemed like a great burden to be separated from the rest of us on such sad days. I now understand that the separation of my male relatives during funerals was to protect them from the impurity of death. It is the image of my male relatives standing at the gates of a New Jersey cemetery that has informed my reading of this Tractate so far.
We were provided with an image of the High Priests in Tractate Shekalim as an overly showy bunch in long white robes who walked through the city of Jerusalem on elaborate planks as they led the red heifer to the Mount of Olives, and then carried the sacrificial offering back to the Temple. I have gained an appreciation over the last few days of the burden the priests took on when they prepared for the atonement of the community.
We learned through the readings that appearances matter, including the elaborate robes and undergarments that the priests wore. The frontplate that the High Priest wore had magical powers. If impure blood was sprinkled on the altar of the Temple, the frontplate would transform it into an acceptable offering, regardless of whether the impurity was caused intentionally or unwittingly. Even if the blood, fat or flesh of the offering was contaminated intentionally, the powers of the frontplate would make it acceptable.
Rav Nahman parses the guidance by saying that the frontplate “effects acceptance” of an individual offering brought in a state of impurity, but not a communal one. He further qualifies, however, that it can be applied to communal offerings that “lack a fixed time.” Although the frontplate is magical, its powers are not all encompassing, and “apparently, the frontplate gains forgiveness only for the sin of impurity, which was exempted from its general prohibition in cases involving the public.”
There is a bit of a rumble in today’s Daf Yomi on whether the frontplate is effective if it is not situated on the forehead of the High Priest. Rabbi Shimon states that the “frontplate effects acceptance whether it is on the High Priest’s forehead or whether it is not on the High Priest’s forehead when the offering becomes impure.” Rabbi Yehuda objects and says that in fact the frontplate “does not effect acceptance” when “it is no longer on the forehead.” Rabbi Shimon supports his argument by pointing to the fact that the High Priest does not wear the frontplate on Yom Kippur, and “it still effects acceptance.”
Rabbi Yehuda quotes a passage in Exodus (28:38) to support his position that the frontplate must be worn and not hanging on a wall peg to be effective: “And it shall be on the forehead of Aaron and Aaron shall gain forgiveness for the sin committed in the sacred things.” The argument appears to be in favor of Rabbi Yehuda, but Rabbi Shimon focuses on the word “always.” He argues that “always” means that the frontplate metaphorically resides on the forehead of the High Priest, because there are times that he must remove it, such as when he goes to sleep. He interprets the word “always” to mean that “the frontplate always effects acceptance, whether or not it is on his forehead.”
Although Rabbi Shimon makes a good go of it, we are told that the term “always” teaches that “the High Priest must always be aware that the frontplate is on his head, and that he should not be distracted from it.” A comparison is made with the phylacteries that more ordinary people wear that require regular affirmations of the commitment to a religious life.
Even for secular reform Jews who do not wear phylacteries, the comparison of the frontplate with the black box that religious Jews adorn each day is a reminder that the magic that was inherent in the High Priest’s frontplate, which was able to transform impure offerings, resides within ordinary people. The magic resides within all of us if we have faith in our heart, and pure grit to weather the hard times.
There is magic in the everyday, if we are not too distracted to see it.