Parashat Tetzaveh / A Matter of Appearance

This is a highly political and apologetic tale about the right of Jews to exist and to lead their religious way of life under Greek rule.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

A question of halakha (traditional religious law) is raised in the Babylonian Talmud: Can a high priest leave the Temple in Jerusalem wearing his priestly attire, and use it for a purpose other than its usual ritual function? By way of an answer, the Talmud presents a story: The Samaritans in Palestine wanted to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and asked Alexander the Great to conquer it. Simeon the Righteous, the high priest at the time, learned of their plot.

“What did he do?” asks the Talmud. “He donned his priestly garments, wrapped himself in them and gathered the leaders of Israel. Together they marched all night with torches in their hands. When dawn came, Alexander the Great asked the Samaritans: ‘Who are these people?’ They replied: ‘They are Jews who want to rebel against you.’ When he reached Antipatris and the sun had begun to shine, he came face to face with Simeon the Righteous. Upon seeing him, Alexander descended from his chariot and bowed before him. The members of Alexander’s entourage said to him: ‘You are such a powerful king, and yet you bow before this Jew?’

“He replied: ‘The image of this person attains victory before me in my wars.’ Alexander turned to Simeon and the leaders with him, and asked: ‘Why have you come here?’ They answered: ‘Are these idol worshipers misleading you, so you will destroy a house of worship in which prayers are recited for you and your kingdom?’ Said Alexander: ‘To whom are you referring?’ Their reply: ‘The Samaritans who stand here before you.’ And Alexander said to Simeon and Israel’s leaders: ‘They are now in your hands’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, p. 69a).

Simeon emerges from the Temple wearing his official priestly attire on his way to meeting Alexander. Thus, it can be deduced that a high priest is permitted to wear his special garments outside the Temple. Or could it be that this concession is granted only in emergency situations? The Talmud does not provide a decisive answer.

In any event, the above story exceeds the narrow limitations of a legal question. It is a highly political and apologetic tale about the right of Jews to exist and to lead their religious way of life under Greek rule. Its purpose is to prove that this right is indeed justified, and to recount the story of the Jews’ victory over the Samaritans in Palestine.

But a closer look at the story’s turning point shows that there is another central issue here. The encounter between Alexander and Simeon occurs when the sun begins to shine – that’s the moment the two leaders actually see each other. When Alexander sees the high priest, he recognizes him and bows. In response to the question of the bewildered members of his own entourage, Alexander states that he identifies Simeon, that the priest’s image is indeed divine, and that it “attains victory before me.”

Prior to the encounter, the reader – and perhaps Simeon himself – believes that its purpose is for the high priest to see Alexander and to beg him to revoke the evil decree. However, once the journey is undertaken and the meeting takes place, it is clear that the purpose of the story is in fact to honor the high priest. Furthermore, it emerges that the focus of this story is not the political issue of the Temple’s existence and Jewish life under Greek rule, rather it is an internal religious matter, concerning the significance of the priest’s physical appearance.

Simeon prepares for the journey to see Alexander after he “donned his priestly garments, wrapped himself in them.” These are the clothes God tells Moses to prepare, according to this week’s reading, Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10). Alexander’s surprising reaction reveals that these are not merely official garments, but rather that the high priest who wears them has a divine image that transcends religious, ethnic and national limits.

In the version of this tale provided by historian Josephus Flavius in “The Antiquities of the Jews” (Chapter 8), a monologue explains Alexander’s cryptic assertion that “the image of this person attains victory before me in my wars.”
In Josephus’ expanded account of the very same story, Alexander explains: “I saw the image of this person in a dream when I was in Dion in Macedon. At the time, when my thoughts were focused on how I would become master of Asia, he urged me forward, cautioning me not to delay, but instead to muster courage and set off to fulfill my dream. He would lead my armies and would hand over to me the Persian Empire. Since that time I have never seen any other person in such attire.”

After fulfilling God’s mission, and indeed with the help of God, who in essence reveals himself to Alexander in the high priest’s garments – the Macedonian monarch emerges victorious in his battles. It is not Simeon’s visage but his attire that causes Alexander to recognize the divine image he saw in his dream.

God commands the high priest to wear eight different articles of what are called “golden garments”: ephod, breastplate, robe, tunic, turban, belt, crown and pants. By wearing such attire, the high priest sets himself apart so as to perform his exclusive ritual duties in the Temple. However, it can be understood from Alexander’s dream that the image of a person attired in such garments is not actually one of a specific high priest who serves the Almighty in his Temple, but rather a general typological one who represents God. The connection between the image Alexander’s conjures up and that of the high priest is revealed only by pure chance.

The tale in the Talmud does have a certain apologetic aspect. It is a story whose function is to prove the justification of an ethos – but not the justice of the Jewish side versus that of the Samaritans, or the gentiles, rather that of God’s universal image, as revealed in Alexander’s dreams and in the image of the high priest serving his Creator in Jerusalem.

Perhaps in line with Alexander’s account, one must come up with a fitting interpretation of the solution to the legal question raised by the Talmud. Is the high priest permitted to emerge from the Temple in his priestly garments, and use them for something other than their ritual function? Although Simeon leaves the Temple so clothed, before meeting Alexander, what is more important is the fact that it is essentially God himself who emerges here, wearing the attire of the high priest before encountering Alexander, in order to allow a victory “in the house of his wars.” So who are we to forbid such a thing?

"The High Priest," illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible.