Torah Portion of the Week: A Cut Above

Parashat Tetzaveh: This week’s portion, a formative chapter in the history of Israelite priesthood, is concerned with the essence of the priesthood and the role of holy people.

'The High Priest in his Golden Garments,' from 'The History of Costume,' Braun & Schneider Publishers (c. 1861-80).
Wikimedia Commons

What is holiness? It can be defined as the quality of something that is special, exalted and distinct from other things. In the Bible, as my teacher Baruch Schwartz notes in his book “The Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code” (in Hebrew), holy things are “distinct, kept in a separate place and destined to fulfill a certain function.” In most cases, they have a special connection with God: They are important to God – being linked to, or belonging to, him.

In last week’s portion, Terumah, God commands Moses to build him a holy place. In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), God instructs Moses to appoint holy individuals to serve him there – namely, Aaron and his sons, who will be priests in the tabernacle. This week’s portion, a formative chapter in the history of Israelite priesthood, is concerned with the essence of the priesthood and the role of holy people.

Before conveying to Moses in detail the process for appointing the priests, God describes the clothing they must wear: “And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, for splendor and for beauty … And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office” (Exodus 28:2-3). Though the garments are considered holy, it is not because priests wear them. On the contrary – the priests become holy only on condition that they wear them.

Biblical scholar Menahem Haran, whose article on rituals in the sanctuary is the backdrop to this column, points out that the priestly attire reflects the hierarchical distinctions that characterize the sanctuary. There is a spatial distinction between the courtyard and the sanctuary, and within the sanctuary, between the outer “holy place” and the “holy of holies” within. There is also a class distinction between the priests and the rest of Israel, and, within the priesthood, between the high priest – who, when the sanctuary is established, is Aaron – and the ordinary priests, his sons.

As reflected in their attire, the priests are distinct from the rest of the nation and the high priest is distinct from the ordinary priests. The high priest is responsible for activities within the sanctuary: for providing illumination, presenting the unleavened bread and disseminating the pleasant fragrance – by means, respectively, of the menorah, table and incense altar. When engaged in these activities, he wears garments that are unique to him: the ephod (vest), breastplate, plate of pure gold and robe.

These garments do not simply cover the body nor are they a ceremonial uniform: They are ritual vehicles serving concrete purposes, and by which, in wearing them, the priest influences the surroundings. When ostensibly attending just to God’s needs, the high priest, through his special attire, also represents the nation before God.

On the ephod’s shoulder-pieces are two precious stones on which the names of the Twelve Tribes’ names are engraved: “And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth” (Exod. 28:9-10). On the breastplate, which is bound to the ephod, are 12 different precious stones also bearing Israel’s names.

The ephod and breastplate constitute a single garment, whose function is, as it were, to remind God of Israel’s presence: “… and that the breastplate be not loosed from the ephod. And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (Exod. 28:28-29). When entering the holy place – to light the candles, burn the incense and present the bread – Aaron is not alone. No one is accompanying him, but he bears the entire nation upon his heart.

A “plate of pure gold” (Exod. 28:36) resting on Aaron’s forehead bears the words “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36), apparently an official phrase used when objects are sanctified as gifts to God. The following describes the use and function of this plate: “And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear the iniquity committed in the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow, even in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord” (Exod. 28:38). Thus the plate also serves Israel, enabling the high priest to remove their ritualistic sins, thereby ensuring that God will accept their sacrificial offerings.

Just as the holiness connotes distinctiveness and even prestige, it is also connected with danger. The sanctified space is highly sensitive; any incorrect move within it could spell disaster. At the height of the sanctuary’s inaugural ceremony, described later, in Parashat Shemini, such a catastrophe occurs: Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, deviate from protocol, presenting a “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1), and are consumed by divine fire. Already in Parashat Tetzaveh, however, danger hovers over the priests’ heads and attempts are made to protect their lives.

Along the edges of Aaron’s robe are golden bells that sound as he walks about inside the sanctuary: “And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound thereof shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord, and when he cometh out, that he die not” (Exod. 28:35). The Torah does not specify the bells’ function, but one can deduce that they protect the high priest from death. Later in the text, the priests are commanded to strictly observe the rules of modesty and to wear cloth pants beneath their outer garments; failure to do so will be punished by death: “And they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they go in unto the tent of meeting, or when they come near unto the altar to minister in the holy place; that they bear not iniquity, and die” (Exod. 28:43). In addition to reminding God of Israel’s presence, the priestly attire protects its wearers from God.

Thus, at the heart of the holy place, entry to which is restricted to a holy individual wearing holy garments, there is profound concern for the general public. The separate priestly elite, segregated in the sanctuary, serves God on Israel’s behalf and represents Israel before God. To fulfill their function, the priests endanger their lives daily.

According to Parashat Tetzaveh, not only the priests are aware of their role; God regards the sacred place and the holy people serving there as fulfilling a vital role. We can now more clearly understand the command, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). The sanctuary is the meeting-place, a site of mediation, between God and Israel. When standing before God with the Children of Israel’s names upon his heart and the words, “Holy to the Lord” upon his forehead – the high priest reminds his Creator, as it were, of Israel’s presence and deepens God’s presence in Israel’s midst.