Some Roles of the Clothing of the Kohanim

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I once visited the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) in the Old City of Jerusalem. They were selling packets labeled stones of the Hoshen, twelve stones in each, arranged like the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. I was excited to have the actual stones of the Hoshen, see how it really looked.

Luckily, before I blew the two dollars they wanted, I noticed the packets weren’t the same, had different sets of stones. The man behind the counter said, “yeah, those are for show, no one really knows which stones were on the Hoshen.”

The Roles of Ephod and Hoshen, Shoham and Yoshfeh

I thought of the story because Meshech Hochmah spends some interesting time on two of them. In 28;3, the verse refers to heshev afudato, the band of the ephod around the Kohen Gadol’s waist (authorities debate much about the ephod; I think we assume it was a sort of skirt around his back, with two straps extending up and over his shoulders, linking onto the breastplate, the Hoshen Mishpat).

The word heshev literally means skillfully woven or decorated (AlHaTorah and Sefaria, respectively; turns out they use different translations), but the word reminds us of hashov, thought. Meshech Hochmah had heard someone note the felicity of the phrasing, because Zevahim 88b says the ephod atoned for sins of avodah zarah, a sin where thought can constitute as full a transgression as action.

The next verse says to take two shoham stones (translations have onyx or lapis lazuli, very different from each other), write the names of the Jewish people on them and place them on the shoulders of the ephod. To Meshech Hochmah, it says this kind of stone has some connection to atonement for avodah zarah; a shoham stone was also in the fourth row of the Hoshen, middle stone.

Zevahim there says the Hoshen, the breastplate, atones for dinin, failures in civil law. Meshech Hochmah thinks the last stone, yoshfeh, symbolized expunging cheating, lying, and trickery from society, all causes of bad court decisions.

Two Keys of Salvation

Those were building blocks, now we get the meat of his idea. Baba Batra 75a has a debate about the meaning of kadkod, a precious stone Yeshayahu 34;12 predicts will be prominent in the high places of Yerushalayim. AlHaTorah and Sefaria think kadkod is rubies, but the Gemara identified shoham or yoshfeh as the candidates.

Meshech Hochmah relates the dispute to how to read the passage in Yeshayahu, where part of the next verse has two predictions, each of which he relates to a different stone. It says, “all your sons will be learned of the Lord,” to him because they will have cleansed themselves of any avodah zarah, any commitments other than to Gd, or “and great will be the peace of your children,” because there will be no deceit, trickery, or other mishandling of financial dealings.

In the Gemara, Gd responds, let it be both. Meshech Hochmah presents his idea, then urges readers to consider it carefully. I suspect his contemporaries were less deeply sensitive to the financial side as a religious matter, and he was telling them Gd saw that, too, as essential to the stones of the rebuilt Jerusalem.

I think we today have both sorts, those who focus on serving only Gd without having yet absorbed the importance of honesty, and also those who go the other way, are scrupulous in financial dealings but aren’t quite completely committed to Gd as the One Who runs the world (we have small groups at either extreme, too, who do neither, sadly, or, happily, already do both).

Yosef and Binyamin, Fidelity to Gd and Complete Honesty

He then infers information about the stones from their placement. Shoham is the eleventh stone because it symbolized Yosef, whom Amos 5;15 made emblematic of the people as a whole. For the Jewish people as a whole, Meshech Hochmah is sure the most prominent factor is rejection of all idolatry, making shoham the right stone for Yosef.

The twelfth stone is in Binyamin’s slot, because he alone did not deceive his father about Yosef’s sale (Meshech Hochmah accepts the Midrashic tradition Yosef did not tell because the brothers had issued a herem, a ban, on anyone who revealed the secret; dishonesty by omission counts as dishonesty). Binyamin is the avatar of forthrightness, rewarded with the stone of symbolic atonement for mishandling business dealings.

For Meshech Hochmah, the atonements of the ephod and Hoshen, and the stones that served there, tell us about key pieces of proper Jewish conduct, and the two brothers who symbolized them.

Honorable and Minimal Clothing

The Torah divides the list of the four garments of the kohanim. 28;40 speaks of the kutanot, tunics or coats, belts, and hats, with the next verse telling Moshe to clothe them in those garments, sanctify them to serve as Gd’s priests.

Only verse 42 gets around to requiring michnasayim, pants, with the verse telling us they are to cover the priests’ nakedness, verse 43 setting up pain of death for those who do not wear them when entering the Kodesh or to serve.

R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen first distinguishes, in general terms, necessities from value-added items. The latter improve an experience but we would still have the basic experience were they not there (he says there would be nopehitut, lack, without them). The necessary parts of an experience certainly create a lack by their absence but do not magnify with their presence. (For examples that jumped into my mind, having the bride and groom at the wedding doesn’t make the weddingbetter, it’s that there couldn’t be one without them. A fancy wedding cake might enhance the fun, but the wedding easily could happen without).

Ri of Orleans in Tosafot had noted the Torah assigns a punishment for entering the Mishkan without pants, but the lack of the other garments only became a problem if the kohen performed some service. Meshech Hochmah says the pants are a necessity of presentability, since the Torah says they are there to cover his nakedness, and therefore just entering the Mishkan without them is a capital sin. The rest of the clothing are like the wedding cake, they make the kohen into a more honored personage, so just walking into the Mishkan without them is not a sin. To perform a priestly duty requires the fully honorable kohen, however, meaning any such service done without them all is a problem.

[The analogy of wedding cake doesn’t quite hold up, obviously, because these “enhancers” are obligatory for performing some act of service, but his point is that they are only needed when reaching for a higher level, not the basic propriety of entering the Temple grounds clothed.]

His next comment turns in the other direction, finding a priestly function that can be done without these special garments.

Casual Korban Eating

Chapter 29 describes the ceremony to induct Aharon and his sons into the priesthood. After laying out a series of sacrifices to be offered, 29;33 says the new kohanim will eat parts of the sacrifice. The pronouns are  vague, they shall eat who were atoned for with them, leading the translation on to assume asher kupar bahem means the sacrifices, the kohanim will eat the sacrifices through which atonement came.

Meshech Hochmah (and Sefaria) thought the verse meant those who achieved atonement through these sacrifices—Aharon and his sons—will eat them, leading R. Meir Simhah to two points: first, this “atonement” invested the kohanim with the perpetual right to serve in the Mikdash, earning them parts of all edible sacrifices. Pesahim 54b finds spiritual significance in their eating, links the atonement of the person who brought the sacrifice to the eating done by the kohanim. They eat, s/he finds atonement.

Aharon and his sons are being told here to eat sacrifices they are not yet certified to offer (Moshe did it, at Gd’s command). Meshech Hochmah sees this as the model for why ba’alei mumin, kohanim disqualified from the sacrificial service by their physical differences, may eat hazeh ve-shok, the breast and thigh given to the kohanim from any sacrifice whose parts were eaten.

Their eating matters, creates the atonement (as we saw), yet can be done by a kohen who could not serve. More, Meshech Hochmah points out wearing the special clothing defines a man as a kohen; without the garments, a kohen is like any other Jew, a zar, a stranger to the service. When ba’alei mumin eat sacrificial meat, then, as they help the owner of the sacrifice achieve his/her goal, they do not need special clothing, because it is not a kehunah function despite its being limited to male descendants of Aharon.

Obviously, there is a deep point here about the range of roles Aharon and his descendants play, for Meshech Hochmah subdivided between those requiring the clothes and those not. But I was most struck by the idea of a guy with a unibrow or one eye bigger than the other (or any of the other mumin) eating korbanot meat, with kapparah at stake, possibly in jeans and a T-shirt. Casual Fridays, indeed.

Clothing makes the kohen, very clearly, although in various ways, to various degrees, for various purposes. Each worth knowing to understand what was going on with the functionaries of the Beit Ha-Mikdash.

About Gidon Rothstein

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