Not to Take the Choshen Off the Ephod or Tear the Collar of the Me’il

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tetzaveh

Last time, I expressed some surprise about the Torah’s choice to devote one of its 613 mitzvot to the prohibition on removing the poles from the Aron. This week again, we have a mitzvah I could have imagined folding into others. Prohibition 87 in the Mitzvot Lo Ta’aseh of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot bans removing the choshen, the stone-laden breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, from the ephod, the belted garment that had two shoulder straps to connect to the choshen.

(Rashi on the Torah thinks the ephod was a skirt-like garment, where Sefer Ha-Chinukh 90 thought it included the kohen’s back as well, with the choshen on the Kohen Gadol’s chest was opposite the ephod on his back.)

Rambam’s next prohibition disallows tearing the collar of the me’il, the special coat of the Kohen Gadol, requires that it remain well-sewn.

Yet all the rules for the making and wearing of the four garments of regular kohanim—as well as the four more of the Kohen Gadol, including the choshen, ephod, and me’il just discussed—are covered by one mitzvah, Obligation 33. One obligation for all the kohanim’s garments, two prohibitions for details of the Kohen Gadol’s.

Rambam: Prohibition and Lashes

Rambam defines the issur to be removing the choshen from the ephod, although his source-verse (Shemot 28;28) says ve-lo yizach ha-choshen, a phrase the English translations on Sefaria rendered shall not become loose, slip, or detached, will rather—as Rambam himself says—be closely attached. I could have imagined tradition reading the first part of the verse as a separate mitzvah obligation, to attach the choshen well enough that it never slip or become detached.

Rambam was following Makkot 22a, where the Gemara was listing Torah prohibitions for which lashes were a possibility, and includes ours. That also explains why Rambam phrased it actively, removing the choshen, because punishments like lashes generally require an action. The Torah clearly did not want it to be allowed to slip off the ephod, but for full violation and possible punishment, we need an action.

Rambam here says specifically that the Gemara makes clear there would be lashes for anyone who did remove the choshen [with witnesses, warning, a court ruling, etc., as always before courts give Biblical punishments]. I point it out because last time, Minchat Chinukh asked why Rambam didn’t say removing the poles of the Aron would incur lashes, and I pointed out he had just quoted the passage in Makkot that named the prohibition as one including lashes. He did it here, too, and yet also adds the lashes. So Minchat Chinukh’s question was more in place than I gave it credit.

Sefer Ha-Chinukh’s Focus on the Dignity of the Service

Sefer Ha-Chinukh 90 adds important details. First, he notes the earlier part of the verse required tying the rings of the breastplate to the rings of the ephod with a petil tekhelet, a blue-dyed woolen string. To his view, the fixing was to give it permanence and hadar, beauty or honor, because to have the breastplate flapping around would be undignified. Highlighting his focus on dignity, he limits the lashes to one who separates the choshen from the ephod during a time of service, when the Kohen Gadol is performing some priestly function.

This is one more example of his overall view that Hashem wanted the Beit Ha-Mikdash, its attendants, and its services to be at the height of perfection, for our benefit and merit (because it will more likely have the desired impact on us, bring us to better devotion to serving Hashem correctly). When the priests are in their garments, we want those garments as close to perfect as possible, not lacking any element of beauty, and a well-fastened choshen was part of that.

At some tension with his presentation, he says men and women are equally included in the prohibition. Except it seems very hard for a woman to ever remove it during a time of service, since women did not enter the parts of the Temple where the service was performed.

The Details Point to the Reason, But the Details Aren’t Clear

Minchat Chinukh questions his views on a couple of grounds. First, Rambam in the ninth chapter of Laws of the Vessels of the Temple threw in the words derekh kilkul, in a destructive way, an idea that did not appear in Makkot. Minchat Chinukh thinks it was Rambam’s own idea, his view of the logic of the mitzvah, perhaps because there are times when removing the choshen would be needed for the good of the garments (such as to fix something). Arukh Ha-Shulchan He-Atid, Laws of the Vessels of the Temple 30;21 accepts this limitation of the prohibition.

Second, Makkot 22 imagines the possibility of a Kohen Gadol violating this prohibition while in a cemetery, certainly not a time when he would have been performing service. Minchat Chinukh therefore thinks this is a blanket prohibition, so much so that while worn-out garments should have been allowed to be separated to be buried, he is unwilling to rule definitively that the ephod and chosen could have been separated even then. For a Biblical prohibition, he wants a source before he rules, even if it seems logical.

For Rambam, the prohibition seems to be about not mistreating the garments, for Sefer Ha-Chinukh about the impressiveness of the service, and for Minchat Chinukh, not defined and therefore all technicalities observed unless otherwise stated.

[As I pointed out last time, too, we are faced with a prohibition whose details do not quite tell us the point of the mitzvah. Were the prohibition there to let us know these garments are linked in some conceptual or symbolic way, such that the Torah wanted them made separately, to count as distinct, yet always experienced together, it might be about their nature rather than their beauty or dignity, and then the prohibition might apply always, including to non-destructive separation, and to when worn ones are being buried, as Minchat Chinukh had thought possible.]

The Collar of the Me’il

The next mitzvah in both Rambam and Sefer Ha-Chinukh is more quickly discussed, the prohibition against tearing the Kohen Gadol’s coat, for Sefer Ha-Chinukh again a violation of the dignity of the man, it being a genai, derogatory, for him to wear a torn garment [note the leap from tearing to wearing; the tearing is prohibited regardless, yet Sefer Ha-Chinukh’s reason does not account for that].

He also adds a new element, the wearer is to experience the garment with awe and fear, wear it as a matter of honor, be afraid to let it tear or get damaged. Still, the prohibition does include women, who never would wear this me’il, so it can’t only be about that. Nor is it only tearing; cutting with a scissors would run afoul of the prohibition as well.

Minchat Chinukh points out Rambam again has the idea of derekh hashchatah, doing it destructively, and that Yoma 72 as well as Rambam expand this prohibition to all of the priests’ garments, where Sefer Ha-Chinukh focuses only on the me’ilMishneh Le-Melekh quoted the view of the Korban Chagigah, other garments had to be torn destructively to violate the Torah, where the me’il’s collar could not be torn in all cases. Mishneh Le-Melekh complains about the lack of source, leading Minchat Chinukh to assume he thought the derekh hashchatah limitation applied to the collar, too.

Minchat Chinukh, too and again, wonders about the lack of a source. He originally rejects the Kessef Mishneh’s comparing it to destroying the mizbe’ah, the altar, because a verse outlawed that, but later comes back to suggest the idea explains how we would expand our “collar of the me’il” prohibition to include other priestly garments.

He’s left with nothing but the assumption Rambam had some baraita we do not, and also cannot understand why tearing a priestly garment in order to fix it would not be allowed. Still, he also floats the idea that tearing the collar of the me’il destructively would incur two sets of lashes, were we to accept Korban Chagigah’s idea that the destructive element is unnecessary for the me’il. It would get those lashes, then also lashes for destructively tearing any priestly garment.

Arukh Ha-Shulchan He-Atid, Laws of the Vessels of the Temple, 30;10 adopts the derekh hashchatah standard, for any priestly garment, such that tearing it to fix it would not incur lashes. Although he recognizes it is a question, he concludes the garments could be mended if torn (rather than always using new ones), and then torn further to allow for proper mending.

Two prohibitions seeking to ensure the safety of the garments of the priesthood, either as a matter of dignity or just not mistreating them, depending on who we read.

About Gidon Rothstein

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