Rabbi Bernard Fox




“And you should make sacred garments for Ahron and your brother for honor and glory.”  (Shemot 28:2)

Our parasha discusses the garments of the Kohen Gadol.  In the above passage, Moshe is command to instruct Bnai Yisrael in the creation of these garments.  The pasuk says that these garments are designed for honor and glory.  However, the pasuk is vague.  The garments glorify whom or what?


The commentaries offer a number of responses to this question.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that these beautiful and impressive garments glorify Ahron or the Kohen Gadol who wears them.[1]  Nachmanides acknowledges this possible interpretation of the pasuk.  He also suggests an alternative explanation.  He proposes that the garments honor and glorify Hashem.[2]  Apparently, Nachmanides reasons that the Kohen Gadol serves Hashem.  Performing his duties in these wondrous vestments glorifies the service and the Almighty.


Sforno suggests that the garments serve both purposes.  They honor Hashem and glorify the Kohen Gadol.[3]


There is another dispute among the Sages regarding the requirement that Kohanim wear special vestments.  Maimonides, in his Sefer HaMitzvot, writes that our passage communicates a positive command.  The Kohen and the Kohen Gadol must wear their assigned vestments when serving in the sanctuary.[4]  Halachot Gedolot disagrees with Maimonides.  He does not derive a commandment from our passage.  He maintains that there is no separate command that directs the Kohen Gadol or the other Kohanim to wear these garments.


Of course, this creates a problem.  The Kohen Gadol and the Kohanim are not permitted to perform service in the Temple without these garments.  How can Halachot Gedolot contend that there is no specific command directing the Priests to wear these garments, and also acknowledge that the Kohanim are not permitted to serve without their vestments?


Nachmanides responds to this question.  He explains that the Halachot Gedolot certainly acknowledges that a Kohen cannot serve without the proper vestments.  However, according to Halachot Gedolot, the vestments are a requirement for the proper performance of the service.  They are a prerequisite for the performance of the mitzvah of service in the Temple.  As a prerequisite for another command – the performance of the service, the requirement to wear the vestments does not merit to be classified as an independent commandment.[5]  Let us consider another example from halacha that illustrates Nachmanides’ argument.  All males are required to wear Tefillin.  Wearing Tefillin is a mitzvah.  Now, in order to wear Tefillin one first must acquire the Tefillin.  Yet, clearly the procurement of Tefillin is not a separate mitzvah.  It is merely a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the commandment of wearing Tefillin.  Nachmanides argues that similarly the garments worn by the Kohen are a prerequisite for the proper performance of the Temple service.  As a prerequisite, the wearing of these garments does not qualify as a separate mitzvah.


How would Maimonides respond to Nachmanides’ position?  Nachmanides is seemingly offering a compelling argument for not counting the wearing of the vestments as a separate mitzvah.  Maimonides agrees that the procurement of Tefillin is not a separate mitzvah.  Why does he consider the requirement for the Kohen to wear his special attire a separate mitzvah?


In order to answer this question, we must consider the order in which Maimonides places the various commandments concerning the Kohanim.  Maimonides states that the requirement of the Kohanim to wear their garments is the thirty-third positive command.  According to Maimonides’ enumeration of the commandments, the thirty-second positive commandment is to honor the Kohanim – the descendants of Ahron.  It seems from the close association of these two commandments that they are related.  What is this relationship?


Apparently, Maimonides maintains that the garments are designed to honor and glorify the Kohanim.  These vestments distinguish the Kohanim and defer special status upon them.  It is true that a Kohen cannot serve in the Temple without his vestments.  But according to Maimonides, this is not because the vestments are a prerequisite for the service.  The garments complete the status of the Kohen.  The vestments qualify him for service.  In other words, without the garments, the Kohen is not the person permitted to perform the service.


Let us now focus on identifying the pivotal issue of contention between Maimonides and Nachmanides.  According to Nachmanides, the garments are designed to glorify the service in the Temple.  They are a prerequisite for service.  Therefore, wearing this special attire is not a separate mitzvah.  In contrast, Maimonides maintains that the garments glorify and honor the Kohanim.  They confer full status on the Kohen.  As a result, the wearing of the garments is a separate mitzvah within Taryag --- the 613 commandments.





“And it shall be upon Ahron when he serves. And its sound will be heard when he comes to the sanctuary before Hashem and when he goes out he shall not die.”  (Shemot 28:35)

Our pasuk discusses the jacket that is worn by the Kohen Gadol.  This jacket is of unusual design.  A series of gold bells hang from the jacket.  What was the purpose of these bells? 


Most of the commentaries agree that our pasuk is addressing this question.  However, they differ on the answer the passage is providing.  Nachmanides comments that the bells announce the Kohen Gadol’s entry and exit from the sanctuary.  Why is this notice required?  Nachmanides explains that it is inappropriate to enter the presence of the King without announcing oneself.  It is also disrespectful to leave the King’s presence without first providing notice.  The bells provide the necessary announcement.[6]


Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra takes a very different approach to explaining our pasuk.  He suggests that the proper translation of the pasuk is that “his – the Kohen Gadol’s -- voice will be heard when he comes to the sanctuary before Hashem.”  According to Ibn Ezra, the bells, as well as the other garments, are designed to distinguish the Kohen Gadol from the other Kohanim.  Through wearing his special vestments, the Kohen Gadol distinguishes himself as the leader of the Kohanim and the people.  The passage assures that the sincere prayers of this leader will be heard.[7]


Gershonides offers a unique approach to explaining the bells of the jacket and the meaning of our passage.  He explains that the Kohen Gadol’s garments are not merely designed for visual beauty.  These vestments also communicate important ideas.  For example, the Choshen – the breastplate – worn by the Kohen Gadol includes a series of stones.  Engraved on these stones are the names of the Shevatim – the Tribes.  The Choshen conveys to the Kohen Gadol that he represents the entire nation.  These various messages motivate the Kohen Gadol to concentrate exclusively on the spiritual.  However, these various messages can only be communicated to the Kohen Gadol when he is aware of the special vestment.  The bells draw the Kohen Gadol’s attention to his garments.  This, in turn, allows the vestments to convey their messages to him.  Based on this interpretation of the bells, Gershonides explains our passage.  The Kohen Gadol hears the ringing of his own vestments.  This encourages him to notice his garments and their special messages.  His focus on these messages raises him to an elevated spiritual plane.  As a result of his spiritual focus, the Almighty hears his voice and prayers.[8]


It is noteworthy that Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the bells is consistent with his overall perspective on the vestments of the Kohen Gadol.  Ibn Ezra maintains that the garments of the Kohanim are designed to bestow honor and glory upon them.  He interprets the bells as one of the elements of the vestments that distinguish the Kohen Gadol.


Nachmanides contends that the vestments are designed to glorify Hashem.  His understanding of the bells is consistent with this perspective.  He explains that the bells are required in order to show proper reverence when entering before Hashem and leaving His presence.


Gershonides’ understanding of the bells is somewhat unique.  He contends that the vestments are designed to communicate to the Kohen Gadol.  The bells facilitate this communication.  They focus the Kohen Gadol’s attention of the garments.  The bells are not a fundamental element of the vestments.  They do not communicate any idea.  However, they enhance the performance of the other vestments. 





“And they shall be on Ahron and his sons when they enter the Ohel Moed or when they approach the altar to serve in sanctity.  And they shall not be guilty of sin and die.  It is an eternal law for him and his descendants after him”.  (Shemot 28:43)

Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Ztl explained that there is a crucial difference between the utensils of the Mishcan and the garments of the Kohen Gadol.  The design of the garments was strictly governed by the law.  If any garment was lost or damaged, it was replaced by an exact duplicate.  The description of the garments was binding for all generations.


In contrast, the design of the utensils was not permanently binding in all of its details.  The design described in the Chumash was intended for the Mishcan.  These utensils were also essential components of the Bait HaMikdash.  However, the utensils in the Holy Temple were not required to meet the description of the Chumash in every detail.  Deviation was permitted.


Why is the law of the garments different from the law of the utensils?  The Mizbeyach Menorah, Shulchan and other utensils were part of the Mishcan.  They were as essential as the tent itself.  The Mishcan was only one model of the institution of sanctuary.  These utensils were designed for this model.  Other models could have utensils designed in a different manner.  However, the garments were not a part of this institution of sanctuary. They were an expression of the sanctity of the Kohen Gadol.  This sanctity did not change with the various forms of sanctuary. Therefore, the garments were not altered.  The Kohen Gadol of the Mishcan had the same sanctify as the individual serving in Shlomo’s Temple.  The garments of both High Priests were therefore identical.

[1]  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 28:2.

[2]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:2.

[3]   Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:2.

[4]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 33.

[5]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 33.

[6]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:35.

[7]   Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Abbreviated Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 28:35.

[8]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 382.