Time to Get Dressed

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The parshiyos dealing with the commands for and fabrication of the Mishkan and priestly garments (bigdei kehuna) are not ones that are known for their high drama and spectacular events. In fact, verse after verse resembles an instruction manual describing, in explicit detail, the exact dimensions of every item that was required for these institutions. The Torah SheBeal Peh, as expected, takes this to the next level, parsing the minutiae for even more meticulous information. Though the content of these parshiyos may appear extraneous, particularly in its exhaustive detail, the premise when studying the Torah is that every part of it, due to its source as from God, contains within it deep and important ideas. A methodology must be employed to help bridge the gap between what seems to be obtuse and the chachma contained within. An example of this can be found in the Talmud, which helps enlighten us as to how mining these specifics can offer an incredible bounty of knowledge.

The Talmud (Yoma 5b) introduces a debate that, at first glance, seems to be of little import. As a backdrop, God commands Moshe (Shemos 27:2) to manufacture special clothing for the kohanim. There was one set of clothing that was worn by every kohen (including the kohen gadol), and an additional set worn exclusively by the kohen gadol over his other garments. The Talmud focuses on the clothing worn by all the kohanim, and explains that not only was Moshe commanded in the manufacture of these outfits, but he also was required to dress the five kohanim (Aharon and his four sons) prior to the usage of the Mishkan. The question the Talmud takes up has to do with the order of Moshe’s dressing of the kohanim upon receiving their priestly garments. Initially, a debate is cited between the sons of R’ Chiya and R’ Yochanan as to who was dressed first. According to the sons of R’ Chiya, Aharon was dressed in the four “universal” garments first, and then his sons. According to the other opinion, it was all done at the same time. Abaye qualifies this debate, explaining that the only discrepancy between the above opinions involves the avnet, the sash worn by the kohanim. Everyone agrees that Aharon preceded his sons in donning the collective garments; the question, then, is how the avnet fits into the order. Nothing of a practical nature changes according to the first opinion – Aharon was dressed in all four garments first, followed by his sons. It is the second opinion that the Talmud elaborates upon. To paraphrase, and with the help of Rashi, the second opinion maintains that the avnet for Aharon was comprised of different materials (it was actually kilayim) than the avent worn by the other kohanim. Therefore, the order would be Aharon is dressed with the first three garments, then  his sons with the first three, back to Aharon for his avnet, and then to his sons with their avnetim. 

There are numerous questions one can raise reading this piece from the Talmud. The most important one is what exactly is the basis for this argument? Why does it make any difference who went first? Furthermore, it is clear Aharon, as kohen gadol, had separate garments set up just for him. Why the need to specifically mention a different avnet?

Let’s first introduce a basic insight into the importance of the bigdei kehuna. The Chinuch (99) writes that it is imperative that the kohen, in his role as mechaper for the nation, be entirely focused on the avodah taking place before God. The bigdei kehuna were created to assist the kohen in this task. His entire body was covered with these garments, each one reflecting a fundamental idea concerning God. Therefore, these clothes served as a constant reminder of his role, keeping him focused on the task at hand. One clear implication from the Chinuch is how the kohen needed this constant reinforcement through the begadim while performing the avodah. Clearly, this role was a dangerous one, easily distorted and lending itself to wavering thoughts and emotions. These bigdei kehuna served the pivotal role of keeping the kohen on the straight and narrow throughout his avodah. 

In this week’s parsha, we are not only told of the different garments to be manufactured for the kohanim ; we also see, for the first time, the division between Aharon and his sons, between the kohen gadol and the other kohanim. The kohanim occupied an exclusive position amidst the nation, dedicated to the avodah and teachers to the nation. The kohen gadol had an even more prestigious role, expressed both through the unique type of avodah he engaged in as well as the kavod the nation was obligated to express towards him. In general, this difference in roles was expressed through the garments worn by each. The extra garments donned by the kohen gadol demonstrated, based on the reasoning of the Chinuch, the even greater need for his focus on the avodah. It also demonstrated the danger he faced in his role – he needed the constant, vivid reminder of his place before God. 

This helps lay the groundwork for understanding the nature of the debate regarding the order of donning the priestly garments. The premise that nobody questions in this debate is that there is a distinction between the kohen gadol and the other kohanim. The issue they are grappling with is what the nature of this differentiation was. According to the first opinion, the position of the kohen gadol is qualitatively distinct from the other kohanim. He is a different halachic category of kohen, so to speak.  When it came time to dress the kohanim, Aharon had to be completed first to demonstrate this qualitative difference and the kavod that was afforded him as a result of his position. The second opinion agrees with the general concept of the kohen gadol as distinct from the other kohanim. However, according to this opinion, the kohen gadol is not a qualitatively distinct category of kohen – instead, he is considered the most important of all the kohanim. He is essentially no different from the other kohanim; however, within the category of kohen, he is on the top rung. This concept is reflected in the different avnet worn by the kohen gadol. The purpose of the altered avnet is to distinguish him within the body of kohanim. The avnet was not a new garment; rather, it was a modified garment, with different materials used to demonstrate his status amongst the kohanim. Whether the kohen gadol was a qualitatively distinct halachic category of kohen or had the greater status amidst the other kohanim., what is clear is that his distinction is revealed to us in the seemingly innocuous and mundane activity of dressing. 

This idea helps bring to light the importance of methodology in analyzing the Torah and its myriad of details. To the average observer, the verses are a manual, where the specifics are important merely for the construction and nothing else. The reality, though, is that there are importance concepts lying beneath the surface. The Torah’s depiction of this episode, like all episodes whether they be riveting and dramatic or ordinary and routine, discloses to us the fundamental ideas that are crucial in understanding chachmas Hashem.