Rabbi Bernie Fox





The Golden Garments of the Kohen Gadol

And these are the garments that they shall make: a breastplate, an apron, a jacket, a patterned tunic, a turban, and a belt.  And they shall make sacred garments for Ahron your brother and for his sons so that they will serve as priests to me.  (Shemot 28:4)

Parshat Tetzaveh discusses the garment worn by the Kohen Gadol—the High Priest.  In total, the Kohen Gadol wore eight garments.  Maimonides comments that the eight golden garments of the Kohen Gadol consisted of the four worn by the common priest, plus the jacket, apron, breastplate and headband.


The Kesef Mishne is troubled by this statement.  In fact, only the four special garments included gold thread.  The other garments worn by both the Kohen Gadol and the common kohen did not include gold thread.  Why, then, does Maimonides refer to all eight of the Kohen Gadol’s garments as “golden”?


Perhaps, Maimonides wishes to teach an important lesson.  The eight garments of the Kohen Gadol are not individual, isolated items.  Instead, they merge into a single vestment.  The four common garments join with the four woven with gold to create a single, integrated entity.  This integrated garment is the “golden vestments” of the Kohen Gadol.  Therefore, it is not necessary for each individual garment to contain gold thread to be referred to as “golden”.  Instead, they are referred to as “golden” through inclusion in the overall entity of the “golden garments”.





The Lettering on the Stones of the Choshen

The stones shall contain the names of Bnai Yisrael, one for each of the twelve stones.  Each one shall be engraved as on a signet ring to represent the twelve tribes.  (Shemot 28:21)

One of the special garments worn by the Kohen Gadol was the Choshen – the breastplate.  Upon the Choshen were mounted twelve stones.  The stones were arranged in four rows.  Three stones were in each row.  On these stones were engraved the names of the tribes of Bnai Yisrael.  One name was featured on each stone.


Maimonides explains that the first and last stones contained additional words.  The first stone in the series was engraved with the name Reuven.  Above the name were the names, “Avraham” and “Yitzchak VeYaakov” – the names of the forefathers.  On the last stone in the series, the name “Binyamin” was engraved.  Below the name were the words, "Shivtai Kah" – the tribes of G-d.  Through the inclusion of these additional words, every letter of the Hebrew alphabet was contained within the engravings on the stones.[1]


This raises an interesting question.  How did the first and last stones accommodate the additional words or names?  Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers two possibilities.  The first possibility is that these stones were larger than the others; the larger-sized stones accommodating the additional lettering.  The second possibility is that all the stones were of uniform size; additional words and names were engraved in smaller letters.  Through reducing the size of the lettering the stones could contain the larger text.[2]


Rabbaynu Avraham seems to acknowledge the legitimacy of both solutions.  However, he favors the second solution.  He explains that is seems appropriate for all of the stones of the Choshen to be uniform in size.  It seems that Maimonides agrees that the size was uniform.[3]


Through analyzing the basis for these two solutions we can gain an important insight into the nature of the Choshen.   We will also better understand Rabbaynu Avraham's conclusion.


What was the function of the Choshen?  The Choshen was one of the special garments of the Kohen Gadol.  He was required to wear these garments when performing service in the Mishcan.


The Choshen had a second function.  Through the letters on the Choshen, the Kohen Gadol received prophetic messages.  A question was addressed to Hashem.  Hashem provided a response to the Kohen Gadol through a prophetic vision.  This vision utilized the letters engraved on the stones of the Choshen as the medium for communication.  The response would be spelled out for the Kohen Gadol using these letters.[4]  This second function was crucial in the design of the Choshen.  The extra letters engraved at the top of the first stone and the bottom of the last completed the alphabet.  This provided all letters needed to communicate the response. [5]


What was the relationship between these two functions?  Let us consider two possibilities.  The first possibility is that the Choshen was primarily an instrument designed to communicate prophecy.  The Choshen's function as an essential garment of the Kohen Gadol was subsidiary.  This means that the stones and the letters engraved upon them were the main element of the Choshen.  The breastplate was fundamentally a garment designed to display the stones which featured these engravings.  If this possibility is accepted, then it follows that the size of the stones and the lettering was dictated by the primary function – communicating prophecy.  All letters were equally essential.  All should have been the same size.  This would require using larger stones for the first and last positions.  In other words, this interpretation of the Choshen's design supports Rabbaynu Avraham's first solution.


The second possibility is that the primary function of the Choshen was to serve as an honorific garment of the Kohen Gadol.  The Choshen's function as a vehicle in communicating prophecy was secondary.  If we assume this interpretation, the overall beauty and appearance of the Choshen was a primary concern.  This appearance would be enhanced through using stones of uniform size.  The additional letters on the first and last stones would be reduced to accommodate the size of the stones.  This is apparently the interpretation underlying Rabbaynu Avraham's second solution.


We can now understand Rabbaynu Avraham's reason for favoring this second solution. Rabbaynu Avraham preferred this solution because it is based upon a more reasonable interpretation of the Choshen.  In other words, Rabbaynu Avraham was convinced that the Choshen primarily functioned as a garment glorifying the Kohen Gadol.  What convinced Rabbaynu Avraham of the legitimacy of this interpretation?


In Parshat Terumah the Torah describes the items required for the construction of the Mishcan and its components.  The stones of the Choshen are included in the list.  The Torah describes these as "avnai miluim". Most commentaries translate this term as "stones meant to be set".  This is a strange appellation for these stones.  Why did the Torah not merely describe them as stones for adornment of the Kohen Gadol’s garments?  What message is the Torah communicating by referring to the stones as avnai miluim? 


Gershonides responds to this question.  He explains that the Choshen featured gold settings.  The stones were required in order to fill these gold settings.[6]  This is an odd way to describe the relationship between the stones and the Choshen.  The simpler, more straightforward description would be that the settings were required to accommodate the stones. 


A simple example will illustrate this point.  What is the relationship between the diamond in an engagement ring and its setting?  It would be incorrect to describe the diamond as “required to fill”, or complement, the setting (thus suggesting that the diamond is secondary to the setting). The setting is designed to hold the diamond!  Why does Gershonides describe the stones as “required” to fill the gold settings? 


Gershonides’ point is that the stones were designated to adorn and complete the Choshen.  According to Gershonides, the Torah describes the stones as “avnai miluim” in order to communicate that their essential function is to adorn the Choshen by filling its settings.   This means that the Choshen was not merely a garment intended to carry the stones.  This supports Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam’s conclusion that the Choshen was primarily designed as a garment of the Kohen Gadol.  The stones were chosen for, and part of, this garment.  Therefore, uniformity in size was appropriate.






The Message of the Kohen Gadol’s Head-Plate

And you should make a Head-plate of pure gold.  And you should engrave upon it as the engraving of a signet ring, “Sanctified to Hashem”.  (Shemot 28:36)

One of the eight garments of the Kohen Gadol was the Tzitz – the golden head-plate.  This band was worn on the forehead.  Engraved upon the Tzitz were the words, “kodesh laHashem”  – “sanctified to Hashem”.


The message of the Tzitz seems difficult to unravel.  The Tzitz is obviously declaring the sanctity of some object or person.  However, the specific entity to which the Tzitz refers is not clear.  Furthermore, we would expect the message of the Tzitz to be self-evident.  The Tzitz is making the overt assertion that it—or someone—is “sanctified to G-d.”  Such a message should be easy to grasp!


This issue can perhaps be resolved from the comments of the Sefer HaChinuch.  Sefer HaChinuch explains the garments of the kohanim and the Kohen Gadol were designed to reinforce an important impression.  The kohanim and the Kohen Gadol were charged with the duty of serving in the Temple on behalf of the nation.  This was a weighty responsibility.  These individuals were required to be completely devoted to their duties.  In order to reinforce this message, they were given special garments. These vestments were to remind the priests of their responsibilities.


This suggests the phrase, “sanctified to Hashem” refers to the Kohen Gadol.  He is sanctified to Hashem.  The Tzitz reminds the High Priest of his position and his duties.  He must conduct himself in accordance with his responsibilities.[7]


Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir – Rashbam – offers an alternative explanation of the message of the Tzitz.  The High Priest was required to wear all eight of his garments when serving in the Mishcan.  If any garment was absent during the performance of a service, the service was invalidated.  As explained above, the vestments of the Kohen Gadol were connected through halachah and formed a single entity.  Rashbam suggests that in order to understand the message of the Tzitz, it is essential to evaluate it as part of the entire set of vestments.  The garments of the Kohen Gadol must be considered as a whole.


The Tzitz was not the only vestment featuring words.  The Ephod – the apron – and the Choshen also featured words.  On the stones of the Ephod and Choshen the names of the tribes were engraved.  Rashbam suggests that the message of the Tzitz emerges when considered in relation to these other vestments and their engravings.  Rashbam explains the Tzitz refers to the shevatim -- the tribes whose names were engraved on the stones of the Ephod and Choshen.  The Tzitz refers to these shevatim as sanctified to Hashem.[8]






The Purpose of the Kohen Gadol’s Vestments

And you shall make sacred garments for Ahron your brother for dignity and glory.  (Shemot 27:2)

The garments of the Kohen Gadol were designed to create an impressive visual effect. Other aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s appearance were also regulated by halachah. For example, he was required to trim his hair every week.[9]  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.  Whom— or what— do these garments glorify?


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.[10]  In other words, the purpose of the Kohen Gadol’s garments and the regulations governing his grooming was to assure a positive physical appearance.  Our pasuk indicates that this attention to appearance was intended to assure that the Kohen Gadol would be treated with dignity and respect.


This is surprising.  Our Sages admonish us to “not look upon the container but at its contents.”[11]  Their message is that we should not be impressed by superficial behaviors or appearances.  Instead, we are to assess a person based upon the individual’s inner-self.  Why does the Torah stress superficial aspects of the Kohen Gadol?


More shocking than the Torah’s emphasis on physical appearance is the prohibition against the Kohen Gadol’s marriage to a widow. This prohibition is also designed to protect the public image of the High Priest.[12]  The Torah admonishes us to treat the widow with compassion and justice.  The Torah commands us:  “You shall not oppress the any widow or orphan.”[13]  Why does the Torah prohibit the Kohen Gadol’s marriage to a widow and thereby accommodate a shallow prejudice against the widow?  Would it not be preferable for the Torah to allow this marriage?  Such a policy would counter any social stigma attached to the widow.


These laws demonstrate one of the unique qualities of the Torah.  Torah takes human weakness seriously.  The Torah was created to govern an actual society.  In the real world, prejudice and superficiality exist.  These prejudices will undermine respect for the Kohen Gadol if he is married to a widow.  The Torah recognizes these faults as forces in society.  It prohibits the marriage.  But, at the same time, the Torah attempts to correct human behavior.  The Torah’s approach to confronting prejudice is balanced.  It legislates commandments to protect the rights of those likely to be oppressed or subject to prejudice.  But it also recognizes the tenacity of these prejudices.  Both measures are essential.  The Torah also attempts to improve upon these human limitations.  However, failure to recognize human frailty would result in a system poorly equipped to deal with and accommodate actual human beings. 


The garments of the Kohen Gadol are an excellent illustration of the Torah’s method of dealing with this dilemma.  The Torah requires that the Kohen Gadol wear beautiful garments. However, these garments are more than attractive vestments. Every detail of design is guided by an intricate system of halachah. The observer is attracted to the beauty of the garments, and hopefully, this initial interest leads to contemplation of the ingenious laws which govern their design and structure. The observer comes to recognize that the greatest beauty is not in the superficial material dimension.  Instead, true beauty is found in the world of knowledge.


Nachmanides acknowledges Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the pasuk as a reasonable possibility.  He also suggests an alternative explanation.  He proposes that the garments honor and glorify Hashem.[14]  Apparently, Nachmanides reasons that the Kohen Gadol serves Hashem.  Performing his duties in these wondrous vestments glorifies the service and Hashem.


Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that the garments serve both purposes.  They honor Hashem and glorify the Kohen Gadol.[15]


This dispute regarding the function of the vestments of the Kohen Gadol, and presumably also the vestments of the Kohen, is the underlying basis for another disagreement. 


There is another dispute among the Sages regarding the requirement that the 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.[16]  Halachot Gedolot disagrees with Maimonides.  He does not derive a commandment from our passage.  He maintains that there is no separate commandment directing 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 commandment 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 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.[17] 


Another example from halachah 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 them.  Yet, the procurement of tefillin is not a separate mitzvah.  It is merely a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the commandment to wear them.  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 organizes the various commandments concerning the kohanim.  In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides states that the requirement of the kohanim to wear their garments is the thirty-third positive commandment of the Torah.  According to Maimonides’ enumeration of the commandments, the thirty-second positive commandment is to honor the kohanim – the descendants of Ahron.  The close association of these two commandments suggests that they are related.  What is this relationship?


Apparently, Maimonides adopts the position of Ibn Ezra: the garments are designed to honor and glorify the kohanim.  He communicates his position by ordering this mitzvah directly after the commandment to honor the kohanim.  These vestments distinguish the kohanim and assign to them special status.  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 are required in order to confer honor and glory upon the kohen.  Only when wearing the vestments is he qualified for service.  In other words, without the garments, the kohen is not the person permitted to perform the service.


The pivotal issue of contention between Maimonides and Nachmanides can now be identified.  According to Nachmanides, the garments are a prerequisite for performance of the service.  They are tied to, and enhance, the service.  This interpretation reflects Nachmanides’ interpretation of the above passage.  The vestments glorify the Temple service and Hashem. Therefore, wearing this special attire is a prerequisite for proper performance of the service but does not constitute a separate mitzvah.  In contrast, Maimonides maintains that the garments glorify and honor the Kohanim.  They confer full honor and status upon the kohen.  As a result, the wearing of the garments is a separate mitzvah within Taryag – the 613 Commandments.


[1]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot K'lai Mikdash 9:7.

[2]   Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:21.

[3]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot K'lai Mikdash 9:7.

[4]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot K’lai Mikdash 10:11.

[5]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot K’lai Mikdash 9:7.

[6]  Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 339.

[7] Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 99.

[8] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:36.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot K’lai Mikdash 5:6.

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

[11] Mesechet Avot 4:20.

[12] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 353-4.

[13] Shemot 22:21.

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

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

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

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