The High Priest's Garb

Moshe Ben-Chaim


The High Priest alone had rights of entrance into the Holy of Holies, and only on Yom Kippur. This is the most sanctified of all locations. It represents man's closest approach to G-d, and mimics Moses' approach to G-d on Mount Sinai; both cases included cloud.

In his "Guide for the Perplexed", (Book III, Chap. IX) Maimonides discusses another "screen" separating him from G-d. It is a brief chapter, and I quote it in its entirety below:

"The corporeal element in man is a large screen and partition that prevents him from perfectly perceiving abstract ideals: this would be the case even if the corporeal element were as pure and superior as the substance of the spheres; how much more must this be the case with our dark and opaque body. However great the exertion of our mind may be to comprehend the Divine Being or any of the ideals, we find a screen and partition between Him and ourselves. Thus the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between G-d and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapours, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: or use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words," Clouds and darkness are round about Him" (Ps. xcvii. 2). The prophets tell us that the difficulty consists in the grossness of our substance: they do not imply, as might be gathered from the literal meaning of their words, that G-d is corporeal, and is invisible because He is surrounded by thick clouds, vapours, darkness, or mist. This figure is also expressed in the passage," He made darkness His secret place" (Ps. xviii. 12). The object of G-d revealing Himself in thick clouds, darkness, vapours, and mist was to teach this lesson; for every prophetic vision contains some lesson by means of allegory; that mighty vision, therefore, though the greatest of all visions, and above all comparison, viz., His revelation in a thick cloud, did not take place without any purpose, it was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us. It does not surround G-d, because He is incorporeal. A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. Comp." Lord, when thou wentest forth from Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped water" (judges v. 4). The same idea is expressed by the words" darkness, clouds, and thick darkness" (Deut. iv. 11). The phrase does not denote that darkness surrounds G-d, for with Him there is no darkness, but the great, strong, and permanent light, which, emanating from Him, illuminates all darkness, as is expressed by the prophetic simile," And the earth shined with His glory" (Ezek. xliii. 2)."

As a Rabbi once explained, cloud alludes of the ever-present veil which exists between man and G-d. Even at Revelation at Sinai, and in connection with the most perfected man who ever lived and who ever will live - Moses - there was "darkness, cloud and thick cloud." ("And any form was not seen, only a voice", refers to what was witnessed at Sinai.) It was essential that the Jews realize their inherent ignorance (cloud) in relation to knowledge of G-d's essence. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest is also commanded to smoke the Holy of Holies with incense, again creating a veil. Man has no faculty by which to grasp another person's thoughts. We are limited. Certainly, we cannot know G-d or His thoughts. We can only perceive that which is in some way connected to our senses, which G-d is not. The clouds teach the idea of the impregnable veil between man and G-d. G-d told Moses, "You cannot know me while alive." (Exod. 33:20)

As the priest was to be exemplary of man at his optimum. He displayed certain, prized qualities. I would like to suggest an idea behind a few of the garments worn by the high priest which embellish his role. My belief is that the "tzitz", the gold plate worn on the priest's head reading "Holy to G-d", was to demonstrate that one of such perfection, has his intelligence focused on, and subjected to G-d. His mind - represented by his forehead - is bound up in a love of the knowledge of G-d. In contrast, but complimentary, the priests' heart goes out to his brethren, seen in the Breastplate bearing colorful and precious stones representative of all twelve tribes, and worn on his "heart", the seat of man's emotions.

Another garment was the Ephod, a robe, with two onyx stones in settings of gold on each shoulder. From rings attached to these settings, there hung the Choshen, the breastplate we just mentioned. But what catches the attention is that again on the black onyx stones are the twelve names of each tribe. Why two sets of the tribes' names? Why is one a colorful stone-set of the 12 tribes' names, suspended from the black stones with the tribes' names? And is there an idea behind the "suspension" of one set from the other?

I once heard an interesting explanation from a Rabbi; black, more than color, represents death. We might refer to that which is burned, or a plant which is dead, as proof of the connection between the lack of color, and death. Perhaps the colorful tribes represent the tribes in existence, i.e., "us", the "living" Children of Israel. The black onyx stones represent the actual individual sons of Jacob, i.e., Reuben himself, Shimone, Levi, themselves, etc. What this would mean, is that the living Jews are "suspended" on our forefathers. That is, our merit today is suspended (based) on the merit of Jacob's perfected sons, who have died, represented by black onyx stones. This teaches that our distinction and merit before G-d is based not on ourselves, but on the fact that we are descendants from those great individuals. The High Priest wears this display so as to call upon G-d's mercy. He beseeches G-d to remember those twelve dead tribes for the sake of being benevolent to those living twelve tribes - us today. The High Priest calls upon G-d to remember us, Who desired the creation of the Jewish nation through these twelve, righteous men. So, we are represented by the twelve color stones, that are suspended by the black, onyx stones. That is, our merit to existence is drawn from the Tribes' righteous lives, and G-d's oath to their descendants.

Addressing ornate garments, we must be careful not to fall prey to idolizing objects. Even the Choshen which housed the Urim v'Tumim, a prophetic system, never possessed powers itself, as nothing has power but G-d alone. Not people, not objects. It is impossible to be otherwise. All things are created, and are subject to laws of creation, therefore, they can not alter creation.

I recently read an article by a Rabbi who attempted to deter Jews from ascribing powers to the Ayin Hara, the "Evil Eye." At first, I was excited by the prospect that our teachers see Judaism clearly. But as I read the article, I saw that this Rabbi too felt there is a power of an Evil Eye. He was only attempting to persuade Jews to ask G-d to defend them from it. But this Rabbi indeed felt a defense from its power was needed, displaying his belief in the nonsensical notion of powers other than G-d. This is a form of idolatry.

Rashi states that when the brothers of Joseph came down to Egypt, they were commanded by their father Jacob to enter Egypt through separate entrances so the Ayin Hara should not have power over them. How do we understand this Rashi? Allow me to briefly expound.

Ayin Hara - "evil eye" - can be explained very simply: It refers to a psychological state. If one says , "My! What a beautiful baby". Others will say, "Don't give it an Ayin Hara". Does this mean that admiration of an infant can cause some change in that child? Not at all. Words have no powers, other than producing a change in the listener. What might happen is that another mother will be jealous that this statement was not made about her child. She may develop unconscious jealousy and aggression towards the favored baby, or towards the mother. The unconscious of a person is very cunning, usually going undetected, and seeks satisfaction. This jealous mother might unconsciously, "accidentally" pour some of her hot drink on the mother, or the child. But the act of spilling doesn't assume a new power in the universe. It is explained by three existing, natural phenomena - jealousy, revenge and the unconscious. The fact that spilling occurs on the heels of the statement of admiration is not due to a power, but to jealousy acting out through the unconscious. This mother can't tolerate another child receiving more admiration than her's, and unconsciously, she pours her drink on the other mother, satisfying her aggression.

We need not create false, mystical explanations of Ayin Hara. A person with the chochma (wisdom) of human nature will understand this very easily.

The same applies to the brothers as they entered Egypt. Jacob knew that his sons were of great stature, as we see that just two destroyed an entire city. Jacob figured that 10 men of great stature, coupled with a foreign appearance walking through the gates of Egypt would raise some eyebrows. Imagine 10 tall foreigners walking through Tel Aviv Airport. Security would definitely be suspicious. There was no reason for the brothers to bring undue suspicion upon themselves. Jacob wisely commanded each of them to enter through a separate gate. This would minimize any attention. Jacob's suggestion was wise - not based on a fear of 'mystical powers'. Rather, it was based on his understanding of human psychology and the desire for his sons' safety. Jacob wished that no "suspecting eyes" cause harm to his sons through trumped up charges.

Our forefather Jacob desired to be buried outside of Egypt, lest the Egyptians make his grave into an idolatrous object. (Rashi) Jacob knew the nature of man, that it seeks to deify leaders. This is yet another permutation of man seeking powers for his security.

Tying a thread around Rachel's tomb does not instill power in that red bendel. There is no such thing as power out side of G-d, other than our own muscular strength and forces of nature. Rachel had no powers, and even pleaded with her husband Jacob for children. Had she any powers, she would make her own miracle. It is therefore contradictory that fools project powers on Rachel, who openly testified to being powerless herself.

It is to my dismay that I now see Jewish bookstores run by 'rabbis', selling red bendels. The Tosefta in Talmud Sabbath, chapter seven, clearly states that this practice of wearing red strings was a heathen custom, and is prohibited.

Help the Jewish people. When you see stores selling these chamsas, red bendels, and devices to "protect" your cars, inform them of the grave prohibition they violate. Tell them to read the Tosefta and think about their actions, how they are bereft of reason - G-d's gift to us. As a Rabbi once taught, wisdom is so prized a possession in G-d's eyes, G-d allowed His name to be associated with it, "Tzelem Elokim", "form of G-d".

When you see idolatrous practices, it is your duty to genuinely denounce them, and express that you are concerned for another Jew - so others are not mislead. Speak out. By remaining silent, you encourage further corruption.