Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Piggyback Ride, Anyone?

An unusual design feature in the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) set me thinking. It's hard to describe without a photo, but considering that the Torah prefers things that way (see our post on parshat Terumah), we'll stick to verbal descriptions. I couldn't find a decent online image for it anyhow.

Both literally and figuratively, the "Choshen" was the centerpiece of the Kohen Gadol's outfit. An extravagant breastplate with the names of the twelve tribes etched onto its twelve precious stones, the Choshen was bound to the Kohen Gadol's chest with golden and woolen cords.
Aaron will thus carry the names of the Children of Israel on the Choshen of Judgment upon his heart when he comes into the sanctuary. It shall be a constant remembrance before God."
Shemot 28:29
Interestingly, the Torah describes how the Choshen was attached to the Kohen's body even before it tells us what the Choshen is. Moreover, the Torah spends more verses describing this method of attachment than it spends describing the Choshen itself! The Torah is emphasizing a seemingly insignificant detail; we would do well to take a closer look.

The Choshen was attached to the body by means of the "Eiphod." While certain elements of the Eiphod's design are a mystery, the points relevant to our discussion are quite clear. (That is, despite certain textual ambiguities, both Rashi and the Rambam are in agreement as to the Torah's meaning. We can speak with confidence.)

The Eiphod was sort of an apron worn backwards which tied on above the waist with a built-in belt. In the back, two straps went up from the belt, extending over the Kohen's shoulders, and at the shoulder, each of these straps had golden setting for a sardonyx stone. Like the stones of the Choshen, these stones had the names of all twelve tribes etched into them - six tribes on one stone and six on the other.
Place the two stones on the two shoulder straps of the Eiphod as remembrance stones for the Children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names on his two shoulders before God as a remembrance.
Shemot 28:12

Right beneath the two stones, two golden cords descended from the shoulder straps and looped through rings at the top two corners of the square Choshen. This held the Choshen securely from the top, but that alone would not prevent the Chosen from swinging away from the body when the Kohen leaned forward. For that, there were another two rings on the bottom two corners of the Choshen, through which two woolen cords were drawn and tied down to the Eiphod.

Here is the interesting point in the design. We might have expected those bottom two cords to attach directly to the belt of the Eiphod beneath them. But this is not the case. The Torah tells us to draw the two cords around to the Kohen's back and tie them to rings at the bottom of the shoulder straps (28:27-28). It seems that the entire Choshen, all four corners of it, must be supported exclusively by the Eiphod's shoulder straps. Strange, is it not?

In order to understand this design feature, we must first understand the meaning of the Choshen itself.

The story of the Choshen begins in a much darker era, at a time when no one dared dream of a Mishkan. Newborn babes lie dead at the floor of the Nile, Jewish slaves pick cotton in the Egyptian fields, and God is meeting with Moshe at a bush in the desert. God tells Moshe to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews, but Moshe has concerns. He is worried about his speech defect, and he is worried how this mission will affect his relationship with his older brother. Moshe suggests that God send Aaron instead.

God got angry at Moshe. "I am well aware that Aaron your brother, the Levite, is a good speaker. He is setting out to greet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart!"

Shemot 4:14

This is the majesty of Aaron. Transcending the sibling rivalry endemic to the book of Bereishit, he is happy for his younger brother's success. A heart of this caliber deserves a little jewelry.
Rabbi Milai said, "In reward for [Aaron's] seeing [Moshe] and rejoicing in his heart, Aaron merited that the Choshen of Judgment would be on his heart."

Talmud, Shabbat 139a

It seems that the placement of the twelve tribes on the Kohen Gadol's heart is a symbol of his selfless, brotherly love for the entire nation. But what is the secret of the Choshen of Judgment? What will stop people from judging others negatively? How can we ensure that all twelve tribes are held securely against our hearts? What will prevent personal agendas from getting in the way of love for the nation? The answer is obvious: Strap the nation on your shoulders!

If we place all twelve tribes on our shoulders, if we step up to the plate and take responsibility for the Jewish People, if we lift up the names of the Children of Israel and carry them proudly, then we can be sure that the Choshen of Judgment will never sway from our hearts. Such was the message of the holy garments of the Kohen Gadol.

What do your clothes say?


  1. The Temple Institute has a very nice series of pages about the priestly garments, with lots of good pictures and drawings:

    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. I saw those pictures. Their rendition of the Eiphot's belt seems very different than the impression I got from Rashi. Also, the rings on the bottom of the shoulder straps are hard to make out.
    I saw a drawing in the back of some Chumash where they have the rings embedded into the shoulder strap as opposed to connected to the edge, as I've always imagined it. Who knows? I'll bet either way is kosher.
    For a very clear illustration of the Choshen-Eiphod connection see Encyclopedia Talmudis, vol. 2, s.v. Eiphod.

  3. There's a midrash and an interpretation of it from Rabbi Zev Leff that illustrates your point beautifully. It was the nisi'im who brought the stones for the bigdei kehuna - however, they brought their offerings last, waiting to see what everyone else would bring first. The midrash states that they were rebuked for their laziness and laxity by having the "yud" removed removed from the spelling of nisi'im (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:16)

    “Rabbi Zev Leff explains the significance of the punishment given to the Princes for their 'laziness' in contributing to the Mishkan. The punishment was that a letter was taken away from the word Princes (Nesi'im -- Nun Sin Aleph Yud Mem), leaving it to read Nisaim (Nun Sin Aleph Mem). The difference between the two words is dramatic. Nesi'im means those who carry. Nisaim means those who are carried. The Princes were taught that they forgot a basic and fundamental lesson: The Ark of the Torah carries those that carry it, not the other way around. A person who donates to a Torah institution or to a Torah scholar should not think "I am supporting Torah." Rather, he should realize that "Torah is supporting me." Therefore, to impress this lesson upon the Princes, their title of "Carriers" was removed and they were called "Those Who Needed To Be Carried."

    Good news though for the nisi'im: Later, when it came time to bring offerings for the dedication of the Altar, they brought their offerings immediately (Bamidbar 7:10). As the midrash states:

    “They took the initiative and brought an offering with alacrity…They thought: this is the opportune moment for us to offer sacrifices in GLADNESS, for the Shechinah has rested upon the work of our hands.”

    Note that in Bamidbar 7:10, in the word for “princes”, the “yud” has been restored!!