Priestly responsibilities

Priestly responsibilities

In this week’s portion we find the Torah’s description of the special garments for Aaron the High Priest and his sons (the Kohanim) that have both a ritual and a social significance. 

The Aaronide line is a biological one; those claiming priestly prerogative can only do so on the basis of being descended from Aaron. According to the Torah, the election of the line of Aaron is by God. The ritual garb that Aaronides are to wear confirms in a public way what has been conferred by divine decree.

The Torah describes a variety of items that Aaron must wear to identify him as the High Priest. In Hebrew they are referred to as “bigdei kodesh,” “holy garments,” that identify Aaron as set apart from the populace at large as the one who is authorized to officiate in the sacred shrine.

These garments include a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed garment, headdress, and sash. The Torah instructs that two precious stones shall be used as fasteners on the shoulder straps of the ephod, each bearing the inscribed names of six of the 12 Israelite tribes. Similarly, the breastplate is supposed to carry 12 separate stones, each one representing one of the tribes. The intention seems to be for the High Priest to remain aware that he literally carries the responsibility for the community “on his shoulders and on his heart.”

The robe itself seems to include a running fringe around the bottom, and a series of bells and pomegranates. A gold plate suspended from a blue cord, on which is inscribed “Set apart for the Lord,” is worn on the forehead. The blue cord seems to be connected to the blue thread originally mandated for the fringes of garments (and later the tallit; see Numbers 15:38). The location of the plate suggests some correlation with the “frontlets” on the forehead described in Deuteronomy 6:8, which later tradition associates with tefillin.

Attempts to reconstruct the appearance of the garments of the High Priest encounter similar problems with attempts to create models of the ancient portable sanctuary. Up to a point consensus exists as to what the Torah intends, but because the technical terms and some allusions are no longer clear to later generations, scholars often diverge in their renderings.

What is meaningful is that the garments of the High Priest outlived the office itself. When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and the Temple service ceased, there was no longer any legitimate way to outfit an Aaronide descendent. What appears to have evolved, however, is the transference of those sacred garments to the synagogue ritual. 

If one considers the ways in which a Torah scroll is attired, there is an immediate correlation with Aaron’s vestments. There is a Torah cover (robe) that often includes a running fringe, a band (the cord that binds the Torah from unraveling), a breastplate (with or without the decorative stones), and often a crown or set of crowns. It is almost as if the rabbis who crafted the roots of the synagogue ritual intentionally wanted to mimic the priestly garb in the design of what the Torah “wears.”

But the similarities between the priestly garments and Torah coverings also point up a remarkable difference. Whereas the priestly title of Kohen comes from the legacy of lineage, the mantle of Torah learning comes purely from the effort expended and the material mastered. It matters not who one’s parents were, or from what family one is descended. Torah learning is democratic, open to all. It remains the case that one becomes a rabbi not by birth but by study and mastery. 

With that simple observation, we intuit the genius of the ancient rabbinic tradition: to establish continuity while simultaneously allowing for, even mandating, innovation and creativity. This is the legacy they have passed on to us, which we celebrate each Shabbat as we remove the Torah from the ark and observe how the bigdei kodesh, those holy garments that Aaron first wore, have become the Torah’s uniform. n

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill. 

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