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The uniform of democracy
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The uniform of democracy

Tetzave - Exodus: 27:20-30:10

In this week’s portion, the general categories of commandments that began to be outlined in last week’s portion yield to specific instructions that devolve on the family of Aaron, the ancestor of the ancient Israelite priesthood. Of particular interest is the Torah’s description of the special garments that Aaron and his sons are instructed to make and wear, garments that have both a ritual and social significance.

It is worth noting that the Aaronide line is a biological one; those claiming priestly prerogative (“kohen”) do so only 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, which would mean in popular parlance “holy garments” but in functional terms would mean “garments that separate/elevate” — meaning they identify Aaron as set apart from the populace at large, one who is authorized to officiate in the sacred shrine. Alternately, the Hebrew may suggest that the garments themselves carried sanctity.

These bigdei kodesh include: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed/checkered garment, a headdress, and a sash. (The ephod, which is the same word in Hebrew and English, is understood by tradition to be a sort of over-garment, a second layer.) The Torah instructs that two precious stones 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 12 tribes. The intention seems to be for Aaron (or any later 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, whose meaning is elusive. (Some commentators suggest the sound of the bells was an aural announcement of the impending proximity of the high priest so that anyone who was ritually impure — and thereby a potential contaminant — could avoid contact with him.)

A gold plate suspended from a blue cord, on which is inscribed “Set apart for the Lord,” is to be 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 plate’s location suggests a 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 (mishkan). Up to a point, consensus exists as to what the Torah intends, but because the technical terms and some allusions and assumptions are no longer clear to later generations, scholars often diverge in their renderings.

What is curious, and 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 descendant. What appears to have evolved, however, is the transference of those bigdei kodesh/sacred garments to the synagogue ritual.

If one considers the ways in which a sefer Torah is attired, one sees an immediate correlation with Aaron’s vestments. There is a robe that often includes a running fringe (the scroll cover), a band (the cord that binds the scroll 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.

But the similarities between the priestly garments and Torah coverings also points up a remarkable difference. Whereas the priestly title 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 by definition democratic, open to all.

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 scroll from the ark and observe how the bigdei kodesh — the holy garments — have become the uniform of the Torah.

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