Tag Archives: Priestly Vestments

The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?

Priestly Procedure

Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.

Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.

The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.

Priestly Origins

Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.

The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.

Illustration depicting Moses commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf, from ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)

Priestly Exceptions

Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!

Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.

In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).

Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*

In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):

…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.

The Mysterious Urim and Thummim, and the Dome of the Rock

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzave, which focuses on the holy vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Perhaps the most enigmatic of these vestments is the choshen hamishpat, the “breastplate of judgement”. This breastplate was embedded with twelve different precious stones, each symbolizing one of the Twelve Tribes. Housed within the breastplate were the Urim v’Tumim, mysterious objects whose nature has been speculated upon for centuries.

The Torah itself does not elaborate on what the Urim and Tumim are. The Talmud (Yoma 21b) states that they were one of the five things that were in the First Temple but missing in the Second Temple. Many believe that these were a couple of stones used to communicate with God. Unseen and unused for some two and a half millennia, it isn’t surprising that the Urim and Tumim are clouded in mystery.

Guilty or Innocent?

Some scholars see urim rooted in the root arur, “cursed”, and tumim from tam, “innocent”. Thus, these stones were used to figure out if a person was guilty or innocent, or if a certain decision was right or wrong. We read in I Samuel 14:36-44 how King Saul debated whether to pursue the Philistines in battle or not, so the High Priest addressed the question to God. God does not respond, so Saul concludes there must be a guilty person among them causing God to turn away. He then separates the people into groups to see which group contains the guilty party. It turns out that it is Saul’s son Jonathan who erred. This passage highlights the use of Urim and Tumim in divine communication, both in finding whether an action is right or wrong, and in determining guilt and innocence.

How did the stones communicate this? The word urim can mean “lights”, so it is thought that the stones glowed: one stone for yes/innocent, and the other for no/guilty. Others hold that the Urim and Tumim gave power to the Breastplate itself, causing the letters engraved upon it to glow. Each of the twelve stones on the Breastplate was engraved with the name of the corresponding tribe. However, the twelve names do not include all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet! The missing letters—Chet, Tet, Tzadi, Kuf—are in the names of the patriarchs, which were also engraved onto the plate, together with the phrase shivtei yeshurun, “Tribes of Jeshurun”. (Jeshurun was an ancient name for Israel.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that this is how the Arizal could “read” people’s faces, by seeing a sort of Breastplate on their forehead. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, he explains that each person’s forehead has the twenty-two letters mystically engraved upon it, and the letters glow allowing the adept to penetrate into one’s soul and fortune. Each letter symbolizes different things. If no letters at all are shining, the person is nearing their death!

The Foundation Stone

Meanwhile, Targum Yonatan comments (on Exodus 28:30) that the Urim and Tumim were themselves inscribed with the alphabet, through a mystical name of God—“the name through which He created all three hundred and ten worlds”. Again, the letters would glow in sequence to provide the answer to one’s question. Targum Yonatan appears to suggest that the Urim and Tumim were special stones formed from the great Even HaShetiya, the Foundation Stone. According to tradition, this is the Stone from which Creation began, some seeing it is the very centre of the universe. Targum Yonatan says the Foundation Stone was placed by God to “seal up the mouth of the great deep at the beginning”.

This refers to the account of Creation, where it is stated at the beginning that everything was “chaos and void, with darkness upon the deep” (Genesis 1:2) before God said, “Let there be light.” Looking at these verses carefully, we see that the Torah uses the word tehom for the great deep, before the introduction of light, or. It isn’t difficult to see a connection between or v’tehom and urim v’tumim. The Urim and Tumim are meant to be conduits for communicating with the Divine, while the Foundation Stone has traditionally been seen as the very link between the Heavens and Earth.

Where is this Foundation Stone? The Talmud (Yoma 53b) tells us that the Even Shetiya is precisely the site of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, where the High Priest entered just once a year on Yom Kippur. The Stone served as the foundation for the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, too, was a means of Divine Communication, with a Heavenly Voice emanating from between the Cherubs on the Ark’s Cover. We therefore see a link between the Ark and the Urim v’Tumim. The Talmud tells us that both the Ark and the Urim were missing in the Second Temple, together with the Shekhina and the spirit of prophecy. In short, the Second Temple era was devoid of any real divine communication.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. Some believe the Temple was located right in front of the Wall, in the forested area pictured above.

So, what stood instead of the Ark in the Holy of Holies of the Second Temple? The Foundation Stone! It protruded “three fingers above the ground” and it is on this Stone that the High Priest would place the burning coals and incense on Yom Kippur (Yoma 53b). It is atop this Stone that the Muslims built the famous gold-topped Dome of the Rock (hence the name).

The Rabbis debate whether the Rock inside the Dome really is the Foundation Stone or not. The Arizal is among those who believed it is not, suggesting instead that the Temple was built right in front of where the Western Wall is today. Meanwhile, the Radbaz and Rav Ovadia of Bartenura maintained that it is indeed the Stone. They are supported by an ancient Midrash which prophesies that the Ishmaelites will do fifteen things in Israel, one of which is building a shrine atop the Holy of Holies (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30). The midrashic passage concludes by presciently saying the Ishmaelites will instigate three great wars at the end: one in Arab lands, one in the Sea, and one in the West. It is in the midst of these wars that Mashiach will come.

Top view of the Stone housed in the Dome of the Rock.

When that time comes, the Ark of the Covenant—which many believe is currently hidden under the Foundation Stone—will be restored, together with the Priestly Vestments. In light of the fact that we are now quite clearly living out the final verses of that midrashic passage, it seems we shall soon be able to finally unravel the mystery of the Urim v’Tumim.

A picture from beneath the Rock, the area known as the “Well of Souls”