Tag Archives: Rabbi Chanina

How the Priestly Garments Atoned for the People

Priests in the Temple (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s parasha, Pekudei, describes how the Mishkan and all of its vessels were created, together with the special priestly garments. The parasha ends with the formal initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood through their ritual purification, anointment, and donning of the sacred vestments. Our Sages famously state (Zevachim 88b) that the vestments of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, atoned for the sins of the people:

The tunic atoned for bloodshed… the breeches atoned for lewdness… the turban made atonement for arrogance… the belt atoned for [impure] meditations of the heart… the breastplate atoned for neglect of civil laws… the apron atoned for idolatry… the cloak atoned for slander… and the crown, worn on the forehead, atoned for brazenness.

The tunic (kutonet) was a simple white garment worn over the body which all of the priests (not only the High Priest) wore. The Talmud says it atoned for bloodshed, and proves it through a gzerah shavah, a form of interpretation where the exact same word (or root of a word) appears in two different contexts, thus allowing a connection between the two to be made. In Genesis 37:31 we read how, following the sale of Joseph, his brothers slaughtered a goat and dipped Joseph’s special robe in the goat’s blood. They used the bloodied robe as proof to show their father Jacob that Joseph had been murdered or devoured by an animal. The word used for Joseph’s robe is kutonet, too, that same word used for the Kohen’s garment. From this we can learn that the kutonet atoned for bloodshed.

The breeches (michnasei bad) were white pants worn to cover up the lower half of the body, and atoned for sexual immorality. The Talmud proves it from an explicit verse in the Torah (Exodus 28:42) where God commanded that the pants be made “to cover up the flesh of their nakedness”. The Hebrew term here is precisely the one used to denote sexual indecency (‘ervah, or gilui arayot).

The white turban (mitznefet) atones for arrogance. Rabbi Hanina explains here that the turban was worn on the head at the very top of the body, and thus atoned for people who similarly put themselves “at the head” above other people.

The last of the four garments worn by the regular priest is the avnet, a sash or belt. Made of red, blue, and purple wool, it was the only multi-coloured garment worn by the regular priest. It atoned for impure thoughts, and the Talmud says we know this from the fact that the sash was worn tied around the heart. Contrary to what we may expect, this was not a belt to hold up the pants, but rather an independent garment wrapped around the upper body.

In Jewish thought, the heart is the seat of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, which tries to make a person sin by throwing improper thoughts into their head. The heart is also the seat of the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. These two opposing forces both reside in one’s heart. Because of this, the term for “heart” used in the daily Shema is levavecha, and not the more grammatically consistent libecha. The former has an extra letter beit, the doubled language alluding to the two inclinations in the heart.

Our Sages teach that one should always keep their mind above their heart, in full control of their inclinations. The brain should dominate the heart, and the heart should dominate the liver. The Hebrew word for liver, kaved (כבד), is directly related to kavod (כבוד), “honour”. Thus, the liver is the source of pride and arrogance. These organs are arranged physiologically in the body the way they are to teach us a lesson: the brain (or intellect) should be on top, then the emotions of the heart below it, and the ego at the very bottom.

If one accomplishes this, with their brain, moach (מוח) in Hebrew, being above their heart, lev (לב), and their heart being above their liver, kaved (כבד)—then they become a melekh (מלך), “king”. If the letters are reversed, where one’s honour trumps their emotions, which in turn overrule their reasoning, then they are klum (כלם), “nothing”.

The Four Garments of the High Priest

Garments of the regular priest and the high priest (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

The High Priest wore an additional four unique garments. On his forehead was the golden plate known as the tzitz, which atoned for brazenness. This is proven by another gzerah shavah between Exodus 28:38, which commands the priest to wear the plate upon his metzach, “forehead”, and Jeremiah 3:3 which speaks of the brazen “forehead” (again metzach) of a licentious woman.

On top of the regular white tunic, the High Priest wore a meil, a “coat” made entirely of fine blue (tekhelet) wool. The coat atoned for lashon hara, evil speech. Since the Torah states that the coat had bells along its bottom, which jingled as the Kohen walked, Rabbi Hanina explains: “Let an article of sound come and atone for an offence of sound.”

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the term for bell, pa’amon (פעמן) refers to something that resonates, and the same root is used, for example, in describing how the Spirit of God resonated within—l’fa’amo (לפעמו)—the Biblical judge Samson (Judges 13:25). Rav Ginsburgh beautifully notes how the gematria of “Spirit of God” (רוח ה׳) is 240, equal to that of pa’amon (פעמן). It is also equal to meil ha’ephod (מעיל האפד), the full title of the garment, as in Exodus 29:5 or 39:22. He concludes that if one wishes to have the Spirit of God rest upon them, the key is to refrain from any evil speech.

The ephod, or apron, atoned for idolatry. This is derived from Hosea 3:4: “For the children of Israel shall sit solitary many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without pillar, and without ephod or teraphim.” The verse is taken to mean that where there is no ephod, there will be teraphim—various implements of idol worship. The word “teraphim” appears multiple times in the Tanakh (as in Genesis 31:19 and Judges 17:5), nearly always in relation to idolatry.

Upon the ephod was the famous choshen, the breastplate that, according to tradition, allowed for communication with the Heavens. The breastplate atoned for violations of dinin, civil law. We know this from the fact that the Torah calls the breastplate choshen mishpat (Exodus 28:15), literally “breastplate of judgement”, with the term mishpat typically referring to court cases and civil law (whereas chukim and edot refer to religious-based, historical, or ritual laws).

In this way, even the very clothes of the Kohen helped him fulfill his main duty of bringing atonement for the people. Yet, in the past two thousand years, there has been no Temple and no priestly service. Might there be something in its stead?

Every Jew is a Priest

When the Temple was destroyed, our Sages instituted a number of practices in place of those Temple rituals. They declared that “as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man’s table atones for him” (Berakhot 55a). Just as the priests would wash their hands in a special basin before starting their services (and before eating terumah), the Rabbis instituted netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of the hands before starting a meal. Just as the sacrificial meat was required to be brought with salt, it became customary to dip the bread in salt before eating it. In place of the Temple menorah we have the Chanukah menorah, and in place of the Temple showbread we have two challahs, each traditionally braided with six strands to represent the twelve loaves once displayed in the Temple.

In many ways, the Talmudic sages and rabbis saw themselves filling the role once held by the ancient priests. More importantly, they taught that every righteous Jew should see himself as a priest. After all, God intended for all of Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In fact, many commentaries agree that it is only because of the Golden Calf incident that the tribe of Levi was appointed to take over the priesthood. Were it not for that tragedy, every firstborn male would be a priest, and any other Jewish male could voluntarily enter the priesthood. To this effect, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 38a) goes so far as to state that “even a non-Jew who occupies himself with Torah is comparable to the High Priest.” A person who lives in Torah and refines himself to the highest degree is likened to the greatest of priests, at least in a spiritual sense.

In a wonderful affirmation of this, we see that every Torah-observing Jewish man is wearing “holy garments” that parallel the priestly vestments. Everyone generally wears a shirt and pants with a belt, along with their head-covering, corresponding to the four vestments of the regular priest (kutonet, michnasei bad, avnet, mitznefet). And there are four additional special items that a Jew wears that parallel those unique garments of the High Priest:

The “bells” along the hem of the tallit.

The tzitz headplate worn on the top of the forehead is like the head tefillin worn “between the eyes”, while the choshen breastplate worn over the heart is like the arm tefillin which is supposed to be worn in line with the heart. The ephod that was worn over the shoulders and stretched down below the waist is like the tzitzit katan garment worn over the shoulders with its fringes hanging down below the waist. The woolen tallit with which we wrap ourselves, with its customary blue stripes to remember tekhelet, is like the special blue meil that was made of fine tekhelet wool. And just as the meil had pa’amonim bells along its hem, the tallit, too, customarily has bell-like knots along its hem.

In this way, every Jew has the ability to elevate to a priest-like status, especially in lieu of a Temple, and in light of the Torah’s statement that all of Israel is a “nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Each Jew can bring about atonement, not only for himself but for his people as a whole, and each Jew can spread evermore divine light into the world.

Sefer Yetzirah and the 32 Paths of Creation

The first chapter of the Torah famously describes God’s creation of the universe. Although the text is quite brief, our Sages had much to say about the events of Creation. This is an especially important topic in Kabbalah, traditionally divided into two main headings: Ma’ase Beresheet, “the Work (or Narrative) of Creation”, and Ma’ase Merkavah, “the Work (or Narrative) of the Chariot”. The former explores the genesis and nature of the universe, along with a host of metaphysical concepts, while the latter is primarily focused on various aspects of God, and the mechanism of prophecy.

One of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts is Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”. This book outlines in more detail how God created the universe. Since the Torah tells us that God created the world by speaking it into existence (“God said, ‘Let there be light…’”), it is taught that the building blocks of the universe are the very letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Everything that exists was fashioned out of unique combinations of these special letters.

Along with the 22 letters were the Ten Sefirot, divine energies that imbue everything within Creation. These Sefirot are sometimes said to parallel the 10 base numerical digits, from 0 to 9 (the word sefirah also means “counting”). Just as modern physicists might argue that the entire universe can be reduced to mathematical equations, Sefer Yetzirah reduces all of Creation down to these foundational numbers and letters. And so, Sefer Yetzirah begins by stating that God created the universe through lamed-beit netivot, thirty-two paths.

The Power of Sefer Yetzirah

Sefer Yetzirah is first explicitly mentioned over 1500 years ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), where Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied it together on Friday afternoons. Using the secrets described in the text, the two rabbis apparently learned how to create ex nihilo, like God. Each Friday, they would team up to create a calf out of thin air—and eat it!

It is said that the patriarch Abraham was capable of the same feat. In the well-known narrative of the three angels visiting Abraham, we read how Abraham “took butter and milk, and the calf which he had made, and set it before them…” (Genesis 18:8). Many have asked: how is it possible that the forefather of the Jewish people gave his guests a mixture of dairy and meat products? The simplest answer is that, of course, Abraham preceded the giving of the Torah and at that time there was still no prohibition on consuming dairy and meat together. However, Jewish tradition maintains that although the forefathers lived before the giving of the Torah, they still fulfilled its precepts through an oral tradition, and from the prophecies they received directly from God. So, how did Abraham put both dairy and meat before his guests?

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the verse by citing earlier mystical teachings that say Abraham knew the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah and fashioned the calf from scratch! This is why the verse clearly says “…and the calf which he had made [asher asah]”. Since Abraham made the calf, it was only a hunk of flesh with no divine soul (which only God can infuse), and was therefore pareve, neither dairy nor meat. In fact, many believe that Abraham was actually the author of Sefer Yetzirah. Others maintain that it was written by Rabbi Akiva, based on teachings that were initially revealed by Abraham.

A Brief Overview of the 32 Paths

Where exactly are the 32 Paths of Creation derived from? A careful analysis of the Genesis text shows that God (Elohim) is mentioned 32 times in the account of creation. Each of these 32 parallels the 32 paths. There are ten cases where the Torah says vayomer Elohim, “And God said…” in the first chapter. These 10 correspond to the Ten Sefirot. The remaining 22 mentions of God correspond to the 22 letters in the following way:

Sefer Yetzirah breaks down the Hebrew alphabet into three groups: the “mothers” (ima’ot), the “doubles” (kefulot), and the “elementals” (yesodot). There are three mother letters: Aleph (א), Mem (מ), and Shin (ש). These are the “mothers” because each is associated with one of the three primordial elements of Creation: Aleph is the root of air (avirאויר), Mem is the root of water (mayimמים), and Shin is the root of fire (esh, אש). These three correspond to the three times that the Torah says “God created” (Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27).

The “Tree of Life” depicting the Ten Sefirot, intertwined by the 22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Together, they make up the 32 Paths of Wisdom.

There are then 7 “doubled” letters, those that have two sounds in Hebrew:  Beit (ב), Gimel (ג), Dalet (ד), Khaf (כ), Pei (פ), Reish (ר), and Tav (ת). The double sounds of beit and veit, khaf and haf, pei and phei are well-known to us today, while the other four are a little more mysterious (see below on parashat Noach, ‘Shabbat or Shabbos: What’s the Correct Pronunciation?’)  The seven kefulot correspond to the seven times that the Torah says “God saw” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The remaining 12 letters, the yesodot, correspond to the remaining 12 times that God is mentioned.

To summarize, the 32 paths derive from the 32 times that God is mentioned in Genesis, and further broken down into their groupings of 10, 3, 7, and 12 based on the specific type of verb used in relation to God.

Finally, all of these are embedded in the most famous of Kabbalistic diagrams, the Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. The 10 circles on the diagram correspond to the Ten Sefirot. The Sefirot are interconnected by 22 lines, corresponding to the 22 letters. There are three horizontal lines, corresponding to the three mother letters; seven vertical lines, corresponding to the seven doubled letters; and twelve diagonal lines, corresponding to the twelve elemental letters. This simple diagram amazingly captures a great deal of information, and is a key tool in Kabbalah—as well as the first step towards creating your very own calf!


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here