• Rav Yitzchak Levy

In this shiur, we will complete our examination of the relationship between the Sanhedrin and the altar. We will relate here to additional aspects of the connection between those who serve in or come to the Temple and the matter of judgment.


The Priests as Judges


In several places, the Torah refers to the special role of the priests and Levites as judges:


In Parashat Shoftim, with respect to the nation's supreme court, the Sanhedrin, we read:


If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between plague and plague, matters of controversy within your gates. Then shall you arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose; and you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment. (Devarim 17:8-9)


In the section dealing with the heifer whose neck is broken, we read:


And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the Lord your God has chosen to minister to him, and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried. (ibid. 21:5)


When Moshe blesses the tribe of Levi, he says:


They shall teach Yaakov your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before You and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar. (ibid. 33:10)


When he bestows his blessing upon the tribe of Levi, Moshe notes two tasks that have a clear connection: judgment and teaching Torah. They are so strongly connected that a baraita expounds: "When there is a priest, there is judgment; when there is no priest, there is no judgment" (Sanhedrin 52b).


This connection is also reflected in a ruling of the Rambam:


It is a mitzva that priests and Levites serve on the Sanhedrin, as it is stated: "And you shall come to the priests the Levites." If none were to be found, then even if they were all ordinary Israelites, it is permitted. (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:2)


As we have seen, the Temple is a place of Torah and law. Therefore, those who work there are bound also to teach Torah and perform judgment. The members of the tribe charged with the divine service are close to the site of the resting of God's Shekhina. Since they are close to the place where He reveals Himself, they are also charged with executing His words, both by teaching the Torah and by applying it in the real world through the administration of justice.


The Sanhedrin's proximity to the altar is thus not a technical matter, but rather a fundamental closeness. The priests, those who serve and minister to God, are also responsible for revealing His word.


The Priestly Garments - Garments of Righteousness


In psalm 132, which describes David's tortured longing to find the site of the Temple, David takes an oath: "Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness; and let Your pious ones shout for joy" (v. 9). The commentators (ad loc.) are divided as to the meaning of the words, "Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness." The Radak explains:


"They shall be clothed with righteousness" - the priestly garments, which are garments of righteousness.


            Other commentators spell this out in greater detail. The Ibn Ezra writes:


The reason for speaking to the priests about garments of righteousness is that they teach Torah and they are the judges of Israel.


            The Malbim writes:


Because the image of their garments points to righteousness and to the good traits in which the soul clothes itself, as Chazal have said.


            Metzudat David writes:


The priestly garments are called garments of righteousness because they achieve atonement and vindicate sinners.


            According to the Ibn Ezra (and apparently also the Malbim), the priestly garments are called garments of righteousness because they reflect the inner essence of the priests – to teach Torah and to judge Israel.


            The Metzudat David highlights another role of the priests, that is, achieving atonement through their service. Since wearing the garments is itself defined as service[1] and the objective of the sacrificial service is to achieve atonement, wearing the priestly garments is described with the words, "they will be clothed with righteousness."


In his oath to God in the continuation of the psalm, David says: "I will clothe her priests with salvation and her pious one shall shout aloud for joy" (ibid. v. 16). This verse parallels the verse: "Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness and let Your pious ones shout for joy," discussed above. Thus, the word tzedek, righteousness, parallels yesha, salvation. Some suggest that in this context, the word tzedek means salvation.


The parallel between righteousness and salvation in the context of clothing is found in the Bible in several places. For example: "For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head" (Yeshaya 59:17); "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness" (ibid. 61:10).[2]


Moreover, the motif of wearing righteousness or wearing salvation appears in other verses as well. For example:


Now therefore rise, O Lord God, into Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength; let Your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let Your pious ones rejoice in goodness. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 6:41)


I put on righteousness, and my justice clothed me, as a robe and a diadem. (Iyov 29:14)


            Regarding this last verse, the Metzudat David says:


"I put on righteousness" – I performed so much righteousness to the point that I was wrapped in it.


            In other words, performing righteousness clothes the doer, as it were, in that quality. The garment is identical with the inner quality and gives expression to it.


The Malbim,on the other hand, explains:


"I put on righteousness, and it clothed me" – I wear righteousness and righteousness wears me. That is to say, whoever wishes to perform righteousness should learn from me, as I am the garment of righteousness, through which it can be seen by man. There is a difference between levush (garment) and me'il (robe), for a me'il is worn over the garments, as is stated in Yeshaya 59, and so too the visible judgment. But righteousness is private to him alone, as an inner garment.


When a person performs righteousness, righteousness is, as it were, his garment – that is, righteousness is revealed through him and becomes visible to other people. Righteousness is his inner garment, and the me'il is its outward manifestation through judgment.


This motif repeats itself in the prophecy of Yeshaya on the future ruler from the house of David, who will rule with righteousness, peace, and the fear of God. The prophet says about him:


And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. (Yeshaya 11:5)[3]


The motif of a garment and righteousness also finds expression in the opposite direction – with respect to unworthy deeds – as is stated to Yehoshua, the High Priest in the days of the return to Zion:


Now Yehoshua was clothed in filthy garments, and he stood before the angel. And he answered and spoke to those who stood before him, saying, “Take off the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you; and I clothe you in festive garments. (Zekharya 3:3-4)[4]


R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who brings all these sources at the end of his commentary to the section dealing with the priestly garments (Shemot 28:43), summarizes their significance in the following manner:


After all these quotations, we think we are justified in assuming that the garments which are essential for the priests to appear as priests also have to express the character which the priest is to represent as such. That they are not to be simply external adornment, that they must mean something which is not only to affect the mind of the onlooker, but to have a meaning for the wearer himself is shown in the law that absolutely nothing may intervene between them and the body of the priest. They must be in direct contact with, and completely cover, the particular part of the body they are meant to cover; the priest must be entirely at one with his garments.


            R. Hirsch brings additional support for the nature of the priestly garments from the following rabbinic exposition (Zevachim 88b, Arakhin 16a):


Why are the sections on the sacrifices and the priestly garments close together? To teach you that just as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly vestments make atonement. The coat atones for bloodshed… The breeches atone for lewdness… The miter atones for arrogance… The girdle atones for [impure] meditations of the heart… The breastplate atones for [neglect of] civil laws… The efod atones for idolatry… The robe atones for slander… The head-plate atones for brazenness…


            R. Hirsch concludes:


These sentences indeed afford in general a complete confirmation of the way we take priestly garments to have a symbolic meaning. They show that our Sages too understood them to be in very essential and intimate relationship to moral human character and to the moral mission of human life. A closer consideration shows that the special relation of atonement associated with each individual garment to special definite transgressions and sins which are enumerated here are in quite harmonious agreement with the meaning we have taken these garments to have.


            To summarize, the priests are also charged with teaching Torah and administering judgment. Their garments give expression to their service, which is meant to achieve atonement, and each garment represents atonement for a different sin. The deeper meaning of the priestly garments is that they constitute external expression of the inner qualities of those who wear them: their dedication to justice and righteousness and their capacity to achieve atonement.


Jerusalem and the House of God as the Seat of Justice at the End of Days


Many prophets (see Yeshaya 2:1-4; Mikha 4:1-5; Yoel 3:5-4:21; Zekharya 9:9-10) describe the judgment that will take place at the end of days in Jerusalem and the Temple, centered on the mountain of the house of God. Just as Jerusalem and the Temple are the present venue of justice, so will they be the venue of justice in the future, at the end of days.


It is interesting that during the period of the Geonim, the section of the Kidron Valley between Mount Moriah and the Mount of Olives was called the Valley of Yehoshaphat. The source of that name is the prophecy of Yoel regarding the judgment that will take place at the end of days:


I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Yehoshafat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, for My people and for My heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and have divided up My land. (Yoel 4:2)


It is not by coincidence that the Valley of Yehoshafat is located immediately east of the site of the Temple. No other king in Jerusalem upheld the Torah's commands regarding justice and judgment as did Yehoshafat (whose name, of course, brings judgment to mind), as is described at length in II Divrei Ha-yamim 19:8:


Moreover, in Jerusalem did Yehoshafat set certain Levites, and priests, and heads of the fathers' houses of Israel, for the judgment of the Lord and for controversies. And they returned to Jerusalem.


Justice as a Condition for Closeness to the House of God


Several psalms in the book of Tehillim indicate that approaching the Temple Mount is conditioned on justice. For example:


A Psalm of David. Lord, who shall abide in Your tent? Who shall dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly and acts justly and speaks the truth in his heart. (Tehillim 15:1-2)


Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? He that has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, nor sworn deceitfully. (ibid. 24:3-4)


The following prophecy of Yeshaya is interesting in this context:


The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness has surprised the flatterers. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly; he who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands from holding of bribes, who stops his ears from hearing of blood and shuts his eyes from seeing evil. (Yeshaya 33:14-15)


In verse 20, the prophet continues his description of the future Jerusalem:


Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: your eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tent that shall not be taken down; its pegs shall not be removed forever, nor shall any of its cords be broken… For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; He will save us. (ibid. vv. 20-22)


The prophet's description is very similar to that which is described in Tehillim 15.


In many respects there is a close connection between justice and all of Jerusalem, regarding both its name and its essence. In these respects, there is also a very strong connection between the city and the Temple. We will note here two aspects common to the city and the Temple that are connected to justice.


Justice - the Essence of Jerusalem


A name expresses essence, and the fact that Jerusalem is called "justice" indicates that justice is part of the city's essence. This idea is expressed in other places in the Prophets and Writings as well. Yirmeya calls the city "habitation of justice and mountain of holiness" (Yirmeya 31:22); Yeshaya says: "The Lord is exalted; for He dwells on high: He has filled Zion with judgment and righteousness" (Yeshaya 33:5); psalm 48, which deals with Jerusalem, reads: "According to Your name, O God, so is Your praise to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is full of righteousness. Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Yehuda be glad, because of Your judgments" (Tehillim 48:11-12); and psalm 122 says about Jerusalem: "For these are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David" (Tehillim 122:5).


The assertion that justice is an intrinsic feature of Jerusalem has a far-reaching ramification: The presence of justice allows for the city to exist, and its absence necessitates its destruction. Yirmeya prophesied as follows:


Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in its broad places. If you can find a man, if there be any that does justice, that seeks the truth, and I will pardon it. (Yirmeya 5:1)


Chazal went further in describing the relationship between Jerusalem and justice:


This place vindicates (matzdik)its inhabitants: Malkitzedek, Adonitzedek, justice is called Jerusalem, as it is stated: "Justice lodged in her" (Yeshaya 1:21) (Bereishit Rabba 43:6)


R. Yehuda bar Simon said: No man ever spent the night in Jerusalem with a transgression in his hand. How so? The daily morning offering atoned for transgressions of the night, and the daily evening offering atoned for transgressions of the day, as it is stated: "Justice lodged in her." (Bqmidbar Rabba 21:21)


The atonement that is achieved each day in the Temple allows for justice to be revealed in the entire city.


The Reason for the Destruction of the City - Injustice


The first explicit prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple hangs the calamity on the fact that the principle government institutions, the priesthood and prophecy, are all corrupt and devoid of justice:


Hear this, I pray you, you heads of the house of Yaakov and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity; who build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. The head thereof judge for reward, and the priest thereof teach for hire, and the prophets divine for money; yet will they lean upon the Lord, and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No evil can come upon us.” Therefore, shall Zion for your sake be ploughed like a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps of rubble, and the mountain of the house like the high places of the forest. (Mikha 3:9-12)


This prophecy was uttered in the days of King Chizkiya, as is stated in Yirmeya 26:15-19, and it parallels the harsh description of the spiritual state of the city at that time in Yeshaya 1:21-27.


The obvious conclusion, especially from the prophecy in Mikha, is that the name "Justice" is a name that imposes obligation. Since it expresses the essence and nature of Jerusalem and the Temple, in the absence of justice, the city and the Temple have no reason to exist.




We have examined in a series of shiurim the relationship between the Sanhedrin and the altar, how it is understood, and what its implications are, and we have analyzed the significance of the fact that judgment belongs to God and the broader connection between the Temple and judgment.


At the end of our discussion, we discussed how the spiritual character of the city and the Temple is linked to justice, and how the presence of justice in the city and in the Temple therefore allows for it continued existence, while the absence of justice leads to its destruction.


Our argument that justice is inherent to Jerusalem and the Temple, and all the ramifications of this fact, does not mean that the demand for justice is limited to those places. The demand for justice is, of course, not limited to a particular place, and man is bound to pursue justice wherever he is, in the land of Israel or outside of it. However, there is a place that expresses the source and essence of justice, and the lack of justice in that place will lead to its destruction. Since the essence is more apparent, it is also more noticeable. The inheritance of the land of Israel is wholly dependent on justice, as it is stated: "Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you" (Devarim 16:20). But Jerusalem, which is called Justice, and the Sanhedrin, which convenes in close proximity to the altar, express the idea of justice in a most essential way, and without it they cannot exist.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The priesthood depends on the priestly garments. The gemara in Zevachim 17b says: "When wearing their [appointed] garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood." Regarding the role of the priestly garments as part of the atonement achieved through the sacrificial service, see below.

[2] This verse appears in the general context of judgment and justice. Before it, in verse 8, we read: "For I the Lord love judgment, I hate robbery with burnt-offerings; and I will give them their reward in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them." After it, in 61:11 and 62:1-2, we read: "For as the earth brings forth her growth, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause justice and praise to spring forth before all the nations. For the sake of Zion I will not hold my peace, and for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still, until her righteousness goes forth like radiance and her salvation like a burning torch. And the nations shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall express."

[3] A girdle is a close-fitting garment, symbolizing something that clings strongly to a person, as in Yirmeya 13:11: "For as the girdle cleaves to the loins of a man, so have I caused the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Yehuda to cleave to Me, says the Lord."

[4] And similarly in Tehillim 35:26: "Let them clothe themselves in shame and confusion, those who rejoice at my hurt"; and ibid. 109:18-19: "And he clothed himself with cursing like his garment… Let it be to him as the garment which he puts on, and for the girdle wherewith he is girded continually."