The Priestly Ketonet (Undercoat) and Me’il (Robe)

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish


  1. Tekhelet and White

The special garments worn by a Kohen include the mikhnasayim (pants), ketonet (tunic), avnet (belt) and migba’at (turban). The Kohen Gadol wears his headdress as a mitznefet (mitre), instead of the migba’at, and in addition he wears four garments that are unique to his station: the choshen (breastplate), efod (apron), me’il (robe), and tzitz (golden crown). On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol wears only the first four garments. The Mishkan refers to these as the “garments of white,” while the special garments that the Kohen Gadol wears at other times are referred to as the “garments of gold.” An examination of the description of these garments as presented in the Torah suggests that the “garments of white” might more accurately be called the “garments of linen,” as they are referred to in the order of the service for Yom Kippur (Vayikra 16:4).

The “garments of linen” are worn, as noted, by all Kohanim, and are essentially “working clothes.” The Kohen Gadol, in performing the special Yom Kippur service before God, likewise wears only the garments of linen. The garments of gold, which he wears for the daily elements of service that are performed also on Yom Kippur, as well as for service throughout the rest of the year, are royal garb. The Kohen Gadol is, as it were, the “king” of the priestly tribe. On Yom Kippur, he cannot stand before God as a king wearing his golden garments, since “a prosecutor cannot speak for the defense.”[1] The Kohen Gadol therefore stands before God in the simple garments of a regular Kohen.

However, if we adopt the mishna’s term for the Kohen Gadol’s clothes for the special service on Yom Kippur – “garments of white” – then we might refer to his other garments (the “garments of gold”) as “garments of tekhelet (blue),” since the blue dye is a dominant feature of each of them.

The me’il is entirely blue. Concerning the tzitz, we find:

And you shall put it on a blue thread, that it may be upon the mitznefet. (Shemot 28:37)

The choshen and the efod also feature blue, along with gold, purple, and scarlet, but the blue seems to be the most prominent:

And they shall bind the choshen by its rings to the rings of the efod with a thread of blue, that it may be above the finely wrought girdle of the efod, and that the choshen not come loose from the efod. (Shemot 28:28)

Thus, the dominant colors of the priestly garments are white and tekhelet, like the tzitzit.

In Parashat Mishpatim, we discussed the combination of these two colors in the Revelation at Sinai:

And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet a kind of paved work of sapir stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness. (Shemot 24:10)

The clear sapir and the sky-blue tekhelet together formed a heavenly and inspirational sight.

In our consciousness, the color tekhelet – dominating the four special garments of the Kohen Gadol – represents the high heavens, with its pure clarity expressing, for us, the One God. The lower heavens – the clouds – are usually represented by the color white, which is the color of the garments of regular Kohanim. From there, God’s blessing of rain descends to us as a reward for fulfilling the commandments.[2] The “lower heavens” also have different shapes and changing hues, expressing the variegated manifestations of the One God.

  1. Garments of the Garden of Eden

In our shiur on Parashat Bereishit, we discussed the parallel between the Garden of Eden and the Temple. In terms of this parallel, Adam – who was placed in the Garden “to cultivate it and to guard it” – was a Kohen Gadol of sorts, serving in this Temple and bearing responsibility for its preservation. Thus, in light of the fact that God makes “coats of skins (kotnot or)” for Adam and his wife and clothes them, we might point to some sort of connection between these coats and the ketonet worn by the Kohanim. Indeed, we find in the midrash:

Adam was the firstborn of the world, and since he brought a sacrifice – as it is written, “And it shall please the Lord better than an ox or a bullock that has horns and hoofs” (Tehillim 69:32) – he wore garments of a Kohen Gadol, as it is written, “And the Lord God made coats of skins for Adam and for his wife, and He clothed them.” These were garments of honor, and the firstborn would use them. (Bamidbar Rabba 4)

“And the Lord God made coats of skins… and He clothed them” – What were these coats of skins? They were the garments of the Kohen Gadol, with which the Holy One, blessed be He, clothed them, for the honor of the world. (Tanchuma, Toldot 12)

These midrashim appear to conform mainly with the teaching of R. Meir:

In the teachings of R. Meir they found: It is written, “coats of light” [or, written with an alef instead of an ayin] – these were the garments of Adam. (Bereishit Rabba 20)

From these midrashim, it seems that the verse, “And the Lord God made coats of skins for Adam and for his wife, and He clothed them” actually precedes the sin; its proper “chronological” place would be after the verse, “And they were both naked, Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame” (Bereishit 2:25).[3]

However, since the text deliberately juxtaposes the story that begins, “And the serpent was cunning (arom)…” with “And they were both naked (arumim),” the fact that God made the garments for Adam and his wife appears only after the sin.

On this basis, we might propose a different understanding of the verse:

And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Bereishit 3:7)

Perhaps the priestly garments were removed from them in the wake of the sin, and therefore they were forced to make themselves loincloths. Perhaps it was after that that God made them “coats of skins,” in accordance with the plain meaning of the text, instead of the “coats of light” which they had lost, in accordance with the teaching of R. Meir. Thus, R. Meir explains the verse in accordance with the midrash – “coats of light,” referring to what God made for them prior to the sin – and also in accordance with the plain meaning of the text – the “coats of skins” that He gave them after the sin.

Let us dwell for a moment on R. Meir’s teaching concerning the “coats of light.” It seems that these coats might be an expression of man having been created “in the image of God.” Man’s resemblance to God was reflected in his garments, for indeed we find:

O Lord my God, You are very great, You are clothed with glory and majesty. Who covers Himself with light as with a garment; Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain; Who lays the beams of His chambers in the waters; Who makes the clouds His chariot. (Tehillim 104:1-3)

God is “clothed,” as it were, in light, and therefore He clothes Adam, too, in light. Moreover, there seems to be a connection between God’s garment of light and His stretching of the heavens like a curtain:

From where were the heavens created? God took from the light of His garment and spread it like a garment… for His garment produced light, as it is written, “Who covers Himself with light as with a garment.” (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 3)

This description of God’s “garment” seems most closely suited to the me’il, which is all techelet. God stretched the light of this me’il to form the blue curtain of the sky.

God’s voice, going about in the Garden in the breeze of the day, may likewise recall the sound of the me’il, which is decorated with bells and pomegranate:

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day. (Bereishit 3:8)

And upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and of purple and of scarlet, round about its hem, and bells of gold between them, round about… And it shall be upon Aharon when he comes to minister, and its sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he will not die. (Shemot 28:33-35)

The white ketonet was used to clothe Adam, and this, too, was a “garment of white” and one of the garments of the Kohen Gadol, as taught in the midrash. It seems, then, that Adam was dressed as though in the garments of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

  1. Atonement for Bloodshed

In a midrash concerning the respective function or significance of the various priestly garments, R. Anani teaches:

The ketonet atones for bloodshed, as it is written, “And they dipped the ketonet [Yosef’s coat] in blood.” (Arakhin 16a)

The ketonet referred to in this midrash and considered in comparison to the priestly ketonet is not that of Adam, but rather that of Yosef. It seems that R. Anani regards the striped coat (or long-sleeved coat) that Yaakov made for Yosef as a priestly garment of sorts, for Yaakov raised him as a nazir: “They shall be upon the head of Yosef and on the crown of the head of him that was a nazir among his brothers” (Bereishit 49:26). This echoes the prohibitions pertaining to a nazir whose close relative dies – “for the crown of his God is upon his head” (Bamidbar 6:7) – as well as the similar commandment concerning a Kohen Gadol. Yosef receives the double portion of the birthright, which is also the priesthood, and his ketonet is also a priestly garment of sorts.

The brothers relented of their original plan to kill Yosef; ultimately, they took his ketonet, which was a garment befitting a free man, such that they were able to sell him as a slave when he was hauled out of the pit wearing only (short) pants, in the manner of slaves in the ancient world. In our discussion of Parashat Vayeshev, we focused on the sin of the sale of Yosef as a slave, but we must not forget the points in favor of the brothers. The ketonet “atoned,” as it were, for their original intention to spill his blood; it was taken instead of his life. We may assume that the ketonet that a Kohen wore while performing the regular sacrificial service in the Temple would sometimes be splattered with the blood of sacrifices, just as Yosef’s ketonet was dipped in the blood of the wild goat.

These blood stains are not insignificant:

And you shall take of the blood that is upon the altar and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it upon Aharon, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and the garments of his sons with him, and he shall be sanctified, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons’ garments with him. (Shemot 29:21)

The verse describes the process of sanctification of the Kohanim and their garments. As part of this process, blood is sprinkled, among other places, directly onto the priestly garments.

This issue demands deeper consideration. The gemara (ibid.) draws a comparison between atonement achieved by means of the ketonet and atonement achieved by the egla arufa, the sacrificial calf whose neck is broken in the event that someone is found murdered outside of a city. For the purposes of our discussion, it is clear that the very fact that a comparison is made to the egla arufa indicates that in the case of the ketonet, too, the atonement is not for the murderer, but rather for the congregation as a whole, and for the sin of the ground, which concealed the blood that had been spilled.

  1. More on the Me’il

According to the plain text, the me’il is a service garment that expresses the idea that the Kohen Gadol goes about in the Temple as the servant of the Master of the house – God Himself:

And it shall be upon Aharon when he comes to minister, and its sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he will not die. (Shemot 28:35)

The bells on the me’il – like bells on the garments of servants of human masters[4]  – are meant to keep the master informed of the servant’s whereabouts, and to ensure that the servant, entering some unfrequented place to perform his service, will not catch the master by surprise, since he will be heard approaching. On the other hand, the me’il, which is all blue, is also meant to evoke the glory of God, Who is “clothed,” as it were, in the blue of the heavens, as discussed above. The blue of the sky covers God’s glory as the me’il covers the body of the Kohen:

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is tekhelet set apart from all other varieties of dye? Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the heaven,[5] and the heaven resembles the Throne of Glory, as it is written, “And they saw the God of Israel, and there was beneath His feet as it were a paved work of sapir stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness” (Shemot 24:10), and it is written, “The likeness of a Throne, as the appearance of a sapir stone” (Yechezkel 1:6). (Sota 17a and elsewhere)

This dimension of significance of the Kohen Gadol’s garments also arises from the similarity between the me’il and the covering of the Ark of the Testimony, which represents the glory of the Divine Presence. The covering is put in place “when the camp journeys,” when the Mishkan is dismantled:

And Aharon shall come, and his sons, when the camp sets forward, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the Ark of Testimony with it, and they shall put on it the covering of skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in its poles. (Bamidbar 4:5-6)[6]

  1. Atonement for Lashon Ha-Ra

The midrash of R. Anani cited above has the following to say about the me’il:

The me’il atones for lashon ha-ra. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let something that makes a sound come and atone for a sound that is made. (Arakhin 16a)

This midrash seems to contradict a different midrash, which teaches that it is the incense that atones for lashon ha-ra:

The school of R. Yishma’el taught: For what does incense atone? For lashon ha-ra. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let that which is performed in concealment [for the incense is offered when no one else is present] come and atone for an act committed in concealment. (Zevachim 88b)

The first midrash emphasizes the sound – the loudness – of lashon ha-ra, while the second emphasizes its concealment or hiddenness, but both are correct. The incense and the me’il atone for different types of lashon ha-ra: there is lashon ha-ra that is spoken in public, and lashon ha-ra spoken in concealment.

We can understand the source of the idea that incense atones for lashon ha-ra. The gemara (ibid.) derives the general idea of atonement achieved by the incense from the incense that Aharon used to atone for the rebels in the episode of Korach. From here we learn that the essence of the sin of Korach and his company was the lashon ha-ra that they spoke against Moshe and Aharon, which caused the whole controversy in the camp, leading to the deaths of some fifteen thousand people.[7] But what does the me’il have to do with atonement for lashon ha-ra (aside from the idea of the voice, or sound, as explained in the midrash)?

In several different places, Chazal teach that the essence of the unit on tzara’at concerns lashon ha-ra:

R. Yitzchak said: “This shall be the teaching concerning the metzora (leper)” – [this may be read as,] “This shall be the teaching concerning one who is motzi shem ra (slanders someone else).” (Yerushalmi Sota 2:1 and elsewhere)

The Kohen makes atonement for the metzora, while the me’il – the prestigious priestly garment – is the main vehicle for atonement for the sin of lashon ha-ra when the sinner repents and mends his ways.


[1] This is the view of R. Chisda (Rosh Hashana 26a). What he means, as suggested by the gemara and the commentators, is that gold recalls the sin of the golden calf. This explanation fits with our suggestion that gold is a “prosecutor” because it leads to arrogance, and this must be avoided during the special and holy service performed on Yom Kippur.

In the Second Temple, the practice reflected the opposite idea: the linen garments of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur were extremely luxurious (see Mishna Yoma 3:7, and in the gemara 35a-b).

[2]  See Devarim 11:10-17 and elsewhere.

[3]  Rashi (Bereishit 3:20) suggests a similar interpretation.

[4] See Shabbat 58a concerning the pair of bells on the garment of a servant.

[5] In the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:2) and other sources from Eretz Yisrael, we find in the midrash, “The sea resembles grasses, and grasses resemble the heaven.”

[6]  Admittedly, the other items of furniture of the Mishkan are likewise covered with cloths of blue, but a garment that is wholly blue is mentioned only in connection with Aharon and the me’il. Furthermore, the blue cloths that cover the other vessels are themselves covered with other layers (of scarlet or purple, or tachash skins). Only in the case of the ark is the wholly blue cloth exposed to the outside – like the me’il of the Kohen Gadol.

[7]  The explanation given here appears to contradict the idea discussed previously of incense as atoning for lashon ha-ra that is concealed, since the lashon ha-ra of Korach and his company against Moshe and Aharon was spoken openly and publicly, while the metzora (leper), whose atonement is achieved by virtue of the me’il, would appear to have spoken in concealment. This contradiction requires some resolution.