One of the bigdei kehuna (priestly garments) described in Parashat Tetzaveh is the choshen – the breastplate worn by the kohen gadol, within which were embedded twelve special stones, which bore the inscriptions of the names of the twelve tribes (28:21).
The Torah refers to the breastplate with the term “choshen mishpat” (literally, “the breastplate of judgment” – 28:15), which has been explained by the commentators in several different ways. Rav Saadia Gaon interprets “mishpat” in this verse to mean simply “specifications,” emphasizing that the breastplate must be made precisely according to the guidelines presented by the Torah. This is similar to God’s command to Moshe earlier (26:30) to assemble the Mishkan “ke-mishpato” – according to the stated requirements. There, too, Rav Saadia Gaon explains the term “ke-mishpato” to mean “according to its specifications.”
The Rashbam, following the second interpretation given by his grandfather, Rashi, explains that the word “mishpat” here refers to the choshen’s function as an oracle. The breastplate contained the Urim Ve-tumim, a device which was used when questions of national import arose, as the kohen gadol would pose the question and the letters of the Urim Ve-tumim would illuminate to spell out God’s response. This process is referred to as “mishpat,” in the sense that the choshen resolved difficult questions much as a court decides cases that are brought before it for adjudication.
Netziv, in Ha’ameik Davar, creatively suggests that the term “choshen mishpat” indicates that the choshen’s function was to petition God to assist Benei Yisrael in battle against their enemies. Citing a verse from Sefer Melakhim I (8:49), Netziv contends that the word “mishpat” is used in reference to avenging honor, and thus the choshen worn by the kohen gadol was intended to appeal to God to defend His nation against those who threatened them.
The Gemara (Arakhin 16a, Zevachim 88b), however, as Rashi cites, associates the choshen with actual “mishpat” – judgment. According to the Gemara, the kohen gadol’s breastplate served to atone for sins of the judiciary.
To explain the connection between the choshen and judicial corruption, Rav Yitzchak Arama notes in his Akeidat Yitzchak that the choshen contained the names of all twelve tribes, representing the equal stature and importance of all members of the nation. By carrying the names of all the tribes, each of which was engraved on a different stone, the kohen gadol conveyed the message that all members of Am Yisrael are precious and cherished by the Almighty. Most sins of judgment, the Akeidat Yitzchak writes, are the result of favoritism, of viewing some segments of the population, or some individuals, as worthier or more important than others. The choshen atoned for this form of wrongdoing by emphasizing the need to respect the rights and the dignity of all members of the nation, without ever placing the need and interests of one group over those of another.