The Tzitz of the High Priest
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
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The Tzitz of the High Priest
By Michael Hattin
Parashat Tetzaveh continues naturally the thrust of the narratives first introduced in last week's Parashat Teruma. Recall that last week, the Torah spelled out in exhaustive detail the vessels of the Mishkan as well as the building elements boards and curtains, covers and courtyard that together constituted the housing for those sacred articles. The data was presented in hierarchical format, with the most precious vessels the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of the Showbread and the Menorah introduced first, before the text went on to describe the thick planks of acacia wood, the precious embroidered textiles and the dyed hides that comprised their spatial envelope. The description of the building proper was in turn followed by an account of the dividing curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the complex.
After the Torah had completed the matter of the building proper and its golden contents, it turned its attention to the outer courtyard, beginning once again with the primary vessel associated with that space, namely the altar of bronze used for animal sacrifice. This was then followed by a description of the white linen curtains that marked the borders of the outer courtyard, the supporting pillars with their foundation sockets and the associated pegs from which the curtains were suspended. Finally, the Torah described the elaborate entrance curtain that secured the complex on its eastern side. Thus, the account of the Mishkan or Tent of Meeting was completed.
THE TRANSITION TO PARASHAT TETZAVEH AND THE INTRODUCTION OF THE RAMBAN
The transition to Parashat Tetzaveh is logically sound and thematically seamless, as the text moves from a description of the building and its vessels to a description of the garments worn by the officiating priests who are designated to perform the service:
As for you, draw near your brother Aharon and his sons with him from the midst of the people of Israel so that he might serve Me Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, El'azar and Itamar the sons of Aharon. Make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for glory. As for you, speak to all of the wise of heart that I have filled with a spirit of wisdom so that they will fashion the vestments of Aharon to sanctify him so that he may serve Me (28:1-3).
great detail, the Torah now spells out these precious garments, clearly
distinguishing between the attire of the regular Kohen and the more elaborate
vestments donned by the Kohen Gadol or High Priest. The typical priest wears four garments during
the course of performing his service: breeches, a tunic, a belt and a turban or
miter. The Kohen Gadol, or High Priest,
wears these four basic garments (with some variation in form) as well as four
others in addition: a robe, an ephod, a breastplate, and a
headband. This week we will direct our
attention to the headband or tzitz, but first we must consider the
introductory remarks of the Ramban (13th century,
Aharon ought to be honored and glorified by wearing garments of honor and glory for these garments resemble garments of royalty in form. At the time of the Torah, the monarchy would have worn such clothing. The tunic signifies leadership just as Yosef was presented by his father with a tunic of many stripes (see Breisheet 37:3) thus, Aharon was to be clothed as a king of ancient times the miter is still worn by royalty and nobility to this day the breastplate and ephod are regal attire and the headband is a type of crown. The materials used to make these garments, namely gold, sky-blue, purple and crimson, are precious and rare
Thus, the Ramban understands that the Kohen Gadol represents a kind of sovereign, for his garments of office are to be fashioned out of unique and expensive materials and in their appearance they are to resemble the ornamented vestments of a king. But while outwardly, the Kohen Gadol may resemble a regal figure bejeweled with the trappings of majesty, his true power is neither temporal nor political. Rather, he is a human being that ministers to God, living his life in His constant presence. The garments that he wears therefore speak of the inherent dignity of man, a dignity that is a direct function of his unique capacity to apprehend the Deity and to live according to His laws. In short, the Kohen Gadol serves as the exemplar of what it means to forge a connection with God, to experience His immediacy and to act and think accordingly. For the Kohen Gadol who ministers before God, then, there are no moments that are experienced in the absence of His presence.
THE SECTION CONCERNING THE TZITZ
The section concerning the tzitz or headband states:
fashion a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall inscribe it clearly, after
the manner of a signet ring, with the words: holy to God. You shall place it upon a cord of sky-blue
and it shall be upon the miter, opposite the front of the miter it shall
be. Thus it shall be upon the forehead
of Aharon, so that Aharon shall carry the expiation for the sacred offerings
that the people of
The headband, like the other
royal clothing of the High Priest, is prepared out of precious and valuable
materials. It is composed of two
elements: a highly visible ornamental strip that is fashioned out of pure gold
and a fastening cord that is spun out of prized sky-blue wool. As Rashi (11t5h century,
THE DERIVATION OF THE WORD
The commentaries wonder about the
derivation of the unusual word tzitz and seem to adopt three main
approaches. According to the so-called
long commentary of the Ibn Ezra (12th century,
It is quite possible that all of
these possibilities are themselves derivatives of a fundamental definition, for
the noun tzitz can also mean a blossom or first flowering. Recall that in the aftermath of Korachs
aborted rebellion, with the people of
On the morrow, Moshe entered the Tent of the Testimony and behold Aharons staff, he of the House of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth a bud, produced a blossom (vayatzetz tzitz) and then made almonds (BeMidbar 17:23).
If so, the basic definition of tzitz would be that which bursts forth like a first flower and this could then be related to a tassel or shock of hair (Ibn Ezra), a prominent protrusion (Rashbam) or a glint that catches the eyes attention (Chizkuni). In any case, the thrust of the matter is to suggest that the tzitz worn by the High Priest is not to be an understated adornment hidden from view but rather a public and prominent display piece, like a crown, that signifies from a distance the high office of its bearer.
Of course, unlike the crown of a king that loudly proclaims his exalted external status while saying nothing about his inner life, the classical commentaries rightly understood that the tzitz of the High Priest was as much about thoughts as about appearances. The dedicatory holy to God engraved upon its surface not only was a reference to the exalted office of the High Priest as some sort of formal abstraction, but to the very personal deliberations that were being processed behind that headband of gold, in the mind of wearer who did Gods service. Ibn Ezra elaborates by saying that
You must realize that the two temples near the forehead mark the location in the brain where the five senses come together, and there is to be found the seat of the imagination. From there higher thoughts proceed. Therefore the Torah indicates that it is through the agency of the tzitz that expiation for the sacred offerings is achieved, for perhaps the thoughts of those that sanctify the offerings may have been improper (commentary to 28:37).
It should not surprise us, then, that in the world of the sacrificial service, some THOUGHTS can actually render the offering unfit! The Mishna in Tractate Zevachim Chapters 1 and 2 details a number of scenarios in which the sacrifice is disqualified by the thoughts of the Kohen who performs the service, even while the external aspects of the ritual are in nowise altered. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to go into details, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that THOUGHTS DO MATTER, and the more exalted the context the more those thoughts matter. Just as a scribe who fails to explicitly have in mind the sanctification of Gods name when he writes that name in the Torah scroll has rendered the scroll unfit (see Rambam, Laws of Tefilln, Chapter 1:15), so too must the High Priest dedicate his exclusive attention spiritual and intellectual to Gods service.
In effect, then, the four special
garments of the Kohen Gadol together form a larger matrix of meaning, one that
is reinforced by the tzitz provocatively perched above his
forehead. The robe of
the High Priest, sky-blue in color and strung at the base with bells in the
shape of pomegranates that quietly chime with each of his steps (Shemot
28:31-35), reminds him that he walks before the Lord always. The epaulettes of his ephod, engraved
with the names of the twelve tribes (Shemot 28:9-12), remind the High Priest
that the burden of the people of