A Priest Walks Into The Tabernacle

TETZAVEH (EXODUS 27:20−30:10)
24 February 2018 / 9 Adar 5778

Parsha Summary 

In this Torah portion, God appoints Aaron and his sons as priests. God describes the priestly clothing, and explains how to properly sanctify the priests. Aaron is commanded to make incense offerings to God every morning on an altar. God explains that once a year Aaron will make an offering on that altar to atone for all of the Israelites’ sins. 

Tetzaveh: You shall command. Command the making and bringing of clear oil from beaten olives to keep the lamps in the tabernacle lit, and the making of the sacral vestments for Aaron and the four of his sons who will serve as kohanim. As priests.

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It feels so foreign, the story of needing special cloth and fur, of gold and silver, crimson and purple and blue linen and embroidery, special stones, layers of covering to connect with God. The ornamental clothing of the Priest is described in this parsha in dramatic and exacting detail. Far more extravagant than Joseph’s coat, it nevertheless reminds me of his and other clothing we’ve read about.

Judah’s cloak. Jacob’s Esau costume. Rebecca’s veil. Adam and Eve both naked and clothed. 

Rabbi Arthur Waskow asks whether clothing screens us from God's awesome, overwhelming presence or brings us closer. He wants to know whether nakedness in Eden represented a closer spiritual contact with God, and if as Eden disappeared, was the first set of clothing that Eve and Adam made for themselves, a screen against God out of fear. He then suggests perhaps the second set, the clothing God made for them, was a tender mesh of reconnection.
Whatever else the clothing of the high priest was, it was performative. The identity of the priest wasn’t inherent or natural, it came to be through performative acts within a historical context. Having donned the clothing and taken on the rituals, the person became a priest, his performative gestures coming to be seen by himself and others as indicative of his inherent identity. A strange series of performances is storied as normal: Of course this is the way one becomes a priest.

It’s not just ancient history, either.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment (take a quick break from reading) and think back to a time you stood in a sanctuary before an open ark. Maybe it was Simchat Torah. Maybe it was Shavuot. What was the Torah wearing?

A fancy mantle, perhaps? Maybe velvet? Was it crimson, or purple, or deep blue? If it was the High Holidays it might have been a bright white. Was there any gold thread? A metal shield resembling a breast plate? Rimmonim rimon means pomegranate, and the rimmonim are the decorative filials placed over the wooden staves holding the scroll? A crown? If you’ve ever carried or held a Torah all dressed up in rimmonim and crowns, were there bells? The bells symbolize those that adorned the robes of the High Priest, according to our parsha and were alternated bell, pomegranate, bell.  

One might think that we have always been dressing our Torah scrolls like the High Priest, but it hasn’t always been this way.

The shields or breastplates – tassim – have only been a standard feature of Torah decoration several hundred years. A long time, but not so long in Jewish history. Initially, the breastplate was functional. About 500 years ago, the tas was created in Europe to identify the passage to which a Torah scroll had already been rolled when more than one scroll was needed for a particular service. One of the elements of the Torah shield was often an exchangeable plaque used to show the holiday to which that scroll was rolled. Today, the tas is primarily decorative.

There is more to that history, though. It was rare for the silver Torah accessories to be made by a Jewish silversmith. In Europe, Jews were not normally allowed to be silversmiths or goldsmiths because they were excluded from membership in the guilds. Many of the ceremonial objects, though used by European Jewish communities, were made by non-Jewish artisans on commission. As a result, there are often mistakes in the Hebrew because the people who made the objects didn’t know Hebrew and could only copy it from inscriptions written out for them. 

There is something here that I haven’t yet quite been able to put my finger on.

Something about what is hidden in plain sight. Something about the way we’ve stood in front of open arks and held fully accessorized Torah scrolls, and possibly never looked at the words on the shield, the words that on Aaron sat over his heart. Something about the many ways our history has distanced us from our history – concealing the stories of our recent European ancestors. And something more.

Something about the relationship between performance and identity. 

The imagery of Tetzeveh is rich in royalty. Perhaps in the coming weeks, our Queen Esther can shed a little light on what is eluding me.