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From Parsha to Halakha Tetzaveh: Honor, glory, and modesty

Adar I 5784 | February 2024


Modesty and reverence

This week’s parsha contains a detailed description of the priestly garments, which are “l’kavod u’litiferet,” “for honor and glory.”[1] The verse goes on to list seven of the eight items the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wears. The mikhnasayim, pants, are not included in the original list, seemingly because they are not “for honor and splendor,” but for a different purpose, as the Torah states: “Make linen pants for them to cover their naked flesh (besar ervah); they should be from their waist to their thighs.”

This is not the only time erva, nakedness, is mentioned in connection with Divine service. Parshat Yitro concludes with several mitzvot on the subject, including the command: “You shall not ascend stairs to My altar so your nakedness is not revealed on it.”[2] Rabbi Yishmael questions the necessity of this law, since the Kohanim are all wearing pants. He responds that the prohibition also teaches that one may not take wide strides to ascend to the altar but walk heel to toe.[3]

There seem to be two elements to this mitzvah, as reflected in Rambam’s different explanations of the mitzvah. In Sefer HaMitzvot he lists the mitzvah as “one may not take wide steps up to the altar.” In Mishneh Torah he states that the prohibition is “not to make steps up to the altar.” [4] Using Brisker terminology, the former is a mitzvah on the gavra, the individual’s actions, while the latter is on the cheftza, the object of the altar.

Sefer HaChinuch explains that these are not two different interpretations of the mitzvah, but two complementary aspects of the same mitzvah. The Torah prohibits stairs to teach us that one may not take wide strides when going up to the altar. “Rather when one goes up there he should walk pleasantly and with reverence, heel to toe, as it says in the Mekhilta.”[5] Stairs are prohibited as a physical reminder to approach Divine service with caution and honor. Rabbi Yishmael points out that the laws of modesty are about more than clothing, they are about action as well. Here we see that the action is not only what we do – small steps, but how we do it – pleasantly and with reverence.

Race to the top

The altars in the Tabernacle and Temple were all at least three amot (cubits) high; since stairs were prohibited, the altar had a ramp for the Kohanim to ascend when serving. The mishna in Yoma relates that when many Kohanim vied for the same task, removing the ashes of the previous day’s service from the altar (terumat hadeshen), they ran up the ramp; the first one within four amot (cubits) of the altar won. In the event of a tie, they decided the winner with a “lottery” method that involved counting fingers.[6]

The mishna continues, at one point a Priest pushed another one off the ramp and broke his leg, so the court decided they must always determine through lottery. When first reading the mishna it’s unclear if this violent act was malicious or accidental. Either way, it’s certainly sufficient reason to change the status quo. Yet both the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi bring a Tosefta that relates a footrace that concluded with a far more egregious crime – one of the Priests in the lead drew a knife and stabbed the other in his heart.[7]

The story does not end there. The Tosefta continues and describes the reaction of Rabbi Tzadok, a sage and Kohen, who ascended the stairs the Priests used to bless the people and calls out, seemingly asking who is responsible – the judges and sages or the Priests.[8]

The story continues with the father of the boy, who approached his son and found he was still convulsing. His response? “This will be your atonement. My son is still convulsing, the knife is not [yet] rendered tameh (ritually impure).” The gemara learns from here that the people were more concerned with laws of ritual purity and impurity than murder, and further concludes that it’s not that they elevated the laws of ritual purity, but rather they cheapened the value of life.[9]

It should also be noted that the callousness and cruelty of this reaction is compounded when we realize that removing the weapon probably caused further pain and greater loss of blood, something a Priest who regularly slaughtered animals for sacrifices should know. Halakhically, we rule that touching or disturbing someone who is dying in a way that causes them to die faster is prohibited and may be considered murder.[10]  Yet instead of doing everything in his power to save his son he is more concerned with the ritual impurity of an object.[11] Not only that, but his statement begins, “This will be your atonement.”

Putting things in order

The gemara continues and wonders which event happened first – the murder or the broken leg? If the broken leg happened first and the lottery was instituted after the murder, why would the mishna mention the broken leg and not the murder? But if the murder happened first why didn’t the sages immediately institute a lottery?

The gemara answers that the murder happened first, but they thought it was a random incident. Only after the broken leg did they realize it was an institutional problem. This explanation seems best understood as another subtle criticism of the leadership at that time. A murder – certainly one perpetrated in the Temple, and even more so by a Kohen on his way to perform the Temple service – should never be dismissed as random. As the Torah teaches us with the laws of egla arufa, the broken necked heifer, all the leaders – judges, elders, Kohanim, Levites – must all be able to say: “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.”[12]

A footrace in the Temple

Was the race itself a problem? It is often understood to be positive, the Kohanim all zealously wished to serve their Creator. If so, then there’s a technical problem – did they race walking heel to toe, in the manner dictated by Rabbi Yishmael?

Several scholars quote the Yereim who explains that the heel toe should not be understood literally.[13] Tosafot Yesheinim offer different explanations to reconcile the two but seem to remain unsatisfied. After all, even if “heel toe” should not be understood literally, a race to the top seems to contradict a figurative explanation as well. Even a speed walking race like in the Olympics, where one foot must always be on the ground, is not “reverent?”

While tempting to understand the events in a positive light, it does not appear that the Kohanim in these cases were so zealous about their service of God that  it clouded their judgment about interpersonal matters. Even if we disregard the historical context of the end of the Second Temple period, the gemara makes doubly sure we understand this was not the case. First, by stating that the Kohanim were not more concerned about the knife than the person the knife was in because they over-emphasized the importance of ritual purity, but rather they cheapened the value of life (lit. bloodshed was cheap). Second, by explaining why such a race existed in the first place.

Many of the tasks in the Temple were assigned by lottery, why not this one? The gemara explains that they initially did not think there would be so much demand, since terumat hadeshen is performed at night, often close to dawn.[14] Yet many Kohanim came – perhaps at this point there was a less official first come first served approach. Then they instituted a lottery. But the Priests stopped coming, apparently thinking that the chances of winning the lottery weren’t worth the loss of sleep. To solve this problem, they instituted the footrace. Apparently, there were plenty of Kohanim who thought they were the most capable in a test of strength, and this was incentive enough.

The clothes make the man

If we return to our initial discussion, the clothes of the Kohen, it seems important to note that the Torah states both the clothes of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and that of a Kohen Hedyot (regular) are “l’kavod u’litiferet,” “for honor and glory.”[15] This makes sense for the Kohen Gadol, whose clothing is spun of expensively dyed yarn, trimmed in gold, and bedazzled with precious stones. But the Kohen Hedyot wears only four garments, all made from plain white linen or wool.

Some commentaries suggest that the all-white clothing or the turban makes the Kohanim appear elite. But these garments could also be interpreted as a uniform that makes the Kohanim indistinguishable from one another. Just as the Temple vessels are not there to glorify the builders of the Temple, the clothing is not there to glorify the Kohanim – but rather all is for the honor and glory of God.

Chazal explain that the clothing of the Kohen Gadol atones for sins, just as the vessels of the Temple do.[16] The pants atone for gilui arayot, prohibited sexual activities, literally translated as uncovering nakedness.[17] The word for atonement in Hebrew is “l’khaper” – it also means to cover or to protect. Kapara, atonement, can be understood as protection from punishment or as covering over the sin. In both cases the sin remains. The pants of the Kohen cover his nakedness, his flesh. The rest of the clothing covers his individuality. It is its own form of kapara, where the Kohen’s personal identity – sins and all – are covered by the uniform of his position, serving God on behalf of Israel.

The clothes for the “honor and glory” of God should therefore also be seen as another way to impart modesty to the Kohanim. Such a mindset was completely lacking at the end of the Second Temple Period, when the role of Kohen Gadol was sold to the highest bidder. The role of the Kohen was not to serve God in the Temple, the service of God in the Temple served the Kohen.

The sages question what sin led to the destruction of the Second Temple. The First Temple was destroyed the people were violating three major sins – serving false gods, killing, and having elicit sexual relations. In the Second Temple period people no longer served idols and were generally halakhically observant, so what was the problem?

The traditional answer is Sinat Chinam, interpreted as baseless hatred. There is no prohibition against baseless hatred, just as there is no commandment of baseless love. Sure, we are commanded to love our fellow as ourself and not to hate another Jew in our hearts, but there are always halakhic loopholes – I love them but I hate what they do or stand for (as if a person can or should be divorced from their actions), that person is a rasha (evildoer) and it is a mitzvah to hate them, or my hatred is not in my heart – I say it out loud.

Just like the Kohanim in the Second Temple Period, they keep the technical bottom line of the halakha – no stairs, wearing pants – but the spirit of the law is completely lost on them.

The gemara also teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the excessive piety of Zacharia ben Avkulos.[18] He insisted the sages ensure they keep the letter of the law, and disregarded the real-world repercussions of doing so, ones beyond the four amot of halakha.

Excessive humility might not seem like such a bad thing, but it speaks of the same twisted values and faulty priorities. Both haughtiness and excessive humility come from the same place – the belief in my own understanding and abilities, that my rightness means that other people’s points of view or interests are unimportant. True humility puts oneself on the side and is open to other points of view. It’s leaders who examine their own responsibility at the first sign of trouble. After all, only God is infallible. May our actions and priorities also serve to “honor and glory” God.

[1] Shemot 28:2 and 28:40

[2] Shemot 20:23

[3] Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Messekhta d’bchodesh 11:19.

[4] Rambam Hilkhot Beit HaBechira 1:17, Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvot Lo Ta’aseh 80.

[5] Mitzvah 41

[6] Yoma 2:1. The gemara explains the lottery, but the Rishonim argue about the precise method.

[7] Tosefta Yoma 1:12; TY Yoma 2:2; TB Yoma 23a. (See also Sifrei Bamidbar Maasi 161.)

[8] Rabbi Tzadok technically brings a halakhic question – if a body is found in the Temple who is responsible for bringing the broken neck heifer (egla arufa) – the Priests in charge of the Temple or the sages, the authorities in Jerusalem. As many commentaries point out, an egla arufa is not called for in this situation, the identity of the murderer is clear and an egla arufa is never brought for Jerusalem.

Rabbi Tzadok’s words are clearly meant ironically. During the egla arufa ritual the leaders declare: “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” (Devarim 21:1-8) At the end of the ritual “they will be atoned for the blood.” Here the leaders can’t claim innocence, and it seems there’s no way to atone for the blood.

Meiri explains that Rabbi Tzaddok made this declaration so people would cry more. This also seems strange, shouldn’t the murder of a young Priest by another Priest be enough? It seems possible that this relates to the next failure of values the gemara points out – the people were more upset by an unclear halakha than they were by a death.

[9] TB Yoma 23b

[10] Massekhet Smakhot 1:1-2; Misheh Torah Hilkhot Evel 4:5; Tur, Shulchan Arukh, Rema Yoreh De’ah 339:1.

All practical questions should be discussed with an expert halakhic authority, as this statement is a massive oversimplification. This law is universally accepted, but so are others that complicate real life situations – such as risky life saving measures, palliative care, and the difference between removing something that is preventing the person from dying without disturbing the person themselves.

[11] One hopes that the father was speaking ironically, as Rabbi Tzadok did. See note 8.

[12] Devarim 21:1-8. See note 8.

[13] 311(/327):1

[14] “They” here is unclear – the Kohanim are the main actors in the story, but eventually it is the court/sages who institute a lottery.

[15] Shemot 28:2 (Kohen Gadol) and 28:40 (Kohen Hedyot).

[16] For more see “Parshat Tetzaveh: Priestly garments, atonement, and the mantle of responsibility.”

[17] TY Yoma 7:3; TB Erkhin 16a; Zevakhim 88b; Shir HaShirim Rabba 4:4:4.

[18] TB Gittin 55b-56a

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.