Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Last week we saw in Rimzei HaMishkan of the Malbim how the structure of the Mishkan corresponds to the form of the human being and the universe interchangeably. We will, G-d-willing, develop these ideas further next week. In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we learn about the special garments worn by the kohanim as they serve in the Mishkan. Malbim teaches that just as the “external” (i.e., physical) body must be clothed in garments, so the “internal” forms (the life force, spirit, or soul) wear “clothing” that protects us against moral corruption.

The Gemara in Zevachim (88b; see also Arachin) correlates each of these special garments to a negative attribute or transgression. The specific language of the Gemara indicates that the garment “atones for” – literally expiates liability for – violating the various transgressions, but it can also be understood as a corrective to the underlying defect. That is how the Malbim reads this Gemara. Consistent with the theme of “garments for the soul,” he explains how each special article represents in its physical form (the externality) mechanisms for how these defects are tamed in the living spirit (internally).


The worst violations of Torah law, corresponding to defects in the underlying character of the perpetrator, are three crimes due to which the first Beit HaMikdash was destroyed and which Rambam famously decreed one must be martyred for rather than violate: wanton bloodshed (i.e., murder), fornication, and idolatry. To these the Gemara added the following character defects to be atoned for by the garments of the kohen: crudeness, inconstancy (or susceptibility to temptation), being judgmental, gossiping, and haughtiness.

There are four garments worn by every kohen while performing his designated service, regardless of his particular role. Malbim associates these with the “animal spirit” that represents our baser motives and appetites and regarding which there is little distinction between humans and animals. These four garments “clothe” the animal spirit so that it won’t violate the precepts susceptible to our baser nature.

The michnesayim (pants) cover the parts of the body that must remain covered and correct the temptation to engage in forbidden relations. The ketonet (tunic) is another garment that goes directly over the body, and it covers the torso which is the seat of the anger that might lead to bloodshed and murder.

The heart itself is “bound” by the avnet, or sash, wound around the upper body. The length of the avnet is 32 cubits, the numerical value of lev, the Hebrew word for heart. In this way, the impulses of the heart are constrained, mitigating the impetus to inconstancy, applied here by Malbim to (for example) jealousy, covetousness, and self-aggrandizement.

But the self-aggrandizement born in the heart also has a tendency to corrupt the mind and to bring one to expressions of haughtiness. Therefore, the kohen also wraps a sort of sash around his head in the form of a turban, the mitznefet. The idea of covering one’s head is prevalent in Judaism generally, not limited to kohanim. It is a way of reminding us always that there is something above us. Malbim points out that the length of the mitznefet is 16 cubits because the Divine Chariot is drawn by four “beasts,” each of which has four faces, for a total of 16 faces among these celestial entities who serve Hashem on high.

The special garments of the Kohen Gadol are designed to “atone for,” or correct, the flaws that are unique to us as thinking, speaking beings. Even and especially in the aspects of our nature that are created in the Divine image, there are areas where we fail to fulfill our potential – or worse, desecrate that very image in which we are made. Thus, the Kohen Gadol wears a special coat with bells and pomegranates on the hem. The bells tinkle as he walks, reminding all who hear him not to be gossips, while the pomegranates have 613 seeds to demonstrate that we must use our power of speech only to serve Hashem and to fulfill His commandments, never to defy them.

Over the coat he wears the efod, a sort of vest or girdle incorporating two engraved stones on his shoulders with the letters of the names of the tribes of Israel. This garment emphasizes the distinction of Israel as separated from among the nations of the world and our concomitant responsibility to avoid their prohibited spiritual practices. Each stone had 25 letters engraved on it, corresponding to the 25 letters of Shema on one side and the 25 letters of “Baruch Shem Kevod on the other. The efod is thus a corrective against idolatry.

Because Israel is distinct and uniquely sanctified, and because we have been set apart from the other nations of the world, we must maintain the highest level of integrity in the judgment of others and especially preserve the unity among ourselves. Our judges must always be beyond reproach. These characteristics are amplified by the choshen, the breastplate, also called the Choshen Mishpat, the breastplate of lawfulness.

Finally, as the Kohen Gadol has been singled out and given honor above that of his fellow kohanim, let alone of the rest of Israel and of humanity, it is necessary for him to always have a reminder of what he remains truly: a human being and a public and Divine servant. He must not exhibit the haughtiness that the mitznefet is meant to correct, but he must also take care not to speak crudely or abusively to his fellow. Upon the tzitz that rests upon his brow above his eyes is written the four-letter name of Hashem. By this the Kohen Gadol is reminded that when he serves in the Mishkan and the special garments are upon his body, he is a designated emissary of Hashem and his interactions with everyone must always be worthy of this status.

Just as his external body is adorned thus, so must his internal essence reflect the qualities demonstrated by the garments he wears.


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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He writes chiefly about Jewish art and mysticism. His most recent poem is called “Great Floods Cannot Extinguish the Love.” It can be read at He can be reached by email at [email protected].