The Torah states that the tzitz must be placed on Aharon’s meitzach* (Exodus 29:38). “Meitzach” is commonly translated as “forehead,” although not everyone agrees that it should be.
Targum pseudo-Jonathan translates “meitzach” – forms of which appear some 13 times in the Bible – as “padachat,” a word for forehead that does not appear in the Bible but is found in rabbinic literature.
The kohen gadol’s tzitz, according to most commentators, is actually supposed to be placed above the forehead, not on it, as many people think. It is supposed to rest on the same place where the tefillin shel rosh is worn.
The Ritva and Tosafos Yeshanim (to Yoma 71b) explain that “al meitzach Aharon” actually means on top of – i.e., above – Aharon’s forehead. Alternatively, they suggest that while “meitzach” means forehead in Rabbinic Hebrew, in Biblical Hebrew it means the top of the head (or at least includes the top of the head along with the forehead). According to this explanation, “meitzach” cannot accurately be translated as forehead. (See also Tosafos HaShaleim to Exodus 39:28 who writes that “meitzach” does not mean “padachat.”)
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) connects “meitzach” to “netzach” (victory), explaining that the forehead is the most noticeable and visible part of the body such that it seems to overpower the rest of one’s person. Rabbi Pappenheim connects both words to the biliteral root tzadi-chet (“tzach”), although his explanation for this connection is a bit farfetched.
Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late chief rabbi of Netanya, offers a more direct connection. He explains that a person’s forehead is generally smooth and devoid of hairs so it can appropriately be described as tzach (i.e., clean, pristine).
As we mentioned, another word for forehead is “padachat.” This word appears in the Mishnah (Niddah 3:5), which states that a child is halachically considered born once his or her padachat exits the mother. Similarly, the Talmud (Yevamos 120a) rules that a corpse can only be positively identified (to allow his widow to marry someone else) if the padachat and face are intact.
The Mishnah and the Talmud do not explain what “padachat” means, so how do we know it means “forehead”?
Our knowledge is based on a tradition going back to the Geonic period, which sees them as synonyms; the former is Biblical Hebrew and the latter Rabbinic Hebrew. This understanding is found in Rabbeinu Hai Gaon’s commentary to the Mishnah (Niddah 3:5) and in his student’s commentary to the Talmud (Shabbos 80b). It is also cited by Rabbi Zecharia Aghmati (1120–1195) in Sefer HaNer (to Shabbos 80b) in the name of R. Hai Gaon. It is also repeated by Rabbeinu Chananel (to Shabbos 80b) and Sefer HaAruch.
Rashi (to Shabbos 151b, Yevamos 120a, Kesubos 75a, and Bechoros 46b) always defines “padachat” as “meitzach,” suggesting that he too understood them to be perfect synonyms.
The root of “padachat” seems to be peh-dalet-chet, but such a root is not attested to anywhere else in Hebrew. Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) writes in Aruch HaShaleim that “padachat” is of Persian origin. Indeed, according to the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project, the few places in which “padachat” appear in the Talmud and rabbinic literature are the only instances of this word in Aramaic texts, which suggests that the word is not really Aramaic. (And if it isn’t Hebrew or Aramaic, Persian is the next logical candidate.)
Nonetheless, some rabbis argue for a Semitic, or even Hebrew, basis for “padachat.” By way of metathesis, Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (Zilberberg) de Kassif (1914-2003) connects three different Hebrew roots with the consonants peh, dalet, and chet in various orders: “dachaf” (push), “pachad” (fear), and “padachat.” He explains that haste and confusion oftentimes push their way to the forefront of a person’s emotions, causing fear to become his dominant feeling. His internal sense of fear is, in turn, pushed outwards and is oftentimes physically manifest on his forehead.
Rabbi Chelouche argues that since the letters mem and peh are interchangeable (because both are pronounced by the lips), and the letters tzadi and dalet can be interchangeable (as evidenced by their orthographic similarity in Arabic), “padachat” can actually be understood as a cognate of metzach.
Similarly, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation suggests connecting the root peh-dalet-chet with peh-reish-chet because of the interchangeability of the letters dalet and reish. The latter means flowering or blossoming and thus refers to something that protrudes or sticks out. This somewhat echoes Rashi’s comment (on Shabbos 151b) about padachat/metzach: The forehead is the smoothest and shiniest part of the face such that it sticks out the most.
Cognates of this word in the Bible are always in the possessive/construct form, so they are vowelized with a tzeiri (or chirik) under the mem: “meitzach.” There is a controversy over how the word should be vowelized when not in the construct form. Some argue that the mem should have a tzeiri, while others maintain that it should have a segol: “metzach.” This dispute has practical ramifications. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, we confess to sinning with a “brazen forehead.” Some prayer books read “azut metzach” while others read “azut meitzach.”