High Priests and Ornate Fashions of Their Times



"Clothes make the man," or woman, as the expression goes — and service in the Tabernacle was no different. Jewish law prohibits non-priests from wearing priestly garments, and further prohibits priests from carrying out their ritual functions unless they're garbed in the holy items described in the Torah.

One person, however, didn't need such elaborate vestments.

Concluding a discussion begun last week in the beginning of the book of Leviticus, this week's Torah portion further delineates the laws and regulations of animal and grain sacrifices, specifically those of the high priest, and those known as guilt and thanksgiving offerings. Then, after prohibiting certain classes of animal fats from human consumption, it details the seven-day procedure Moses followed in inaugurating the Tabernacle, and anointing his brother Aaron and his sons as priests.

It's interesting to note that although service in the Tabernacle — and later, the Temple — was completely dependent on the priests, the Torah seemingly goes out of its way to emphasize that the dedication of the Tabernacle, and all of the ceremony's attendant sacrifices, relied on Moses. The point was not lost on commentators, from those of the Midrash and Talmud all the way through the medieval commentator Rashi and later rabbis, who grappled with the idea of Moses being a priest.

Nowhere does the Torah identify Moses as a priest — that was a function granted to his brother — and it refers to the priestly garments as solely the purview of Aaron and his sons.

Several commentators take the position that Moses' priestly status was only temporary; others conclude that he was originally a priest, but that he lost the office as a consequence of his original unwillingness to personally confront Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.

Still, in this week's portion, Moses is the one doing all the heavy lifting.

In a curious footnote to this week's narrative — where Moses takes the right-thigh portion of the priests' offering and burns it on the altar — Rashi explains that Moses wore a white garment, apparently taking it as a given that Moses was, in fact, a priest. For him, the only issue to resolve is why he performs the tasks of a high priest, but doesn't wear Aaron's ornate robe, headpiece and breastplate.

It's possible to view Moses, who was able to communicate with the Almighty at any time, as occupying a ritual status higher than even the high priest. That he wore all white when he performed priestly functions was indicative of his humility.

And although most are not of the priestly class — and that ever since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Jewish people have been without a high priest — each and every one of us is able to function as Moses by virtue of the quintessential nature of the Jewish soul.

By accessing the deepest core of his soul, Moses was able to carry out all of the functions of the high priest; so too, by accessing the deepest cores of their souls, the Jewish people are able to bring Godliness down to this world.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.


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