Wandering through the library of Jewish legal texts, the careful observer may take notice of a curious trend. For reasons unclear, many of the classic books of Jewish law take their titles from – of all things – the various pieces of the High Priest’s clothing.
Described in great detail in this week’s parsha, the priestly garments consist of: a bejeweled breastplate, a sleeveless garment called the ‘ephod,’ a robe, a turban, a golden crown, a tunic, and a sash – all highly ornamented. The High Priest oversaw the elaborate system of Temple sacrifices meant to draw down the presence of the Lord, and atone for the sins of Israel. His job was supremely important, and so his uniform is given very careful treatment by the Torah. But it isn’t clear what this intricate dress code particularly has to do with Law.
And yet, there among the great works of halacha (legal commentary), we come across titles such as these:
“The Oracle Stones” (Urim v’Tumim, by Rav Yonatan Eibeschitz, 1690-1764)
“The Golden Embroidery” (Mishbetzet Zahav, by Rabbi Yosef ben Meir Teomim 1727-1792)
“The Edges of the Breastplate” (Ktzot HaHoshen, by Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, 1745-1812)
“The Design of the Ephod” (Hesheiv HaEphod, by Rabbi Hanoch David Padwa, 1908-2000)
And then there is the famous legal code that first took its name from the priestly garments, and probably inspired those who followed:
“The Four Columns,” (Arbaah Turim, by Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343)
The title refers to the four rows of stones on the breastplate, and indicates the four volumes of the book itself. But other than the numbering parallel, why did Rabbi Yakov (whom we have come to call, after his book, the “Ba’al HaTurim”) decide that the breastplate was worthy of invocation when he chose a name for his book of laws? And why did so many others follow in his footsteps in referencing the clothes of the priest?
The clue to this custom can be found in the name he gave to the final of his four volumes: Hoshen Mishpat, or “The Breastplate of Judgment.”
For that is how the breastplate is actually described in the Torah when its design is first laid out:
You shall make a breastplate of judgment, a work of design, made like the work of the ephod – with gold, blue, purple, crimson, and fine twisted linen. (Exodus 28:15)
וְעָשִׂיתָ חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט, מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב—כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֵפֹד, תַּעֲשֶׂנּוּ; זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי, וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר—תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ.
This is a surprising appearance of the word, ‘judgment,’ there in the middle of all of this regal finery! What does it mean?
This Hebrew word for ‘judgment’ – mishpat (משפט) – can also mean ‘order,’ so perhaps it simply indicates that the jewels of breastplate will be ordered in a certain way. More likely, though, it refers to the Urim v’Tumim, the Oracle Stones, which were placed inside the breastplate, and which we later find were consulted for divine guidance (see Numbers 27:21). We are no longer certain how this mysterious process is supposed to have worked, but some commentators have suggested that they would light up and flash a code to the priest, who would then communicate a message to the people. In any case, here in Parshat Tetzaveh, at the end of the instructions for making the breastplate, we read:
Inside the breastplate of judgment you shall place the Urim and Tumim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. So Aaron shall carry the judgment of the Children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord, always. (Exod. 28:30)
וְנָתַתָּ אֶל–חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט, אֶת–הָאוּרִים וְאֶת–הַתֻּמִּים, וְהָיוּ עַל–לֵב אַהֲרֹן, בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי ה; וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת–מִשְׁפַּט בְּנֵי–יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל–לִבּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה—תָּמִיד.
So that is the connection that the priest, and the breastplate in particular, have with judgment and – maybe by extension – with laws.
We’ve found a link, but we haven’t yet understood the meaning behind it. For why does the priest get involved with judgment at all? His role seems quite distinct from that of a judge. The judge is the one who interprets and explains the law, decides on cases, pronounces innocent or guilty. Then the guilty come before the priest, who will lead them through a process of atonement. The functions are related, but separate. Moses, the holder of wisdom, is the people’s judge. Aaron, invested with holiness, is the High Priest. Why should Aaron reach over into Moses’ territory, and bring his mysterious rituals into the sober, reasoned process of the law?
The Ba’al HaTurim himself provides us with an answer, one that may lend insight into why he chose the name of his book to begin with. Fortunately for us, this same Rabbi Yakov ben Asher also wrote a running commentary on the Torah. And on the phrase “breastplate of judgment,” he says the following:
For it atones for the sins of judgment.שמכפר על עונות משפט
The Ba’al HaTurim is borrowing from a passage in the Talmud (in Zevachim 88b) that sees each piece of the priestly garments as symbolically atoning for a different sin. And the breastplate, says the Talmud, atones for the sins that judges commit when they render incorrect decisions. In this understanding, the breastplate is not meant to provide judgment for all the people, but especially for the judges; it does not atone for all the sins, but particularly for the sins of judging.
What are these sins, and why are we so worried that judges will commit them? For an answer, we turn to my favorite of all the commentators, the Kli Yakar of Prague, who once again provides us with a penetrating psychological insight:
The breastplate comes to atone for the corruption of the laws. Because the laws are things that are subject to the hearts of the judges. For the judge only has what his eyes can see, and yet it is in his power to say that what’s right is left, and what’s left is right – according to the case at hand, and according to the person on trial, and according to the time, and according to the place. And who can contradict him, except for God alone, who investigates the hearts of men?
Therefore, the breastplate was placed upon Aaron’s heart. For laws are subject to the heart. And this also is why they are intricately designed – to atone for the designs and intentions of the judge.
והחשן הבא לכפר על קלקול הדינין כי הדינין הם דברים מסורים אל לב הדיין כי אין לדיין כ“א מה שעיניו רואות ובידו לומר על ימין שהוא שמאל ועל שמאל שהוא ימין, כפי הענין וכפי האיש וכפי הזמן וכפי המקום ואם אמר יאמר הדיין כך היה נראה בעיני מי יוכל להכחישו בלתי ה‘ לבדו הבוחן לבות בני האדם ע“כ היה החשן נתון על לב אהרן כי הדינין מסורים אל הלב ועל כן היה מעשה חשב לכפר על מחשבת הדיין
The task of the judge is a precarious one, fraught with great potential for harm. We look to our laws to serve as objective standards, which can be fairly applied to all people, equally. But the process of judging is inevitably shaped by human subjectivity. The judge, like any person, has a limited and biased perspective. Judges are influenced by their attitudes toward the subject matter, and by their instinctual reactions to the people who stand before them. They are products of their culture and their place in history. And, most dangerously, they are guided as much by feeling as by rational calculation.
And yet, judges must make decisions. They must render judgments that could mean life or death, wealth or poverty, dignity or shame in real people’s lives. They will try to be objective, as much as they can. But who will know if they succeeded? Who will know if they made the right decision? Only God.
Judges cannot rely only on the plain meaning of the text of the law. They cannot simply pretend that judging is a simple or straightforward matter. For there will always be an element of mystery in judgment. The law is never free from the mysteries of the human heart.
That is why, perhaps, the Ba’al HaTurim and others named their books after the clothing of the High Priest. These intricately crafted garments, and the intricate rituals that will be performed in them, represent the greatest mystery of all: the possibility of contact with the Divine, and the atonement that one might find in that encounter. Without that possibility, and the humility it requires, all of our laws and judgments will not keep us safe from harm.