Aaron’s Holy Garments

I would like to focus on some of the vestments of Aaron that he wore in his capacity as Kohen Gadol (High Priest). At the beginning of Exodus 28, the Torah commands that the Israelites who are skilled artisans should prepare a specific list of items for Aaron and the priests to wear:
“And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty. And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a broidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle: and they shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, and his sons, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office.” Exodus 28:1-4 (KJV)
Exodus 28 2
Vestments of Aaron
Let us take a closer look at the way in which the Torah describes how Aaron must function as a person occupying a corresponding position to that of the Angels in Heaven but in a different area or domain meaning on earth as a counterpart.
The “clothing items.” First, the “ephod” (a garment):
“And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, with cunning work. It shall have the two shoulder pieces thereof joined at the two edges thereof; and so it shall be joined together. And the curious girdle of the ephod, which is upon it, shall be of the same, according to the work thereof; even of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: Six of their names on one stone, and the other six names of the rest on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, shalt thou engrave the two stones with the names of the children of Israel: thou shalt make them to be set in ouches of gold. And thou shalt put the two stones upon the shoulders of the ephod for stones of memorial unto the children of Israel: and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.” Exodus 28:6-12 (KJV)
Thus, Aaron is to “carry the names” of the Israelites “for remembrance before the LORD.” Later, we shall return to the question of what “carrying” might mean. Secondly, let us examine another of the items, the “breastplate”:
“And thou shalt make the breastplate of judgment with cunning work; after the work of the ephod thou shalt make it; of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen, shalt thou make it. Foursquare it shall be being doubled; a span shall be the length thereof, and a span shall be the breadth thereof. And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle: this shall be the first row. And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond. And the third row a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst. And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosings. And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet; every one with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes. And thou shalt make upon the breastplate chains at the ends of wreathen work of pure gold. And thou shalt make upon the breastplate two rings of gold, and shalt put the two rings on the two ends of the breastplate. And thou shalt put the two wreathen chains of gold in the two rings which are on the ends of the breastplate. And the other two ends of the two wreathen chains thou shalt fasten in the two ouches, and put them on the shoulderpieces of the ephod before it. And thou shalt make two rings of gold, and thou shalt put them upon the two ends of the breastplate in the border thereof, which is in the side of the ephod inward. And two other rings of gold thou shalt make, and shalt put them on the two sides of the ephod underneath, toward the forepart thereof, over against the other coupling thereof, above the curious girdle of the ephod. And they shall bind the breastplate by the rings thereof unto the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, that it may be above the curious girdle of the ephod, and that the breastplate be not loosed from the ephod. And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually. And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually.” Exodus 28:15-30 (KJV)
Once again, Aaron is described as “carrying” (in these instances, the names, again, and the [breastpiece of] decision). Finally, let us look at the “frontlet” (tzitz) that Aaron is to wear on his headdress:
“And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, Holiness To The Lord. And thou shalt put it on a blue lace, that it may be upon the mitre; upon the forefront of the mitre it shall be. And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.” Exodus 28:36-38 (KJV)
Here, too, as in each of the other cases, the Torah describes Aaron’s function as “carrying” the item, using the Hebrew verb נשׂא (nassa). However, in the first series of commands, the items that Aaron is to carry are physical objects (e.g., stones on the ephod) that function in some unspecified way “on behalf of the Israelites,” whereas in the last case Aaron is to carry the sins of the Israelites. Thus, the Torah uses figurative language (a metaphor) to describe sin as though it is a physical burden that is “carried.” As it happens, imagining sin as a “burden” is the most typical way in which the Torah describes sin; in later biblical passages, as well as in the vast preponderance of rabbinic literature, sin is imagined as a “debt that must be repaid.”
Exodus 28
The Golden Garments
What might the Torah mean that the “frontlet” (or “blossom”) on the headdress would enable Aaron to “bear” or “carry away” the sins of the Israelites—an act that is reminiscent of the function of the “scapegoat” on Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16:22: “Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness”)?
Rashi had offered the conventional wisdom of the talmudic Rabbis: the frontlet expiated or atone for guilt or sins that the kohanim may have committed when performing the sacrificial service. However, while Rashi does see that Aaron bears/carries the burden of the sin that had formerly “rested on” the holy things, the phenomenology of the frontlet itself is not as clear in Rashi’s explanation: “Aaron lifts the burden of the sin and (somehow) it follows that the iniquity is dispelled (nimtza mesulak ha-avon).”
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, goes out of his way to distinguish his explanation from that of his illustrious predecessor—and from every other interpretation that had been offered. He writes: “My grandfather explained [this portion]. I, too, will explain the items in ways that were never explained before” (Rashbam’s comment on Exodus 28:6). In his comment on Exodus 28:38, Rashbam attempts to explain the way in which the frontlet functioned:
Aaron will take away any sin through the sacrifices: According to its contextual interpretation (peshat), the verse does not speak about the impurity of sacrifices [offered in an incorrect manner]. Rather this is its explanation: whatever sacrifices the Israelites might bring—whole-burnt offerings, purgation offerings or guilt offerings—to atone for their sins, the frontlet will help, together with the sacrifice, to cause them to be remembered before the Holy One, for receiving favor on behalf of the Israelites and as a remembrance for them, so that they will realize atonement.
Now, to be sure, the idea that a specific priestly implement or tool might “help God,” as it were, to “remember” the Israelites during the moment of sacrificial worship, and thereby actually work to create the conditions necessary for their atonement—this idea seems antithetical to the way that most of us think about God. So, however superior Rashbam’s contextual reading of the Torah portion might be to that of Rashi, neither reading may speak to our religious sensibilities, the drash that we need to carry within ourselves when we engage the Torah with religious yearnings in our hearts.
Perhaps another way in which both the Bible and subsequent Jewish tradition have understood the Hebrew verb נשׂא (nassa) may help us out of our predicament—even if it does not precisely fit the language of our Torah portion. For this verb, that we have translated “to carry” or “to bear a burden,” may also mean “to be lifted up,” in the sense of “to exalt” or “to be exalted.”
There are many implications of this alternative definition of the verb nassa, but perhaps the most prominent one for now is: we should try our hardest to make sure that the burdens we carry will exalt us instead of weighing us down.
How is Jesus our High Priest?
Hebrews has several passages depicting Jesus as the High Priest (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-5:10; 6:20; 7:11-8:2; 10:12). The office of priest was an important one in the Old Testament system and is fulfilled by Jesus.
In the Jewish system, a priest mediated between the people and God. Aaron and his descendants were appointed priests, with the tribe of Levi serving as assistants in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:5-10). The Levites were viewed as belonging to God (Numbers 3:12); they were set apart. The priests, too, were set apart (holy). Specific regulations for the priests can be found in Leviticus 21 – 22. The high priest was the chief religious leader and had certain duties. Among those duties were wearing the Urim and Thummin to assist in determining the will of God and overseeing the other priests. Most importantly, it was the high priest who entered into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Only the high priest could enter and, before doing so, he was required to make a sacrifice for himself. In this way the high priest was cleansed and could then go on to offer the cleansing sacrifices for the people (Leviticus 16).
Jesus as High Priest mediates for us. His sacrifice is what provides cleansing for our sins. Rather than a yearly (or daily) atonement, Jesus’ sacrifice is once-for-all (Hebrews 10:1-18). Jesus, like the high priests of Old Testament times, stands in the gap between us (the people) and God. He made the necessary sacrifice for us (Jesus was without sin so did not need to offer a sacrifice for Himself as did the high priests of the Old Testament). Those who have put their faith in Jesus have been made righteous by Him (2 Corinthians 5:21) and are now able to enter into God’s presence. This mediation of Jesus is permanent and continual. Hebrews 7:23-25 says, “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.” While Jesus’ sacrifice was once-for-all, His mediation for us continues. Jesus also communicates the will of God to us through His teachings and through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
Jesus is not only our High Priest, but also a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7:11-22). Melchizedek is introduced in Genesis 14. He is said to be both a king and a priest (Genesis 14:18). He met Abram (later known as Abraham) after Abram’s battle victory. In their meeting, Melchizedek blessed Abram, and Abram gave him a tenth of everything, thus confirming Melchizedek’s priesthood and authority. The writer of Hebrews explains that Jesus is of this order of priests – His priesthood is based on authority rather than on lineage (Hebrews 7:11-17), and it is also kingly. Therefore, Jesus’ priesthood institutes a new way of being: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Hebrews 7:12). With Jesus as High Priest, a new covenant is in effect.
Perhaps the most crucial thing for believers to understand today is that it is because Jesus is our High Priest that we can approach God with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). We no longer need to go through earthly mediators. Jesus has broken the barrier, made the sacrifice, established a new covenant, and reinstituted our relationship with God. Because of our High Priest, we are free to come to God.


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