The Clothing of the Priests in the Temple
By Avi Lazerson
In the time of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and even before the Temple was built during the time of the Mishkon (the temporary dwelling place before the Temple was built), the priests were required to wear special clothing during the services. The wearing of these special clothing was required by the Torah (Exodus chapter 28). There it describes the clothing of the high priest and that of the ordinary priests. The ordinary priest was to wear four garments; whereas the high priest was to wear eight garments. The four garments of the regular priest were the hat, belt, pants and a tunic (a jacket). In addition to these four garments, the high priest wore four more garments: a breastplate, an ephod (an apron-like garment), a robe, and a golden head band.
The four garments of the ordinary priest were basically simple garments. The pants were made of white linen as was the tunic. The hat was not of the kind that we are used to, but rather a long strip of fabric that was wound around the head. The belt was woven with four kinds of threads, blue, purple, scarlet and fine white linen. The belt was wound around the tunic and the two ends were tied in front. It was about three inches wide and quite long.
The high priest's additional garments included the robe which was woven of blue threads and it had no sleeves. It consisted of two panels (a front and back) and was open on the two sides. The bottom of the robe had thirty-six bells and pomegranate ornaments. (See the picture at the top of this page)
The ephod resembled an apron except that it was worn from the back and fastened in the front where there was a small gap. It had shoulder straps as well as a sash that tied in the front. From these shoulder straps the breastplate was mounted. The breast plate was about a foot and a half (one half meter) square after it was folded in half. It had on it twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, whom the high priest represented in his service in the Temple.
A gold plate that said (in Hebrew) "holy to G-d" was fitted over the head covering and placed on the high priest's forehead. It was fastened in place by a blue thread.
The wearing of these garments by the ordinary priest or by the high priest respectively was mandatory. If he did his service in the Temple without being properly dressed, then the service which he performed was void and not acceptable.
Now what was the purpose of the wearing of these particular clothing while performing the services and sacrifices in the Temple?
We find that there are basically three reasons that people wear distinctive clothing:
One reason is that it enables them to perform a particular function, such as a fireman to whom the clothing permits him to engage in dangerous rescue work and put out fires. The soldier wears his uniform because it is made to help him fight against the enemy.
The second reason is that he is recognized and easily singled out for a distinction, such as a judge in the court, a police man on the beat, and a nurse in the hospital. We can easily distinguish them and treat them with the respect that is becoming the function which they perform.
The third reason is that it signifies the person or institution that they represent. A butler will not wear jeans and a tee-shirt, but a suit and tie, not because he likes to dress well, but because he is the extension or representative of an important person. Certain companies require their employees to wear uniforms because they represent an important company and the company wants to have a positive image.
What do you think is the reason for the garments of the priests? Is it necessary in order to perform their function like the fireman? Or perhaps that they may be looked up to by the common man? Or is it that they are the representatives of G-d and therefore must look special?
On this our great rabbis spoke. The Torah in the beginning of Exodus 28 states that we are to make Aaron and his sons (who were the first priests) holy garments "for honor and beauty." The Ramban and others say that the purpose of the clothing was to give the priests honor and dignity. The clothing does not come to permit the priest to do the sacrifices, but rather that it imparts to them the splendor of being selected to perform the ceremonies. The S'forno says that it generates respect in the eyes of others for their service in the Temple.
In either case, the clothing is not a prerequisite for working in the Temple, but rather a necessity and an accessory in the performance of the holy service.
Fancy, expensive or special clothing is not a requirement to get close to G-d. What is necessary is really the heart's willingness and desire to be devoted to G-d. However once a person does dedicate his life to servicing G-d, he must be careful that he not defile the name of G-d when he wears distinctive clothing such as that which shows that he is a rabbi. Conversely, a person who is an important person in the Jewish community should not wear clothing that is disgusting in one manner or another since he/she represents a certain part of the Jewish community.
from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine