Tag Archives: Kohannim

Parshat Beha’alotecha (5774)


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Is Jewish Honor Based on Birth or Merit?

One of the most difficult things for people to grasp is the way that inherited and earned roles play-out in the Jewish life. Is one form of recognition preferable over the other? Or is there a seeming dance going on between the two and their respective roles? That is what we are going to try to explore this week.

Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

Outgoing chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with incoming Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

This week’s parsha begins with Aharon, the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest – lighting the Menorah. I don’t want to side-track us too much, as most of us will quickly remember that this section’s Rashi commentary brings up why this is mentioned here in this part of the reading mostly about ordaining the Levites for their roles. Our rabbis tell us this is in order to highlight that this role was given to Aharon and his sons as a sign of honor.

The midrash says that Aharon was previously distressed when he saw the princes of each of the tribes present their inauguration offerings on their own.  Without the presence or help of the Levites. (Numbers chapter 11) The Levites, they were excluded from this count and thus felt distressed. In light of this feeling of being overlooked, the kindling of the Menorah – a truly great rite – it was given to Aharon, who was now the tribal head of the Levites.

After this, in the early part of the first aliyah, we have the instructions for purifying and sanctifying the Levites. At the end of this reading we see that the Levites are brought before all the entire congregation of Israel and ordained for services with physical smicha – the laying on of hands, and conferring authority. (Numbers 8:10)

Aharon, as their leader, he was to be given instructions to “lift up” the Levites and offer them as a “wave offering” on behalf of the children of Israel. (Numbers 8:11) What do we mean by this? What did he do?

It’s not like he could serve them all up on a silver platter, lifting them towards the sky. No, instead it means symbolically. He lifted them up, as one would a flag, he made a symbolic rise to the occasion through a gesture of pride and honor. And instead of offering in the normal sense – by simply waving forward animals donated to be used in the service of the Temple sacrifices – Aharon, the Levite elder, he offered his sons in perpetuity to physically perform this service.

This is the meaning of the phrase, “Veheinif Aharon et haleviim tenufah lifnei Hashem / Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before Hashem…” (Numbers 8:11) That Aharon was to elevate his sons for service by pushing them forward, driving them (tenufah) to take their role in service to Israel and G-d.

Now let’s back up a second and remember why the Levites are not accounted for as part of the Twelve Tribes during the inauguration offerings. Normally the Levites were not called-up or recognized, being regularly snubbed in the tribal roles and inheritances. This as a consequence of collective error on the part of the Levites several times in the past, going all the way back to their tribal role in the slaughter of Shechem and the sale of Yosef haTzadik. They were disinherited in a way, so that they were never counted as a normative tribe again. As a consequence the half-tribes (such as Efraim and Menasheh) slipping into the vacancy when it was time to take count and set-up camp.

So why are they honored now? How is it that the come to take this role as spiritual leaders among the tribes of Israel? Sure Moses and Aharon are both Levites, and this does distinguish the clan. But given their disinherited role, how is it that the Levites are able to take this place of honor now as the Mishkan service takes shape?

The answer comes by exploring the second aliyah. Let us look at this span of text which address this for us:

“Following this, the Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. You shall cleanse them and lift them as a waving.

“For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself.

“For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.

“And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ הַלְוִיִּם לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם וְהֵנַפְתָּ אֹתָם תְּנוּפָה:

כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

וָאֶקַּח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Numbers 8:15-18

Our text reminds us of two facts. First off, in the general sense every firstborn male belongs to G-d. Be it human, a kosher animals, or even an ass (donkey). As it is written, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn of the children of Israel, everything that opens the womb of man and of animal.” (see Exodus 13:2)

And even more so, after G-d inflicting wrath upon the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the Israelite firstborn sons, these sons are even more so considered sanctified to G-d. They were spared and then set apart for His service. And this is the way that it should ideally have been, with the princes of each tribes offering up for their people. The firstborn of each tribe offering sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.

So the firstborn are: 1) naturally sacred, and 2) supernaturally set-apart. There are two reasons why the firstborn of all Israel should be set-apart as priests.

So why is it that we don’t see that happen here? Why are the Levites elevated to this role and pushed forward for this service instead? The answer is found in our Rashi commentary:

For all the firstborn… are Mine: The firstborn are Mine by right, for I protected them among the Egyptian firstborn, and I took them for Myself-until they erred through the golden calf; so now ‘I have taken the Levites’ (v.18)”

כי לי כל בכור: שלי היו הבכורות בקו הדין, שהגנתי עליהם בין בכורי מצרים ולקחתי אותם לי עד שטעו בעגל, ועכשיו ואקח את הלוים:

Rashi for Numbers 8:17

Our midrash teaches us that during the incident of the sin of the golden calf all of the tribes were involved in worshiping it, except for the tribe of Levi. (Yoma 66b) For this reason the firstborn of each tribe were set aside, and the honor of priesthood was thus given to the Levites in perpetuity.

So lets consider this. This issue of priesthood and honor.

To being with, priesthood is a topic that most of us are out of touch with. We just don’t generally see this role filled in our daily lives. Sure in the traditional word we have them acknowledged in the giving out of aliyot – when reading the Torah. And in rare ritual cases such as the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn male, born of natural birth to a Jewish mother.  (see Exodus 13:13–16, Numbers 3:45-47) All this hearkens back to that age. But for the most part, rites overseen by kohanim are rather rare today. Except on high holidays, when the Priestly Blessing is given, most of us barely recognize the kohanim in our midst.

And in progressive synagogues the roles of priesthood is often overlooked all together, having theologically moved beyond affirming Temple ritual and inherited roles. With even the Priestly Blessing today being given by rabbi or cantor.

But the awkwardness and tension between the birth and earned roles is something that many people still struggle with in light of our Jewish tradition. It is not just modern readers and progressives that have struggled with this issue. Indeed the wrestling between inherited and earned roles goes all the way back go the beginning for the nation of Israel.

Yet there is one fact that we cannot ignore. That our religion and culture emerged for a world were the right of inheritance and status was given to the firstborn. More precisely the firstborn male. In the ancient world this was the only seemingly clear and objective way to settle the issue of inheritance and status. In such a system there is seemingly few points by which to argue. Everyone remembers which is their firstborn child, so this is the one who is blessed and to whom possessions of the father’s estate are to be left to.

This cannot be ignored or understated. And just in case this point is missed, the right of firstborn is explicitly reaffirmed by the Torah. (Deuteronomy 21:17)

Inherited roles which are assigned by birth and held in perpetuity are further stressed elsewhere, not just here and now in the Torah when discussing the Levites. It is also stressed with it comes to the role of the Kohanim, distinct from that of the general Levites. It is also later shown to be the case for nobility, with kingship being passed on by right and order of birth. And of course, Jewish identity is also assigned at birth. Being passed by maternal line according to halacha. Inherited status and recognition is something that is undeniably present in our tradition.

But as I’ve previously stated, the challenging of birth status has always been part of the Hebrew-Israelite experience since the beginning. Our patriarch and namesake being Yisrael – also known by his birth-name, Yaakov. Yaakov, the same one who overcame Eisav the firstborn, for the right to be the heir and spiritual chieftain. And this is not a lone example. Such tension is similarly mirrored in Avraham Avinu’s recognition of Yitzhak over Yishmael, who was technically the first-born son. We also see this later on when the tribes are established, when Yitzhak gives inheritance to Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. There we see the tension between Yosef and Yitzhak palpably present in this incident, as the patriarch insists that the younger once again rises above the older. (see Parshat Vayechi 2012)

Our founders and leaders have challenged the natural order and risen above it, time after time again. And this is the legacy they leave to us, an inherited drive to be people who would will to smash the glass ceiling. To rise above obstacles to a place of leadership and honor, as opposed to those who gingerly ease into that seat. People who acquire their rightful place through merit and zeal, not just through mere nepotism.

When we read here in this parsha of the ordination and assignment of the Levites as priests by the congregation we can get caught-up in a narrow view of this text, and maybe even see this narrative as reaffirming the appearance of nepotism and favoritism. Until we remind ourselves the reason they are called up for this role, because of their tribal merit in avoiding the golden calf. In this light, their appointment is not to be seen as an example which reaffirms a perception of the mighty establishing their heredity. It is a story of people who come from a lowly and unlikely place to the height of honor through merit.

And in the not so far off future in this very book of Bamidbar (Numbers), we are going to see the roles shaken up once again. As Pinchas, who was not ordinarily not eligible to be High Priest, has this honor as Kohen Gadol given to him and his descendants in perpetuity. An honor given to him on account of his act of zealotry. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011) We will again see the earned role trump the inherited role.

Something to consider

To this day much of Judaism still struggles with the issues of balancing out honor and respect based on lineage, and that of showing proper recognition to those who are honorable in their own right. For which is more worthy of recognizing? Which should we lunge to honor first? The noble through heredity or the honorable in their own merit?

Even for traditional Judaism, which still recognizes the roles of the priestly lineages, there is still a seeming awkwardness. One that is seen through a philosophical and practical dance to help us maneuver the contortions we feel stretching us in this matter.


While commenting on this topic of heredity vs. merit
relating to kohanim in Parshat Tzav, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin – a Torah commentator well-known for his discussion series highlighted by the Orthodox Union – he states the following upon consideration of the way the Levites and even Pinchas shake up the roles of heredity. He observes how the shake-up is not just far-off in the past, it’s still seen present in our halachic lives:

“Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)”

As we know, even when the roles of priestly caste are recognized, in the real world we still most often give precedent to the meritorious over the blue-blooded.

In closing, today I would like to leave you with the continuing and closing words of Rabbi Goldin for consideration. He offers us some words which are wholly appropriate for us as we come out of Shavuot – celebrating the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai:

“Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

“Full descendants of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept G-d’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to G-d’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

“The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.”

Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’

Parshat Tzav – by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

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Parshat Tzav (5774)


Leviticus 6 – 8

Priests or Royalty, Everyone Needs To Be of Service

Today we are going to take a look at this parsha, and also touch a bit on the holiday of Purim since this season is once again upon us. I hope everyone is enjoying this time of celebration.

Another active Queen Esther would have probably been fond of. "After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II."

Another active queen, one Esther would have probably been fond of. Queen Elizabeth II: “After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II.”

The reason we need to enjoy these celebrations so much is because we don’t always have time of rest to enjoy. Most of us keep quite busy schedules, myself included. Despite illness and limitations, I find myself quite active. People often ask why I feel the need to keep industrious, even when I feel so low. The reason is simply because it’s a Jewish value to be active.

This is a thought I cant help but keep in mind in light of the Purim holiday. This holiday is very significant to me, because of the true heroine of the story; the beloved Queen Esther. The brave queen who can be thought of as the patron saint of crypto-Jews – the secret Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction, the hidden Jews who survived the Inquisition which raged across several continents. (see “Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews”) As a hidden Jew herself, Esther’s story brings comfort to many of us. To all of us minorities who once hid it, but who are now braving to embrace our Judaism outwardly. As it turns out, on both sides of my family I know I’m the first to be privileged to join in mainstream Judaism, since who knows how long.

One of the things that people often ask me is how it was possible for all those families to keep their sense of who they were throughout rough years, including the age of the Inquisition. We don’t often consider it, but Jews were even burned here in the Americas for practicing secretly as well. (see “Crypto Jews in Mexico during Spanish Colonial Era”) So keeping secret was essential, but so was passing on one’s sense of identity. As always Shabbat observance was the sign which both guarded identity and threatened to give people away upon inspection. Either keeping the sabbath, or doing things just slightly differently on that day to acknowledge the sabbath.

So too it was the case with Queen Esther, as we are told according to tradition. The scriptures teach us that when she was taken into the royal harem she was given seven servants from the house of King Achashverosh. (Esther 2:9) We don’t know if this was among the things she asked for, or if was just purely because the royal servant gave her this out of his kindness towards her as suggested. What ever the case, the next verse tells us she didn’t tell anyone about her family or her people because Mordechai told her not to. She kept her Jewishness a secret.

However, we are told that each of these servants she had assigned to a different day of the week. Though it might not seem apparent to non-Jewish people, the days of the week in Hebrew are named Yom Rishon (the First Day), Yom Sheini (the Second Day), Yom Shlishi (the Third Day), etc. – corresponding to the day of the week, starting over with Shabbat. She might not have been able to have kept noticeable count in the palace, our tradition says, but she was able to know it was Shabbat and act appropriately based on the servant who served on that day.

I am also of the understanding that our tradition gives the names of these seven servants assigned to Queen Esther. We don’t often give enough consideration to the ladies in our tradition, so I want to take a moment now. We should also pause to take notice, as I am told each of these names has a specific meaning. These women servants are named:

Cholta

Meaning creation, corresponding to the first day of creation

Rokaita

Meaning firmament, the days of the creation of the heavens

Ginonita

Meaning vegetation, as the plants appear on the third day

N’horita

Meaning illumination, corresponding to the sun, moon and stars of the heavens

Rochshita

Meaning crawling creatures, corresponding to the creation of animal life

Chorfita

Meaning, “the eve of” – meaning the the eve of Shabbat

Rogaita

Meaning calmness, which reminds one of the day of rest which is Shabbat

The names correspond to the seven day creation story. A name was assigned to each of the servants, so that she would remember each day of the week based upon the servant which attended her. (Targum Rishon) We are told that they not only helped her keep the days, but also helped her keep a kosher diet of vegetables like the prophet Daniel (Talmud Megillah 13a). In this midrash our rabbis reveal how understated practices, names, language, and diet have often been signs of one’s not so obvious uniqueness.

Now before we move on from this story, I want us to notice that even those who accept this midrash are a bit critical of this legend. Some asking questions, like what type of example is Esther to us working-class men? And if we think about it, what does a queen in a palace need seven servants for anyhow? With seven servants how does she even know that it is Shabbat at all, would not each day be a rest for her?

Some are of the opinion that this is really what showed Esther’s exceptionalness. If she was to keep a day or rest, she would have had to have taken preparations. And even more impressive, some of our rabbis suggest that she was more of an activist queen. She went about actively involving herself in welfare and aid for the six days, and then one day she rested. She staggered her servants out so that to six servants she looks industrious in public service, but only the seventh servant would think her merely a typically lazy queen who was waited on hand and foot.

The logic goes, keeping here secret wouldn’t be possible working them all each and everyday.

But in this lesson we also get an interesting picture of what an exceptional woman – dare we say an eishet chayil, a woman of valor – in the person of Queen Esther. (see Parshat Yitro 2013) In this midrash she exemplifies a person who shows that we need to work the other days of the week in order for the sabbath to have any real significance at all. It would be nothing worth acknowledging if we merely rested all the time. Shabbat is the reward for those who labor.

Just as much as we are demanded to rest on Shabbat, we are commanded to work when it’s not the sabbath. (see “Call of Torah” by Rabbi Elie Munk, Shemot 20:9)

Our tradition doesn’t state where she got her scheduling advice from. But I think I have a clue for us found in this week’s Torah portion. After that long sidetrack, let’s jump right into our verse now:

“And any meal offering

baked in an oven,

and any one made in a deep pan

or in a shallow pan,

belongs to the kohen who offers it up;

it shall be his”’

| Vechol-minchah

| asher te’afeh batanur

| vechol-na’asah vamarcheshet

| ve’al-machavat

| lakohen hamakriv

| otah lo tiheyeh

Leviticus 7:9

In this verse we learn that from these mincha offerings portions were taken by the kohen (priests), and we are commanded that it is to be consumed by the priests who offered it up and who are ritually pure. But regarding who could divide these portions, we learn of that here. The item which was offered up by that priest who did offering, it’s portions belong to him.

We have to remember that the people were giving grains, oils, meat, etc. which the Levitic priests depended on for their sustenance. In an agrarian society they had no land holdings, being dependent on their portion of the offerings and tithes. Even from certain sacrifices a portion was taken for them, a portion for themselves and the other priestly brothers to eat from.

Now how does this work? Where there competing priests at the entrance of the Temple waiting for you like car salesmen? Circling like sharks? Was their competition and turf wars? Were some families more well-recognized and favored in the Temple, so that some families did better off than others?

This is answered for us in the commentary by Rashi for this verse:

Belongs to the kohen who offers it up: One might think that it belongs to him alone. Scripture, therefore, states (in the next verse), “[And any meal-offering…] shall belong to all the sons of Aaron.” One might think, then, that it [indeed] belongs to all of them. Scripture, therefore, states (in the preceding verse), “belongs to the kohen who offers it up.” So how [can this be reconciled]? [It belongs] to the family of the day when they offer it up.

לכהן המקריב אתה וגו‘: יכול לו לבדו, תלמוד לומר לכל בני אהרן תהיה. יכול לכולן, תלמוד לומר לכהן המקריב, הא כיצד לבית אב של אותו יום שמקריבין אותה:

Rashi to Leviticus 7:9

In the Torah we see that there are two branches of families among the sons of Aharon, the house of Elezar and the house of Itamar. From each of these clans the original service order for temple service was assigned, shared between them. There being four service groups from Elezar, and four service groups from Itamar. They would be rotated each day of the week, and then all come together on the sabbath. Make perfect sense on how to organize a 28 day month, assigned them all over 24 days and once a week they all come together and work – this day being the sabbath. There coming together to work corporately also in effect on the other festival days, when the assistance of the entire priesthood was essential.

Eventually as the Israelite population grew and the kohanim grew commensurately, there became 24 of these family work groups (mishmerot). Their service then was shifted to week-long assignments. (Torat haKohanim) And this was the method that went into effect in the days of the prophets and the early Temple periods. Of all the service groups our tradition only knows of four that remained through the ages. These four were returned back to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian exile, where they were organized by Ezra haSofer (Ezra, the scribe for whom the book of the bible is named) to help establish another 24 mishmerot in the second Temple period.

Now many people don’t like the way that this system of priesthood, nor the ability of these priest to take from offerings. A cynic would say, why do these guys get to take from some of the best of our produce and meats? They barely work at all, some can say.

If we were to assign mishmerot, a family would be assigned to about one workday a week, with one sabbath day of service. Which translates to at most two days on duty per week, whereas us working-class people work 6 days a week. That’s not a lot of work, surely not enough to sustain oneself alone off this enterprise. For this reason we learn here through Rashi that they shared with their entire families so that no one was without.

So simply put, before the priestly system got corrupted in the Hasmonean days the priestly system wasn’t really thought of as a money-making system. People were still supported off of contributions of Israel, and the sharing among themselves. It wasn’t an occupation which people got rich off of.

So why would they be motived to engage in this service at all? If we even think about it long we enough, most of us can quickly think of more efficient methods of organizing labor as well. Why not just assign the best suited and most fit for service, and just get the job done and done right? Why go through all these complexities?

In the same manner that we can be critical of the midrash regarding Esther and her seven servants, we seem to follow the same critiques. Like we ask of Esther, how can we credit these priests with “avodah” (work) when these people seem to barely work at all?

Rarely do people consider all the things the kohanim do aside from just sacrifices, like also filling very social service roles such as inspecting the illness of the sick. The kohanim weren’t a sort of caste just stilling idly in their ivory towers. They contributed heavily, but in a different way than the average laborer.

But even in this assignment there is a lesson, I believe. I believe the reason for assigning these mishmerot in this fashion was not because it was economical or efficient, but because it simply gave each family of kohanim a chance to participate in priestly service – their avodah. It is that important that everyone be active participants in this culture of Torah living.

We also need to understand that it was the priests who needed this service, probably even more than the priesthood needed them. There were enough able-bodied kohanim to go around most of the time. But that is what community is about, us each doing our part. We don’t need to do the job the best, and we don’t need to do it all ourselves. In fact our contributions might be merely symbolic. But nonetheless it is a Jewish value that we all shoulder the burned of communal responsibility with one another. And that we all have the honor and pride of service.

As we continue to read through Vayikra – the book of Leviticus, I want us to remember the theme that has been carried over from Shemot – from Exodus. We are at a stage in the journey were everything becomes a discussion about the Mishkan – the so-called tabernacle. This was a powerful symbol, because it was the Israelite’s way of remedying a rift in the relationship with G-d the people felt since the Gold Calf – when they got impatient and refused to wait for instructions on what to do next and took matters into their own hands. The truth is Jews always feel they need to be industrious, and we can either use that for good or bad. Sometimes this can get us into trouble if not channeled correctly.

And that is what I am stuck by as I read the commentaries of our rabbis, including Rashi who is ever-present in our chumashim. One of the things that they keep pointing out is the people’s focus on their work being accepted so that it could provide an active ritual service which enabled them to feel close to G-d. This work wasn’t so much for G-d’s acceptance, as it was for their own. Indeed this was their way of also redeeming themselves as well.

All the people of Israel contributed for the construction and the ongoing offerings, and all the priests were included in the service to make it functional. Because we all need to feel like we have a place, and we all should feel like we have something to contribute to society.

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Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)


Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.

We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.

As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.

However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.

And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.

I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.

Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:

Exodus 27:4

As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.

However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.

As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.

Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:

“And you shall place the cap

on his [Aaron’s] head,

and you shall place the holy crown

upon the cap.”

| Vesamta hamitznefet

| al-rosho

| venatata et-nezer hakodesh

| al-hamitznafet

Exodus 29:6

This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.

What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.

Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):

“Vechagarta otam avnet Aharon uvanav vechavashta lahem migba’ot,

וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,

JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them

Exodus 29:9

Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?

Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”

Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.

Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.

And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.

Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.

The Cyclopaedia – Chambers of 1728

One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!

However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.

If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.

However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.

Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).

Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:

The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”

However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:

The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”

As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.

Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.

Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.

Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.

However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.

Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:

It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”

He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.

Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness

To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.

As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.

In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.

That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.

The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.

The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.

And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.

Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.

As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.

You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”

And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.

These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.

But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.

One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.

Shmueli GonzalesEven more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.

Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.

As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:

CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”

SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”

And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”

Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.

This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.

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