Parashat Tetzaveh

Parashat Tetzaveh: The Garments of the High Priest
by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Parashat Tetzaveh teaches us about the garments of the high priest who was to serve in the mishkan, the sanctuary: “These are the vestments they shall make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a coat, a turban, and a sash.” (Exodus 28:4) There are also a headplate or tzitz, and pants, mentioned elsewhere. In this parashah, we learn of magnificent and mysterious garments, of fine materials, in rich colors. When the Jews went into exile, when the Temple was destroyed, what became of these wonderful garments?

A midrash, found in Esther Rabbah, claims that during their famous parties in Shushan, Ahasuerus and Vashti wore the garments of the high priest, garments that had been carried off during the attack on the Temple in Jerusalem. This midrash gives the royal parties of the Persian empire a sinister cast: to make a claim that the king and queen are not merely decadent, but sacrilegious. The classical midrash, ever concerned with the issue of fairness within the text, and not particularly sympathetic to the independent-minded queen, sets up a reason why Vashti deserves her fate: she has the gall to wear the garments of the high priest. The midrash also cleverly connects Parashat Tetzaveh, which describes in detail the garments of the high priest, with the story of Purim, which is always read in close proximity to Parashat Tetzaveh.

I’ve always been fascinated with this midrash, which, like so many classical rabbinic texts, connects anxiety about women’s sexual autonomy with anxiety about their autonomy in the realm of the sacred. Yet there is another character in the book of Esther we could even more explicitly connect to the priestly garments: Esther herself. When Esther goes in to the king, unbidden, to attempt to save her people, the text explicitly reports: vatilbash Esther malkhut- Esther dressed in royal garments, or more literally, Esther dressed in royalty. What is the nature of this regal dress? From a close textual reading, it would seem that Esther dressed in a particularly magnificent way, in order that the king should find her beautiful. Yet interpreters offer another meaning. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 14b) states that “Esther was clothed in the holy spirit.” Esther entered the king’s presence garbed in something more ethereal than ermine or velvet.

Let’s consider for a moment the parallel between Esther at the king’s court and the high priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Esther must enter the king’s innermost chamber even though she may perish. The high priest also must enter the (divine) monarch’s innermost chamber, even though this is perilous. Both Esther and the high priest must dress in especially magnificent garments for this event. Both Esther and the high priest must fast in order to prepare for their ordeals. Both Esther and the high priest must stand in a courtyard before passing into the chamber they must enter. Both Esther and the high priest make this journey to the inner place in order to plead for the safety of the Jews, and both of them emerge triumphant, having obtained rescue for their people.

This similarity of narrative and image can’t be an accident. In the absence of the Temple, and even in the absence of the explicit presence of God (who, as has often been noted, does not appear in the book of Esther), Esther takes on the role of high priest, becoming the guardian of her people. In exile, where the high priest cannot perform rituals of repentance, Esther becomes the source of deliverance and atonement. She goes to the king clothed in her own regal garments, but symbolically she goes to the king in the garments of the high priest.

The Zohar makes Esther’s role as high priest explicit, saying:

At that time, Esther beautified herself with clothing of atonement, and this is what is meant by the verse: vatilbash Esther malkhut. With these garments she was able to go into the inner chamber. “She stood in the inner chamber of the King… she found favor in his eyes.” The secret of these words is that God saw her and remembered the eternal covenant. God heard her, forgave her, and responded. (Tikunei Zohar 57b)

In this reading of the text, it is not King Ahasuerus Esther is standing before, but rather the divine monarch. Her willingness to undertake this brave act is what invites God to act on behalf of the people. What a powerful meditation for us: to imagine that as we go about our own daily lives, as we confront crises and choices, we have the opportunity to act as the high priest and Esther do: with a consciousness of how our actions and words affect everyone. At any moment, we may find ourselves standing before the inner chamber, summoning the courage to enter.

The Mei haShiloah (the commentary of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainier of Ishbitz) comments on Parashat Tetzaveh by suggesting that we have the opportunity to wear the high priest’s garments each morning as we pray. The Mei haShiloah notes that in the blessing Ahavah Rabbah, there is a mantra-like repetition of verbs: lehavin ulehaskel lishmoa lilmod ulelamed lishmor vela’asot ulekayem…to understand, to discern, to hear, to learn, to teach, to guard, to do, and to uphold (the teachings of God’s Torah in love). These eight words, Lainier suggests, refer to the eight priestly garments:

Lehavin                    to understand                  the sash (avnet)
Lehaskel                   to discern                         the breastplate (hoshen)
Lishmoa                   to hear                              the robe (me’il)
Lilmod                      to learn                            the turban (mitznefet)
Lelamed                   to teach                            the headplate (tzitz)
Lishmor                   to guard                            the coat (ketonet)
La’asot                     to do                                   the ephod
Ulekayem                to sustain                          the pants (mikhnasayim)

The Mei haShiloah connects each of these words and their corresponding garments to fundamental ways we must act: self-reflection, honesty, peacefulness, and vulnerability. As we pray these words, they can become a prayer in which we too wear holy garments and have a role to play in sustaining the world. As we strive to understand and discern, to hear and to teach, to learn and to act, to guard and to sustain, we put on the garments of the priest who must enter the holy of holies, or of Esther who must enter the king’s throne room. When we are conscious that we wear these garments, we may find that like Esther, Mordechai, or Vashti, we discover courage we didn’t know we had.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.