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Parashat Tetzaveh, 5778

February 21, 2018

Breastplate of Judgment
A D’var Torah for Tetzaveh
Rabbi Lenny Levin

 “You shall make a breastplate of judgment…set in it mounted stones in four rows…corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel” (Ex. 28:15–21).

We know from experience how the abstract ideals of religion are embodied in the sacred objects that become familiar through repeated contact and serve as foci of our sense of holiness. Thus, the implements of the Tabernacle — the Ark, the Menorah, the curtain, the table, and the two tablets of the Ten Commandments — became templates for the artwork of the Synagogue, taking varied forms over the two thousand years of synagogue architecture.

One of the more puzzling of these sacred objects is the “breastplate of judgment” described in Chapter 28 of Exodus. It is associated with the “ephod,” a chest-garment of woven gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, and with the Urim and Thummim, used in oracular consultations. It is likely that at least in early biblical times the High Priest wore this breastplate when exercising his function of judge or decision-maker in rare, major issues affecting the entire nation. (The most elaborate description of this process is in I Samuel 14:36–42.)

The most fascinating and cryptic part of the description of the breastplate is the enumeration of twelve gemstones that are to be placed in four rows in its center, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. Scholars and translators have had difficulty, from ancient times to the present, identifying what stones are indicated by some of the Hebrew terms (though this has not deterred artists from imagining and depicting them).

Even in this state of partial knowledge, some of their symbolism may be inferred. The High Priest is the spiritual leader of the entire nation, comprising all the twelve tribes. At the time of making decisions affecting them all, he should keep them all close to his heart. Partiality to one or another faction is thus excluded.

Each tribe is symbolized by a different gemstone, unique in color and composition. So, too, the individuality of each tribe (indeed of each individual) must be recognized and respected by the judicial process. Procrustean solutions that are tailored to one and ignore the different traits of the others have no place.

The constitution of the entire nation is comprised of these unique, incommensurable units. Unity and diversity are inseparable—e pluribus unum.

The rabbis recognized that over time, the office of judge would be held by different people over time, and each was entitled to full respect as the authority of his generation. “Jephthah in his generation should be respected as Samuel in his generation” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 17:4). Though different individuals held the office of High Priest, each donned the identical breastplate. This symbolized the constancy of the ideal of justice and sanctity to which they all were bound. Thus the ideals by which we live transcend the changes of personalities and circumstances of history.

Over time, the rule by personalities yielded progressively to the rule of law. Thus, it is fitting that when in the fourteenth century Rabbi Jacob ben Asher saw fit to compile a code of law representing the halakhic consensus of his day, he titled his work Arba’ah Turim — “the Four Rows” — adopting the Hebrew phrase denoting the four rows of jewels in the High Priest’s breastplate. He titled the fourth division of his work Hoshen Mishpat—the “breastplate of judgment,” appropriately because it dealt with civil law. With this work, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher established the format that was followed two centuries later by Rabbi Joseph Caro for the Shulhan Arukh, and by successor works and commentaries to the present day.

More recently, the Lithuanian kabbalist Shlomo Elyashiv (1841–1926) adopted the cryptic names of the third row of gemstones for his mystical treatise Leshem Shevo v’Ahlamah (“jacinth, agate, and crystal” in the 1985 JPS translation), discoursing on the mysteries of creation and the structure of the supernal worlds.

Still, the physical, tangible breastplate continues to hold a place among the visible sancta of our ritual life. It has its successor in the silver breastplate that is one of the standard ornaments of the Torah scroll. And the three-by-four lattice of gemstones, often with the names of the tribes, is a common motif in synagogue décor.

When our gaze fixes on these, we recall the historic continuity that links our contemporary practice with the most ancient, and the ideals of divine justice and holiness to which they give expression.

Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism: Honoring the 60th Anniversary of AJR.