LTTN med xp logoHoly Temple Studies: The Priestly Garments

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1996 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, September, 1996 (Tishrei, 5757)

An In-Depth Focus on the Priestly Garments

“And draw near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office; Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar, the sons of Aaron. And you shall make sacred garments for Aaron your brother, for honor and for beauty. And you shall speak to all who 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 to 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 quilted undercoat, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office … (Ex. 28:1–4)

Moses was instructed by G-d that the garments of the priests were to be both dignified and beautiful; as precious as the garments of royalty. Indeed, the Talmud informs us that when the wicked Persian king Ahasuerus made a feast for his advisors and officers and sought to impress them with his greatness (as recorded in the scroll of Esther, which tells the story of Purim) he put off his own royal vestments and donned the uniform of the High Priest…which was more precious than his own. These priestly garments were in his possession since the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

Understanding Life in the Holy Temple

it is noteworthy and revealing that one of the finest ways to gain insight into both the details of life in the Holy Temple, and to its inner spirit, is by a study of the priestly garments.

We shall see that these garments are essential in order for the priests to function in their sacred capacity; so much so that in their absence, the offerings made by the priests in the Temple have no validity! Without his uniform, the priest who serves in the Holy Temple is considered like a “stranger” serving before the L-rd — like an ordinary non-priest. What, then, is the basis for the garments’ powerful significance?

The Garments Possess An Intrinsic Holiness

No priest, neither lay nor the High Priest himself, is fit to serve in the Temple unless he is wearing the sacred garments. As the Talmud states, “While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them” (BT Zevachim 17:B). Conducting the service without these garments would render the priests the same as those who are not descendants of Aaron—all of whom are unfit for service in the Temple.

Why does the Bible attach so much significance to the garments? Because their quality is such that they elevate the wearers, Aaron and all his descendants, to the high levels of sanctity required from those who come to serve before G-d in the holy place. These garments themselves possess a certain holiness; powerful enough to sanctify all those who merely come in contact with them, as we read in the prophets: “…so as not to hallow the people with their garments” (Ezekiel 44:19).

Actually, the Hebrew expression which we are translating as “sacred” or “holy” garments also means “garments of the Temple;” that is, the garments themselves show that their wearers are standing in the Divine service.

The Garments Atone for Sins

Another important quality of the priestly garments is that their very presence, worn by the priests during the Temple service, serves to atone for the sins of Israel. It is taught that just as the sacrifices facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments (BT Zevachim 88:B).

This is one of the deeper aims of wearing these garments, and something for the priest to ponder while they are upon him. For his everyday actions in the Temple transcend his own personal idiom and take on a more universal theme…he makes atonement and spiritual rectification for all humanity.

Thus we are taught (ibid.):

“For honor and for beauty”

The rabbis established that G-d’s command for the priestly garments to be “for honor and for beauty” teach us that they must be new and dignified. If the garments were soiled, stained, or ripped, the priests may not conduct the service while wearing them—and if they did, the service would be invalid.

Another aspect of “honor and beauty” means that the uniform must fit perfectly. It was forbidden for the pants, for example, to be too long or too short. The garments were made to order for each priest, tailored to fit his measurements exactly.

This tells us something of the tremendous work force needed to turn out these garments in such quantities that every priest in Israel could be supplied with his own garments.

The Garments Were Not Washed

Furthermore, although the priests were extremely neat, just as they were diligent and careful—still, they were working with the sacrifices. Any garment which became soiled to the extent that its stains could not be removed, those garments were not washed. When they became disqualified from use in this manner, they were shredded and used to fulfill another of the Creator’s commandments! The tunics were used to make wicks for the menorah, and the belts and pants, wicks for the oil lamps of the Festival of the Water Libation which took place in the Women’s Court during the Festival of Sukkot. This applies only to the garments of the ordinary priests, of which there were a great many. When the High Priest’s uniform became unusable through wear and tear, it was not destroyed, but hidden away so that no other man could ever wear it.

II. The High Priest’s Breastplate

“And you shall make the breastplate of judgment, the work of an artist; after the manner of the ephod shall you make it: of gold, sky-blue, dark-red, and crimson dyed wool, and of twisted linen shall you make it” (Ex. 28:6,15).

This garment is called choshen mishpat in Hebrew, which means the “breastplate of judgment” or “decision.” Square-shaped and worn over the heart, it was called so because of the unique role which it played in helping to render fateful decisions. According to the Biblical instructions and rabbinical traditions, the breastplate is a patterned brocade like the ephod. The threads of its fabric are gold, sky-blue, dark red and crimson wool, and twisted linen. The garment itself is set with four rows of small square stones, in settings of knitted or braided gold. Each row contained three stones—totaling twelve stones, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The name of the corresponding tribe was engraved on each stone.

The Stones

“And you shall set it with four rows of mounted stones; the first row: a ruby, an emerald, and a topaz. The second row: a carbuncle, a sapphire, and a quartz crystal. The third row: a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst. The fourth row: a chrysolite, an onyx, and an opal. These stones shall be placed in gold settings. The stones shall contain the names of the twelve children of Israel, one for each of the twelve stones; each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring, to represent the twelve tribes” (Ex. 28: 17–21).

Names that Defy Translation

Although we have provided a translation for these twelve stones as listed above, it is by no means definitive. We simply prefer to use these names, when faced with the alternative…that is, to present the original Hebrew names transliterated but untranslated. Our listing is rather more like a synopsis, or a sampling, representing different schools of thought. The exact, conclusive identification of these stones is actually one of the most difficult and elusive of all Temple-related studies. This is because the original Hebrew names of these stones as they appear here in the Bible are extremely obscure. They are not commonly used, and no description of the stones appears anywhere in the verses themselves. In the course of many years, as nations flouished and fell, and civilizations migrated to new lands, languages evolved and the meanings of words changed. Thus in one location, a word may have one meaning and connote a particular concept, while in another land, the same word may carry the exact opposite meaning.

Over 30 Different Opinions

Faced with this sort of situation, it becomes necessary to engage in what can be called “linguistic sleuthing” in an effort to arrive at a working conclusion. The names of these stones is particularly enigmatic: there are over 30 varying opinions as to the final identification of the 12 stones. These opinions include scholars and commentators from the entire historical spectrum of rabbinical literature and tradition, beginning with the most ancient—and therefore, in this case the most reliable opinions—those of the Aramaic translations of the Bible. And as is usual when it comes to eye-witness testimony, the information provided by Flavius Josephus is of interest and importance, since he himself was a priest who served in the Holy Temple.

In addition to the translational difficulties in this study, there are also other factors which should be taken into consideration in order to arrive at a realistic decision as to the true nature of these gems. These factors include various geological and gemological conditions and criteria, such as the respective degree of hardness and brightness of the stones (since the stones are described by the sages as being both exceedingly bright, and strong as well—in order to withstand the engraving), and the regions on the earth where they can be found.

The Colors Correspond to the Tribes’ Banners

In reality, the only fact which is known with absolute certainty is the color of each stone. Although absent from the Biblical passages, this is recorded by the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7), where it is stated that each tribe’s stone on the breastplate matched the background color of its flag (the tribes of Israel camped and journeyed according to their ensigns during the years of their desert travels).

Thus even if some doubt exists with regard to the scientific classification of the gems themselves, we can still be certain as to their appearance based on the Midrashic description of their colors (again, arbitrarily using the 12 “most representative” names we have chosen for the purpose of listing them):

  1. Ruby - Reuben - Red
  2. Jade - Shimon - Green
  3. Agate - Levi - Red, White, and Black Striped
  4. Carbuncle - Judah - Bluish-Green
  5. Lapis-Lazuli - Issachar - Blue
  6. Quartz Crystal - Zebulun - Clear
  7. Turquoise - Dan - Blue
  8. Amethyst - Naftali - Purple
  9. Agate - Gad - Grey
  10. Aquamarine - Asher - Blue-Green
  11. Onyx - Joseph - Black
  12. Opal - Benjamin - A Stone Possessing All the Colors

Exhaustive Research Concluded by the Temple Institute

It will be of great interest to the reader to learn that over the course of nearly a decade, scholars at the Temple Institute of Jerusalem have conducted intensive research into the identity of the breastplate’s stones, in an effort to reach a working conclusion that will allow the Institute’s artisans and craftsmen to actually construct a kosher breastplate, which will fulfill the Biblical requirements for the stones—and thus be able to be worn by the next High Priest.

“The Engraving of a Signet Ring”

“The stones shall contain the names of the twelve children of Israel, one for each of the twelve stones; each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring, to represent the twelve tribes” (Ex. 28: 21).

What process is this engraving, similar to that which appears on a signet ring?

In a Talmudic analysis (BT Sotah 48:B), the sages taught that because of these instructions, the words were not written with any sort of ink. Nor were they carved out or chiseled with any metal tool—for the verse (ibid. v. 20) specifically indicates that the stones must be set into their golden settings while yet “in their fullness;” in order to carve or to scratch out from the surface, some of the stone itself would inevitably be missing.

Rather, a most unique method was utilized to carve the names into the stones of the breastplate. It was accomplished naturally, by one of G-d’s creations. A worm called the shamir existed that could cut stones merely with its glance. According to the rabbis, this creature was brought into existence during the original six days of creation, but ceased to exist following the destruction of the First Temple.

It is taught that Moses himself used the shamir for the stones of the original ephod and breastplate while yet in the desert, for the Tabernacle.

“Initially, the words are written on the stones in ink. Then the stones are simply exposed to the shamir, and the letters are cut into the stones automatically, of their own accord…like a fig which ripens and splits open in summer; it splits open but yet no part of it is missing. And a valley splits open during the rainy season, but it too lacks nothing” (BT Sotah 48:B)—thus the stones remained “in their fullness.”

How Were the Tribes Arranged on the Breastplate?

Above, regarding the two sardonyx stones that were placed on the High Priest’s shoulders, we have quoted the verse “And you shall take two sardonyx stones, and engrave upon them the names of the children of Israel; there shall be six names on one stone, and six names on the second stone in the order of their birth” (Ex. 28:9–10).

When it came to those two stones, this verse clearly indicated that the names of the tribes should be engraved upon them in the order of their birth. But in the context of the stones of the breastplate, scripture gives no such indication. Therefore, there is some controversy as to the order in which these names appeared.

In the opinion of Yonatan ben Uziel, author of an Aramaic translation/commentary on the Bible, the children of Israel’s names were inscribed on the breastplate’s stones in the order of their birth, and were therefore arranged in the following manner:

Reuben Simeon Levi

Judah Dan Naftali

Gad Asher Issachar

Zebulun Joseph Benjamin

Another Aramaic translation, the “Targum Yerushalmi,” places the order of the tribes according to the Matriarchs; the six sons of Leah, two sons of Bilhah, two sons of Zilpah and two sons of Rachel.


Reuben Simeon Levi

Judah Issachar Zebulun

Dan Naftali Gad

Asher Joseph Benjamin

When the reader tries to visualize the breastplate based on this information, he should bear in mind that in both cases, the order which meets the eye is actually reversed—since Hebrew reads from right to left.

It should be noted that both of these commentaries (which date back to the time of the Temple) are held in the highest regard as sources of both wisdom and authoritative knowledge. For the sake of brevity we have only presented these two opinions, but there are more schools of thought among the great sages: some hold that the names appeared in downward columns, rather than in rows across; some hold that the names of the tribes appeared on the breastplate in the same order in which they camped in the desert.

There is also a tradition which Moses received at the Sinai revelation, that all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet should be present on the stones. Since all of these letters are not found in the names of Jacob’s progeny, several other words were also engraved upon the stones: the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the words “the tribes of Jeshurun.” One opinion is that the words Abraham, Isaac and Jacob appeared at the top of the first stone, over the name Reuben, and the other words on the last stone. Others maintain that all these extra letters were divided among the stones.

“A Remembrance”

Like the two sardonyx shoulder stones, the Bible states that the purpose of the twelve stones is “to be a perpetual remembrance before the L-rd” (Ex. 28:29). When the High Priest bore the breastplate into the holy place, Israel was remembered for peace. The sages taught that the ephod served to invoke the cause of Israel’s sustenance and material welfare, and the breastplate—her salvation, and deliverance from her enemies.

The “Urim V’Tummim

“And you shall place the Urim V’tummim in the breastplate of judgment, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he comes before G-d” (ibid. v. 30).

The “Urim V’Tummim” is the Name of G-d

The Urim V’Tummim was the famed, oracle-like aspect of the breastplate by which a Heavenly answer was received for important questions. According to most authoritative opinions, the expression urim v’tummim actually refers not to the breastplate itself, but to the mystical Divine name of G-d which was written on a piece of parchment and inserted into a flap of the garment. The presence of the name facilitated the reception of Divine guidance through the shining of specific letters on the stones.

The Identity of G-d is the Source of Creation

What does this mean? What are the implications of this fact, the knowledge that it is the name of G-d itself which brought about the illumination of the urim v’tummim? This is indeed a lofty concept, but one whose lesson can be readily appreciated, at least on a simple level of understanding.

G-d is the Creator of all existence; His power is unlimited. He has no form whatsoever, neither has He beginning or end…He is the Supreme Being. He is perfect and absolute unity. And He is also totally unknowable.

Yet in numerous passages throughout the Bible, we are commanded to “know” G-d. “In all of your ways, know Him” (Proverbs 3:6); “And I shall betroth you in faith, and you shall know the L-rd” (Hosea 2:22) are but two examples of many such instances.

Truly, how can we come to know G-d, who is omnipotent and infinite? Yet we are commanded—and therefore expected—to do just that. And there is a general rule with regard to the Torah’s commandments: the Holy One never makes unfair demands on a person (BT Avodah Zara 3:A).

Knowledge of G-d Through His Names

The sages of Israel teach that one way to know G-d is through awareness of His relationship to the universe which He created. Although it is taught that “no thought can grasp Him at all” (Tikkunei Zohar 17:A), and ultimately G-d’s essence is not only unknowable, but unnamable as well—still, G-d’s names describe His relationship with creation (Shemot Rabbah 3:6). Through these attributes of Divine interaction, we can at least attempt some glimpse of His greatness, according to our limited intellect. There are a number of names used throughout the Bible; one denotes the attribute of Divine mercy; another the aspect of strict judgment, and so on.

These Divine names of G-d are merely appellations which He has entitled us to use; they are not His true identity, which is beyond the reach of human knowledge. But it was through these names that G-d created heaven and earth, and it is by way of His names that He continues to direct every minute aspect of existence. Thus it is obvious that G-d’s names, through which He summoned forth all creation from nothing at all, have great power. This power is the secret behind the prophetic revelation of the urim v’tummim.

From the Time of Moses

The urim v’tummim is unlike any other aspect of the priestly garments, for it was not created by those skilled artisans who fashioned the other items, aided by their understanding and inspiration; and it was not created from the donations or contributions of Israel, as were all the other appointments of the Temple. The entire matter is one of those mysteries which was handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai by G-d Himself, and its secret was transmitted orally down through the generations.

At the time of the original Tabernacle erected in the desert, Moses took the original urim v’tummim, written in sublime holiness, and placed it inside the breastplate of judgment, after Aaron donned the ephod. This is reflected by the verse (Lev. 8:7), “…and he put the ephod upon him, and he fastened him with the belt of the ephod…and he put the breastplate upon him, and into the breastplate he put the urim v’tummim.”

Only Questions of Congregational Importance

The process of questioning for Divine aid with the ‘Urim V’Tummim’ was done in the following manner: When a question arose whose implications were so consequential that the entire congregation of Israel would be affected—such as, for example, the question of whether or not to go out to war—then, the King of Israel (or the commanding officer of the army) would ask his question before the High Priest. An ordinary person, or someone not representing the entire community would not ask of the urim v’tummim.

The High Priest stands facing the Ark of the Testimony, and the questioner stands behind him, facing the priest’s back. The questioner does not speak out loud, neither does he merely think the question in his heart; he poses his query quietly, to himself—like someone who prayers quietly before his Creator. For example, he will ask “Shall I go out to battle, or shall I not go out?”

A Meditative Experience and a Prophetic Revelation

The High Priest is immediately enveloped by the spirit of Divine inspiration. He gazed at the breastplate, and by meditating upon the holy names of G-d, the priest was able to receive the answer through a prophetic vision—the letters on the stones of the breastplate, which would shine forth in his eyes in a special manner, spelling out the answer to the question. The priest then informed the questioner of the answer.

Flavius Josephus writes (Antiquities 3:8:9) that the stones also shone brilliantly when Israel went forth into battle. This was considered as an auspicious sign for their victory.

Another midrashic passage indicates that when the tribes of Israel found favor in G-d’s eyes, each respective stone shone brilliantly. But when particular members of any one tribe were involved in a transgression, that tribe’s stone would appear tarnished and dimmed. The High Priest would see this phenomena and understand its cause. He would then cast lots within the rank of this tribe, until the guilty person was revealed and judged (Midrash HaGadol).

What is the meaning of the words “urim v’tummim?”

According to the commentary of the famed Rashi, these words are derived from their Hebrew roots for “lights” and “perfections,” since through the urim v’tummim, the question is illuminated through the letters and its subject matter is then perfected by the High Priest. The Talmud (BT Yoma 73:B) also indicates that the message which was received was called tummim, “perfect,” because it was immutable.