Parsha Tezaveh introduces the priesthood. The priests of Israel – the Kohanim – were a dedicated hereditary cadre of men to serve both God and man in the Mishkan. Only they were allowed to offer the various sacrifices to God. The Torah declared that one man and his family, and their descendents, would serve as the Priests of Israel. That honour was bestowed on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his four sons.
The Parsha describes in painstaking detail the elaborate vestments that the priests were to wear when they performed the various ceremonies involved in the sacrificial rite. The vestments too were clearly designed to awe the onlooker, being made “for glory and splendour”.
The dress of the Kohen Gadol was the most intricate. It was composed of eight elements He was dressed in a knitted tunic, a turban, and a sash and a robe. Over his ensemble, the Kohen Gadol wore a robe that was partially covered by a stylized apron, the Ephod. Over the Ephod, the High Priest wore an ornate breastplate studded with gemstones, referred to as the Breast Plate of Decision, or Judgment, the Choshen Mishpat. Inside the breastplate were placed the Urim and the Turim. Stephen Spielberg copied the uniform in Raiders of the Lost Ark; Belloq, the French archaeologist was dressed in the garb of the high priest when he opened the Ark.
Although the priestly vestments were not an actual part of the service, the service could be performed only when the Kohen was wearing them; it was the clothes that made the man. The Torah seems to suggest that, at least, the Kohen Gadol would die if he did not wear the regulated clothing. The Talmud suggested that a Kohen’s exalted status of priesthood was not conferred until he donned the vestment. The Torah separately provided that it was a capital offence for someone other than a priest to conduct a priestly service – ergo an improperly attired Kohen would also die.
Many commentators viewed the elements of the various priestly vestments much like they did the architectural detail of the Mishkan; there was a sense of holiness and purpose in the design. For example, the Talmud propounded that each of the priestly vestments were purposefully designed to symbolize a particular sin. The priestly tunic was said to remind one of the sin of murder; the pants symbolized the sin of adultery. The turban stood for arrogance and the belt for lustful thoughts. The priestly breastplate, which revealed the divine law, symbolized the sin of perverting the law of justice and the apron brought to mind the sin of idolatry. The apron robe was designed with bells hanging from the bottom that would clang as the high priest walked the corridors of the temple. The robe’s clanging bells stood for clanging sounds of sinful gossip and slander. The forehead plate, as its name indicates, was worn high on the priest’s forehead. The forehead plate symbolized the sin of high-minded and shameless impudence. Presumably, as the priest donned these vestments, he remembered the sins of particular sinners and prayed for their atonement. As the sinners saw the vestments, they recognized their own misdeeds and repented.