Rabbi Shlomo RiskinThe writer is the founding and Chief Rabbi of Efrata, Gush Etzion, as well as founder and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, author of Torah Lights and other well known Judaic texts.
"You shall make (the High Priest) a head-plate (Hebrew ztitz) of pure gold, and you shall engrave upon it, engraved like a signet ring, 'Holy to the Lord'. You shall place it on a cord of turquoise wool (Hebrew t'khelet) and it shall be on the turban . . . (Hebrew mitznefet)." (Exodus 28:36,37)
Our Talmudic Sages teach that "the Merciful One requires the human heart"; God looks to one's innermost soul rather than to one's external garb. Nevertheless, our clothing affects our mood and expresses a message about ourselves to society. Virtually everyone 'dresses up' for special occasions. Halakha mandates unique garb for the Sabbath and the Festivals. Men and women are expected to dress modestly and the mourner may not change his outer garments for all seven days of mourning (except for the Sabbath).
From this perspective, we can understand why the Kohen-Priests must wear special garments when officiating in the Sanctuary. Our Biblical portion mandates: "You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother for glory and splendor" (Exodus 28:2) And all Jewish male are expected to cover their heads (especially when praying or eating, but preferably at all times) as well as wearing a special undergarment called tzitzit, with ritual fringes on each of its four corners.
Let us examine the significance of these special vestments. The head covering worn by observant Jews probably harks back to the turban of the High priest. The Talmud describes how great scholars such as Rav Hunah would not walk a distance of four cubits without covering their heads, as a constant reminder of the Divine Presence. (B.T. Kiddushin 31a). Apparently the Catholic Church adopted the custom at that time, and so the Cardinals and the Pope always appear publicly with head covering. Much of Ashkenazi Jewry for at least the last 300 years have universalized this custom to include all adult males, with the Yiddish word for the head covering being yarmulke, a contraction of two Aramaic words yarei malka , one who is in constant awe of the Divine King.
The four-cornered undergarment with ritual fringes as well as the more visible prayer shawl is Biblically mandated for every male Jew: "The children of Israel shall make for themselves tzitzit (ritual fringes) on the corners of their garments…and they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of t'khelet (turquoise wool) …. in order that you may see it and remember all the commandments and perform them; you may not seek out after (the stirrings) of your heart and after (the lustings) of your eyes to harlot after them. This is all so that you may remember and perform all of my commandments and be holy to your God" (Numbers 15: 37-40)
Here the symbolism is nothing short of amazing. You will remember from our Biblical portion that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wears a tzitz (headplate) placed on a cord of t'khelet (or turquoise wool) upon his forehead; upon this tzitz is engraved the words, "Holy unto the Lord". In a parallel fashion, Jewish men wear tzitzit (a "smaller" tzitz) – fringes with a thread of t'khelet. This too is to remind him that he must be holy to God.
The t'khelet, or turquoise wool, was a very expensive dye extracted from the rare hilazon mollusk, a color reserved for royalty in ancient times. The High Priest was Jewish royalty; in a slightly lesser fashion, so was every Jew.
The High Priest, whose risked becoming a heretical Saducee rather than remaining a God-fearing, halakha-practicing Pharisee, had to dedicate his thoughts to God; therefore his tzitz (headplate) is on his forehead. The average Jew, however, whose major risk lies in straying after inappropriate sexual urges has to remember to dedicate his body to God. Therefore, the tzitzit - or ritual fringes – are in the area of his lower body parts.
Most important of all, every Jew is seen as royalty, as a mini-High- Priest. When Jewish men look at the fringes, they are reminded of all of God's commandments. The Hebrew word tzitzit has the numerical value of 600, and – when we add the five knots and the eight strings on each corner the sum total comes to 613.
The Talmud goes one step further, "the turquoise – t'khelet – is similar to the color of the sea, the color of the sea is similar to the color of the heavens, and the heavens are similar to the Divine throne of glory" (B.T. Menahot 43 b)
The Jewish people were charged by God to be a sacred nation, which can only be achieved when we dedicate our lives to the 613 commandments. Additionally, God commanded us to be a kingdom of Priest-Teachers to the world. At the very least, we must spread the 7 Noahide Laws of morality to all peoples. (Exodus 19: 6, Maimonides Laws of Kings 8,10). This second charge is symbolized by the turquoise of the sea and the turquoise of the heaven reminiscent of the God who created the heavens and the earth.
Yes, we must remember – and strengthen – the uniqueness of our nation, but at the same time we must express the noblesse oblige of our royal status by reaching out to every human being and lovingly attempting to bring them the priestly benediction of peace and redemption.