Tetsaveh: The stones on the breastplate

Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. (Shemot 28:29)
Carnelian, chrysolite, emerald,
turquoise, sapphire, amethyst,
jacinth, agate, crystal,
beryl, lapis, jasper.

Gemstones framed in gold,
aligned in parallel rows,
mounted in series, engraved
each with the name of a tribe.

Radiant and iridescent,
the jewels on the breastplate
connote the rainbow, spanning
the spectrum of the whole.

A reminder to the bearer
who wears them on his heart
that each one has a place
– and he attends them all.


In an article on Parashat Tetsaveh, Dr Aviad HaCohen notes that the parasha goes into great detail about the High Priest’s clothes, and within the detail, focuses even further on the choshen mishpat, the breastplate, to which no less than 15 verses are devoted. He wonders therefore, what is the special nature of the breastplate and why the High Priest wears it over his heart at all times when he is serving in the Tabernacle. He suggests that the multicoloured stones might reflect the multiplicity of “hues” among the people and the different tribes of which it is comprised. He says the different stones remind those who judge the people, that all are equal before the law – each stone mounted in its encasing is of identical size; however, the judge also has to bear in mind that each litigant comes from a different background. As to the repeated instruction to Aaron to wear the breastplate over his heart, Dr HaCohen notes that Sforno*, Chizkuni** and others comment that this is more than a hint that a good judicial system cannot be purely analytical and mechanical, but must also be rooted in the intention to serve the people and not be isolated from them.

In an article on the Parasha entitled Responsible Clothing, Rabbi Dorothy Richman comments on the word remembrance and reflects on what it might mean, as it is emphasized through its repetition. She asks what Aaron is meant to remember. Rabbi Richman cites one commentator who suggests Aaron wears the names to remember those for whom he is spiritually responsible. She adds, “The visible names heighten Aaron’s awareness of those he represents. This awareness may be visceral, evoking Eduardo Galeano’s definition of remembrance from his native Spanish: “Recordar: to remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.” Wearing the names and emotionally connecting to the people they represent, Aaron’s own awareness of personal responsibility is heightened.”

And in her blogpost http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2008/02/this-weeks-port.html Rabbi Rachel Barenblat ponders the significance today of the sacral vestments. She concludes, “I want to single out one other piece of High Priestly garb: the jeweled breastplate bearing the names of all the tribes of Israel. Names remind us of the people they represent. Imagine wearing the names of everyone in your family on your chest: the ones you love, the ones who maybe drive you a little crazy, siblings and distant cousins alike. Imagine carrying those names with you on every journey inward into prayer. What would that feel like?”

* R’ Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1475 – 1550) was an Italian rabbi, biblical commentator, philosopher and physician.
In the era of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, Jewish life in Italy was thriving. In Spain, centuries of Jewish learning and culture came to an end, while in Italy Jews were free to pursue scholarship.
The family of the Sfornos had been well known in Italy for several generations as rabbis and leaders of their community. R’ Obadiah ben Jacob was the most famous scion of the Sforno family.
Obadiah was born in Cesena, Italy in about 1475. His father was a great scholar and the boy’s first teacher. Obadiah, while still very young, showed an aptitude for the study of Torah and started to write his own commentaries. He also proved to be gifted in mathematics and philosophy. When not quite twenty years of age, he left for Rome to study medicine. Not wanting to use his great knowledge of the Torah as a means of earning a living, he wanted to earn his livelihood as a physician (like the Rambam and others).
R’ Obadiah wrote a philosophical book, called “Or Ammim” in which he refuted the ideas and principles of non-Jewish philosophers who did not believe in God. He wrote it in Hebrew and then translated it into Latin, the language widely used by non-Jewish scholars in those days. The book was not printed because the leaders of the Catholic church did not approve it.
Another work of his analysed the eight books of Euclid’s Geometry and was considered the most complete analysis of mathematics and geometry of the time.
In 1525, Rabbi Obadiah left Rome for a somewhat nomadic life on the continent, practising medicine at the various royal courts and visiting the Jewish communities there. Subsequently, he returned to Bologna and opened his own Yeshiva which he headed until he died aged 75.
In his introduction to the commentary on the Chumash, called “Kavanat Hatorah,” he credits previous great commentators like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam and the Ramban. His own method of interpretation was based upon a selection of their best methods. The characteristic features of his exegetical work are respect for the literal meaning of the text, applying great philological and philosophical knowledge. He was very reluctant to entertain mystical interpretations but took every opportunity to develop the ethical teaching implicit in the text. The Sforno commentary is favored for its simplicity and clarity.
In addition to the commentary on the Chumash (published in Venice 1567), R’ Obadiah wrote commentaries on Shir Hashirim, Koheleth and Tehillim (1586). His commentary on Job (Mishpat Tzedek) was published in about 1589, while his commentaries on Jonah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah were included in a larger collection of different commentaries and published later, in Amsterdam in 1724. The Machzor printed in Rome contains his explanations to Pirkei Avot. Other works, like a collection of his sermons and a Hebrew grammar have been preserved in the form of manuscripts which have not been published.

**Hezekiah ben Manoach, the “Chizkuni” was a 13th century French rabbi and student.
In about 1240 he wrote a commentary on the Chumash which he entitled Chizkuni, in memory of his father. He based his exegesis principally upon Rashi’s commentary, but he also used many other commentaries. It was first printed in Venice in 1524 and subsequently in several other places.

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