A Kingdom of Priests

Tetzavveh By :  Melissa Crespy Posted On Feb 23, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

Upon meeting non-Jews who are unfamiliar with what a rabbi is, I often tell them my role is somewhat akin to the role of a priest or a minister in the Christian tradition. But the truth is, there are significant differences between rabbis and priests. While rabbis often “officiate” at life cycle and worship ceremonies, Judaism does not require them to perform these rites. Whereas, in the Catholic church, priests are often the only ones who can perform life cycle and worship ceremonies, known as sacraments. Other well-known differences exist as well — Judaism encourages marriage for rabbis versus Catholicism’s requirement that priests be celibate.

But, what struck me on reading Parashat T’tzavveh this time was how similar the distinguishing garments that Judaism’s priests, the Kohanim, were required to wear are to what many Catholic priests and bishops wear today, and how these clothes separated the priests from the people. Most rabbis today do not wear clothing which identifies them as clergy. We certainly wear nothing like the breastpiece, the long vest (ephod) and the headdress which distinguished the Kohen Gadol [high Priest] from the rest of the Israelites. In part this is because the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE left the Kohanim no significant role to play in Jewish ritual life (and hence no special garments to distinguish them), and in part because the rabbis of the Talmudic period democratized leadership roles in the Jewish community, basing them on Torah knowledge, as opposed to lineage.

Yet, despite the democratization of religious leadership roles in Jewish life, there remains today a distinction between rabbis and lay people. Though we sport no breastpieces, long vest or headdress, rabbis are often held to a different religious and moral standard from the rest of the Jewish population. The Torah teaches us, just before the giving of the ten commandments, that we are all to be a mamlekhet kohanim and a goy kadosh “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), yet it seems that many Jews are content to let their rabbis embody that “priestliness” and “holiness” while they watch from the sidelines. This is not the way our lives were meant to be. The Talmud (Zevahim 88b) seems to suggest that the priestly garments were designed to protect all human beings from the sins to which they are prone. Thus, as the Etz Hayim Humash spells out for us (p. 505): “the breastpiece – called ‘the breastpiece of judgment’ (mishpat) in 28:15- was meant to prevent miscarriages of justice. The jacket (m’il, similar to the word for betrayal, ma-al) would discourage gossip. The ephod (a coat also used to decorate idols, as in Hosea 3:4) would protect against the danger of succumbing to idolatry. The fringed tunic (the same Hebrew phrase is used for Joseph’s coat in Genesis 37) would protect against bloodshed (as the brothers nearly killed Joseph).” The breeches would protect against sins of unchastity, and the headdress, against arrogant thoughts.

None of these sins – injustice, gossip, idolatry, bloodshed, unchastity or arrogance – is unique to priests or rabbis. These are sins which all human beings are susceptible to, and the Talmud seems to be telling us that though these garments were worn in ancient days by the priests their symbolism is for all of us. Rabbis may serve as role models and teachers for the holy and moral life we all aspire to, but they are not to live that life on their own. The whole Jewish community should be following in their footsteps as they don the “priestly garments” of a moral and committed Jewish life. As we read parashat T’tzavveh this week, let us all be reminded of the special status the Torah has laid out for us – to be a mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh” a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and let us strive to learn from our rabbis and teachers just how to put these ideals into action in our everyday lives.

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Crespy’s commentary on Parashat T’tzavveh have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.