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Priestly Vestments


PRIESTLY VESTMENTS , the special garments that were worn by the priests during divine worship, as was customary in cultic services in the Ancient Near East and elsewhere (see e.g., ii Kings 10:22). The priests are commanded to leave their priestly garments in the holy chambers after the service (Ezek. 42:14; 44:19), and to refrain from carrying them into the outer court (Lev. 6:4). It is likewise stated: "He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments," the latter apparently referring to garments worn by the people, as in Ezekiel 42:14. (The talmudic sages (Yoma 23b) disputed whether these were priestly garments inferior to the former ones or profane garments.) In the Bible, the priestly garments are described only in the Priestly Code. Several of them are briefly referred to in Ezekiel 44:17–18; the ephod, the sole exception, is also mentioned in non-Priestly sources. Many scholars maintain that with respect to the garments, the Priestly Code reflects post-Exilic times, for, according to the prevalent view, this source was not committed to writing until this period. The ephod mentioned in sources other than the Priestly Code is held by these scholars to be either an image, not a garment, a garment of divine images, or the earliest priestly garment. However, it actually appears that all the garments described in the Priestly Code are from the pre-Exilic period, and it is only this source which had need to describe them, since it is a priestly work whose contents called for such a description.

Several features characterize the priestly vestments. Some of them are made "for splendor and for beauty" (Ex. 28:40); others, as is usual with cultic apparel, undoubtedly preserve vestiges of an old style, while some reflect acts of cultic significance. The breeches were for modesty (see below). Bearing as they do the hallmark of holiness, the priestly garments as a whole are frequently referred to as holy garments (see below). A total of eight garments, the number also prescribed by the sages (Yoma 7:5), are enumerated in the Priestly Code, but only Aaron attired himself in all eight. Of these, the four undergarments are to be worn by the common priests too, but those of Aaron are somewhat more embellished. Mentioned as a special group in connection with Aaron as well as with the common priests are four other garments of simple linen, which were worn when acts of extraordinary holiness were performed.

The four undergarments are to be made of fine twined linen (shesh moshzar), that is, a superior quality of linen; an exception within this group is Aaron's girdle made of a mixture (kilayim) of fine linen and wool. The four undergarments consist of:

(1) A coat. Of Aaron's coat it is said: "And you shall weave the coat in checkerwork of fine linen" (Ex. 28:39), and hence it is called "a coat of checkerwork" (28:4; cf. the ornamented coat mentioned in connection with Joseph in Gen. 37:3ff., and Tamar in ii Sam. 13:18–19). No mention is made of checker-work with respect to the coats of the common priests (Ex. 28:39–40; cf. Ibn Ezra's comment). In Second Temple times, the priests' coats descended apparently to the ankles and had sleeves reaching to the palms (Jos., Ant., 3:153; cf. Yoma 72b; Maim., Yad, Kelei ha-Mikdash, 8:17).

(2) A girdle. The girdle, bound around the coat, is also regarded as a vestment of distinction (cf. Isa. 22:21). Whereas the girdles of the common priests were made exclusively of fine twined linen (Ex. 28:39), Aaron's was of fine linen and dyed wools and was of embroidered work, ma'aseh rokem (Ex. 28:39;39:29).

(3) A headdress. For the common priests turbans or "decorated turbans," paaʾare migbaʿot, are prescribed, while for Aaron there is a miter, miẓnefet (Ex. 28:39–40; 39:28; cf. Ezek. 44:18). The "decorated turban" is considered an attire of beauty and distinction (cf. peʾer in Isa. 3:20; 61:3, 10; Ezek. 24:17), but more imposing is the miter, which is mentioned as synonym for crown (Ezek. 21:31; cf. Isa. 62:3).

(4) Breeches. The breeches are worn "to cover the flesh of their nakedness; from the hips to the thighs" (Ex. 28:42; 39:28; Ezek. 44:18).

The four outer garments, which pertain specifically to the high priest, are of greater richness and splendor than the undergarments. They consist of a mixture of dyed wool and fine linen, and display "skillful workmanship," maʿaseh ḥoshev. Some also contain threads of pure gold, while others are woven of gold filaments and yarn of a mixture of wool and linen. In conformity with the system of the Priestly Code, these costly substances allude to a high degree of holiness, as is also attested by the mixture of wool and linen. Such a mixture was generally prohibited in profane garments as it was conducive to holiness (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9–11). Precisely for this reason, however, it was preserved among the priests. In this respect, the priestly garments correspond to the curtains and the veil of the Tabernacle, which are also said to have been made of a mixture of wool and linen, and have displayed "skillful workmanship" (Ex. 26:1, 31, et al.).

The very wearing of the four outer garments is regarded as an act of worship and is connected with the other acts performed by the high priest inside the Temple. True, nowhere is it specifically stated that the high priest has to wear the four outer garments when he enters to officiate inside the Temple, that is, to perform the daily cultic act in the morning and in the afternoon. Furthermore, from Second Temple times there are evidences that the high priest actually appeared in court dressed in garments of gold and a mixture of wool and linen (Ecclus. 45:7ff.; Jos., Wars, 5:239). However, this custom seems to have come into being in Second Temple times, whereas in the pre-Exilic period the high priest wore the outer garments only when he officiated inside the Temple. Proof of this is the fact that in composition as well as mode of workmanship these garments resemble the curtains and the inner vessels of gold, while the undergarments resemble the hangings and screens in the court. Moreover, the outer garments are too heavy, cumbersome, and splendid for the tasks performed at the outer altar.

The four outer garments have several features characteristic of royalty (the gold, the blue, and the purple, as well as the crown) and when combined with the miter and with the anointing oil poured on the high priest (Ex. 29:7, et al.) they give him a regal appearance. In Ezekiel's constitution there is no mention of these garments; of the priestly vestments, Ezekiel knows only those of ordinary linen (Ezek. 44:17–8), just as there is no hint in Ezekiel of the existence of the high priesthood itself.

The four outer garments are the following:

(5) The ephod, made of gold and a mixture of wool and linen, displaying "skillful workmanship" (Ex. 28:6–12; 39:2–7). This is the most distinguished of the priestly garments; hence it alone is mentioned in the Former and the Latter Prophets (Judg. 8:27; 17:5; Hos. 3:4, et al.). A garment by this name is mentioned in Ugaritic writings (ipd; ch Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 67, 1:5) and in the Assyrian documents from Cappadocia (epattu).

(6) The breastplate, measuring a span by a span, attached to the ephod. It is either a square tablet or a pouch. In it are set 12 precious stones on which are engraved the names of the tribes of Israel, and on the breastplate are placed the *Urim and the Thummim. The breastplate is made in the same manner as the ephod – that is, of gold and a mixture of wool and linen, and displayed "skillful workmanship" (Ex. 28:15–30; 29:8–21).

(7) The robe of the ephod, that is worn under the ephod. The robe is probably longer than the ephod, and extends below it. It is made of woolen threads only, all of blue. On its hem hang bells of gold and pomegranates of a mixture of dyed wool and fine linen (Ex. 28:31–35; 39:22–26). The number of bells and pomegranates, not specified in the text, was a subject of controversy among the sages, who disputed over whether there were 72 or 36 (Zev. 88b), while still other numbers were given by Church Fathers. In Second Temple times the robe, like the tunic, apparently reached the high priest's heels (Jos. Ant., 3:159; Jos. Wars, 5:231: cf. Philo, ii Mos. 118–21).

(8) The plate, also called a crown, nezer, hangs on a blue thread in front of the miter. Made of pure gold, the plate has two words engraved on it: qodesh le-yhwh, "Holy to the Lord" (Ex. 28:36–38; 39:30–31), as stated by the sages (Shab. 63b, et al.). However, in Second Temple times, apparently only the Tetragrammaton was inscribed on it (Jos., Ant., 3:178; cf. Jos., Wars, 5:235; Philo, ii Mos. 115, 132; Arist. 98).

Shoes are not included among the priestly vestments and the priests evidently ministered barefoot, as was obligatory in a holy place (cf. Ex. 3:5; Josh. 5:15; cf. also the remark in Ex. R. 2:6 end).

In four passages (Ex. 31:10; 35:19; 39:1, 41) all the priestly garments of Aaron and of his sons, are referred to by the special designation "the garments of serad," the etymology of which has not as yet been adequately explained. The talmudic sages assumed that this designation applies to the high priest's eight garments (Yoma 72 a–b). According to the literal meaning of the text, however, it seems that Aaron's eight garments, i.e., his four undergarments and the four outer ones that were specifically for him, are referred to not as "the garments of serad" but as "the holy garments for Aaron the priest" (see the references above, and also Ex. 28:4; 29:29; 40:13), while the four garments of the common priests are called "the garments of his sons, for their service as priests."

A third group of priestly garments consists of those made of ordinary, not fine, linen, which are used for officiating in the holiest of places. On the Day of Atonement, Aaron enters the inner sanctum clothed in four garments of ordinary linen: a coat, breeches, a girdle, and a miter (Lev. 16:4), which, as the sages correctly stated, were of white linen (Yoma 3:6, et al.). However, garments, including breeches, of ordinary linen are also worn by the common priest when he ascends the outer altar to remove the ashes (Lev. 6:3), and these are assumed to be similar to the former four garments. The simple garments of ordinary linen bear a holiness still greater than that of the vestments of gold and a mixture of wool and linen, and the text finds it necessary to emphasize that "they are the holy garments" (Lev. 16:4). In the Egyptian priesthood, too, garments of simple linen were regarded as holy. In the Bible, angels of the heavenly entourage are represented as clothed in simple linen (Ezek. 9:2–3, 11; 10:2; Dan. 10:5; 12:6–7). Because of their extraordinary holiness, the custom was instituted that the inner sanctum should be entered and the altar ascended in these garments only.


W. Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebraeischen Archeologie (1894), 116ff.; E. Nestle, in: zaw, 25 (1905), 205; 32 (1912), 74; F.C. Burkitt, in: jts, 26 (1925), 180; J.E. Hogg, ibid., 72–75; 28 (1927), 287ff.; J. Gabriel, Untersuchungen ueber das alttestamentliche Hohepriestertum (1933), 25–90; Galling, Reallexikon, 429–32; G. Beer and K. Galling, Exodus (Ger., 1939), 139–43, 151; K. Elliger, in: vt, 8 (1958), 19–35; M. Haran, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 279–85, 298; idem, in: huca, 36 (1965), 191ff.

[Menahem Haran]

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