Colors of Holiness: Clothing the High Priest to Match the Tabernacle
YHWH gives Moses meticulous instructions to build the Tabernacle (Exod 25–31) and design clothing for Aaron and his sons—stand in figures for the high priest and regular priests—all of which feature several colors. In the Bible, colors are embodied in things and never discussed as abstract categories. In the case of the high priest’s outfit, the colors are references to specific pigments made from dyes:
Tekhelet—The glands of the mollusk Hexaplex trunculus, found in the Mediterranean Sea, were used to produce the blue-purple colorant (something like indigo).
Argaman—The glands of a different mollusk, Bolinus brandaris, also found in the Mediterranean Sea, were used to produce this red-purple. It was extremely expensive, and to produce just one gram of the colorant, 1600 snails were required. For this reason, the purple-colored textiles were exclusive and worn by royalty, political leaders, and cult statues.
Tolaʿat Shani—The crimson (shani) colorant was produced by the female kermes insect. This is implied in Exodus 28, since the combination of worm (tolaʿat) and crimson (shani) often appears together, thus Everett Fox’s translation “worm scarlet.” Often it is rendered as crimson (or scarlet) “yarn,” which is the textile that was died this color, and which was also used for cult statues (cf. Jer. 10:9).
Parts of the priestly clothing were made of shesh, “fine linen,” a high-quality fabric that was probably white. Shesh is a loan word from Egyptian šś, where it can refer to either the mineral alabaster or linen; in Hebrew, it also refers to alabaster and marble (e.g., Esther 1:6).
Tunic and Headdress (and Breeches)
The ankle-length tunic to cover the torso and the headdress were undyed:
שמות כח:לט וְשִׁבַּצְתָּ הַכְּתֹנֶת שֵׁשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מִצְנֶפֶת שֵׁשׁ וְאַבְנֵט תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵם.
Exod 28:39 You shall make the fringed tunic of fine linen. You shall make the headdress of fine linen. You shall make the sash of embroidered work.
A later verse also makes brief mention of linen breeches (underpants), which are commanded in Exodus 28:42, also undyed, but would not have been seen.
A verse from the end of Exodus where the actual production of the materials is described clarifies that this sash in the verse quoted above was dyed:
שמות לט:כט וְאֶת הָאַבְנֵט שֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה.
Exod 39:29 and sashes of fine twisted linen, indigo (=blue-purple), purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery—as YHWH had commanded Moses.
Above the linen tunic, the high priest wears a robe of one single color, tekhelet:
שמות כח:לא וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת מְעִיל הָאֵפוֹד כְּלִיל תְּכֵלֶת. כח:לב וְהָיָה פִי רֹאשׁוֹ בְּתוֹכוֹ שָׂפָה יִהְיֶה לְפִיו סָבִיב מַעֲשֵׂה אֹרֵג כְּפִי תַחְרָא יִהְיֶה לּוֹ לֹא יִקָּרֵעַ.
Exod 28:31 You shall make the robe of the ephod of pure indigo. 28:32 The opening for the head shall be in the middle of it; the opening shall have a binding of woven work round about—it shall be like the opening of a coat of mail—so that it does not tear.
This simple robe has a complex decorative hem:
שמות כח:לג וְעָשִׂיתָ עַל שׁוּלָיו רִמֹּנֵי תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי עַל שׁוּלָיו סָבִיב וּפַעֲמֹנֵי זָהָב בְּתוֹכָם סָבִיב.
Exod 28:33 On its hem make pomegranates of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around.
The golden bells add a new color here, though it is important to distinguish between the natural colors of the materials—the white linen and the gold metal—and the three colored dyes.
Above the robe comes an elusive clothing item called the ephod. It appears to be a luxurious apron that might have resembled a clothing item with which cult images were dressed in the ANE:
שמות כח:ו וְעָשׂוּ אֶת הָאֵפֹד זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב. כח:ז שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפֹת חֹבְרֹת יִהְיֶה לּוֹ אֶל שְׁנֵי קְצוֹתָיו וְחֻבָּר.
Exod 28:6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs. 28:6 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends.
Connected to the ephod is a decorated band with the same three colors:
שמות כח:ח וְחֵשֶׁב אֲפֻדָּתוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ מִמֶּנּוּ יִהְיֶה זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר.
Exod 28:7 And the decorated band that is upon it shall be made like it, of one piece with it: of gold, of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.
Affixed atop the apron part of the ephod is the breastpiece, also of the same colors:
שמות כח:טו וְעָשִׂיתָ חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֵפֹד תַּעֲשֶׂנּוּ זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ. כח:טז רָבוּעַ יִהְיֶה כָּפוּל זֶרֶת אָרְכּוֹ וְזֶרֶת רָחְבּוֹ.
Exod 28:15 You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. 28:16 It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width.
As the final element, below the plain linen headdress, the high priest wears a golden frontlet (tzitz), a sort of luminous plate on his forehead, inscribed with a message that the wearer belongs to the Tabernacle’s accoutrements and is dedicated to YHWH:
שמות כח:לו וְעָשִׂיתָ צִּיץ זָהָב טָהוֹר וּפִתַּחְתָּ עָלָיו פִּתּוּחֵי חֹתָם קֹדֶשׁ לַי־הוָה. כח:לז וְשַׂמְתָּ אֹתוֹ עַל פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת וְהָיָה עַל הַמִּצְנָפֶת אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמִּצְנֶפֶת יִהְיֶה.
Exod 28:36 You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: “Holy to YHWH.” 28:37 Suspend it on a cord of indigo, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress.
The Tabernacle’s Colors
As the high priest dons these valuable and colorful textiles, he dresses in royal fashion, and intermingles with the Tabernacle, YHWH’s own abode, which shares this same color scheme:
שמות כו:א וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן תַּעֲשֶׂה עֶשֶׂר יְרִיעֹת שֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתֹלַעַת שָׁנִי כְּרֻבִים מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם.
Exod 26:1 As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them.
The purple and red hues are used for the innermost textiles, and the paraphernalia inside the Tabernacle is made of gold. These items would only be visible from the inside, however, as the Tabernacle is draped on the outside with undyed, goat-hair (or goat skin) coverings of brown or black colors:
שמות כו:ז וְעָשִׂיתָ יְרִיעֹת עִזִּים לְאֹהֶל עַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן...
Exod 26:7 You shall then make cloths of goats’ hair (or skins) for a tent over the Tabernacle…
Thus, outside the Tabernacle, with its goat-hair covering, the high priest stands out; he is something like a moving cult statue representing to the Israelites an otherwise invisible deity. Yet, the people do get a glimpse of the Tabernacle’s inner color scheme on the screen which blocks the entrance:
שמות כו:לו וְעָשִׂיתָ מָסָךְ לְפֶתַח הָאֹהֶל תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵם.
Exod 26:36 You shall make a screen for the entrance of the Tent, of indigo, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, done in embroidery.
As the high priest matches the screen, onlookers can see him as reflecting the Tabernacle’s colors, and his ability to go in and out of the structure gives the Israelites some connection to the inside of the divine dwelling.
Framing the Colors with White
The colorful Tabernacle is framed by a courtyard enclosed by hundreds of cubits of undyed (whitish) linen hangings (Exod 27:9–19). Similarly, the linen outfits of the regular priests contrast with the colorful outfit of the high priest.
כח:מ וְלִבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן תַּעֲשֶׂה כֻתֳּנֹת וְעָשִׂיתָ לָהֶם אַבְנֵטִים וּמִגְבָּעוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת.
28:40 And for Aaron’s sons also you shall make tunics, and make sashes for them, and make turbans for them, for dignity and adornment.
Like Aaron’s headdress and tunic, his sons’ turbans and tunics are undyed. They do get a splash of color on their sashes, and this serves as just a small reflection of the high priest’s splendor.
Chromophobia and Chromophilia
To walk through the innermost gateway and enter the Tabernacle, the high priest must wear matching colors, which serve as a sort of access key. As the high priest enters the gateways into the Tabernacle, he becomes less and less outstanding since the surrounding colors begin to mingle with his clothing. Inside the Tabernacle, the dressed high priest thus performs the daily rituals in a camouflage of sorts as he resembles the equipment that belongs to the Tabernacle.
The art historian David Batchelor, in his (very pink) book Chromophobia, discusses the ambivalent relationship humans have toward color, describing how color is often assigned to spheres of danger, the exotic stranger, the feminine, and the chaotic. The flip side of color is the possibility of losing oneself to its dangers and exoticness in an act of chromophilia.
The colorful Tabernacle is a dangerous place to be if one is not dressed properly to enter it. This explains the purpose for the bells on Aaron’s robe:
שמות כח:לה וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת.
Exod 28:35 Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before YHWH and when he goes out—that he may not die.
The function of the bells, then, is to make a noise wherever Aaron walks, ostensibly warning YHWH that Aaron is in the Tabernacle, so that Aaron does not accidentally catch YHWH unawares, see the deity, and die on the spot. Similarly, perhaps the high priest’s donning of fabulous clothing, following the color scheme of the Tabernacle, is an act of chromophilia, where he surrenders to the colors.
Inside the Tabernacle, the colorful high priest blends with the equipment that belongs to YHWH, and disappears into the colored and other-worldly center that is encased in a protective layer of white. Thus, he disturbs the appearance of the inner sanctum as little as possible by blending in with it. The most dangerous place in the Israelite wilderness camp is thus also the most colorful place, and the high priest’s clothing protects him.
The Colored and Engraved Stones: A Color Contrast
Not all of the high priest’s clothing blends into the Tabernacle’s environment, however. Upon the shoulder attachments of the ephod are two onyx stones engraved with the names of the children of Israel, six on each stone:
שמות כח:ט וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי אַבְנֵי שֹׁהַם וּפִתַּחְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כח:י שִׁשָּׁה מִשְּׁמֹתָם עַל הָאֶבֶן הָאֶחָת וְאֶת שְׁמוֹת הַשִּׁשָּׁה הַנּוֹתָרִים עַל הָאֶבֶן הַשֵּׁנִית כְּתוֹלְדֹתָם.
Exod 28:9 Then take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: 28:10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth.
The presumably polished stones would be able to reflect the candlelight of the menorah inside the Tabernacle more than any colored textile would. At the same time, they bring in a new color, a shiny reddish black.
Like the ephod, the breastpiece is equipped with precious stones, but instead of two stones made of onyx, it has twelve different stones of various colors set in a three-by-four pattern (vv. 17–20). The identity of these stones is still debated, but nuances of red (odem, v. 17), blue (saffir, v. 28:18), and green (bareqet, v. 17) are explicitly mentioned. The breastpiece stones are also engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, one name per stone (v. 21).
While the purple and red camouflage make the high priest blend into the Tabernacle, the inscribed onyx stones on the ephod, the colorful and durable stones on the breastplate, and the engraved and reflective frontlet (described above) stand out. If the outfit is designed to blend into the Tabernacle’s color scheme, what is the purpose of these color stones that do not blend in?
A Matter of Memory
The colorful stones stand out to call YHWH’s attention to the words engraved upon them:
שמות כח:יב וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי הָאֲבָנִים עַל כִּתְפֹת הָאֵפֹד אַבְנֵי זִכָּרֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַל שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפָיו לְזִכָּרֹן.
Exod 28:12 Attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry before YHWH upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance.
שמות כח:כט וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט עַל לִבּוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה תָּמִיד.
Exod 28:29 Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before YHWH at all times.
The array of colors on the breastplate, with no equivalent within the Tabernacle, trigger the senses of YHWH, causing the deity to read the tribal names and remember the Israelites. Similarly, the shiny gold frontlet reminds YHWH that the high priest is the deity’s own property:
שמות כח:לח וְהָיָה עַל מֵצַח אַהֲרֹן וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת עֲוֹן הַקֳּדָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר יַקְדִּישׁוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכָל מַתְּנֹת קָדְשֵׁיהֶם וְהָיָה עַל מִצְחוֹ תָּמִיד לְרָצוֹן לָהֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Exod 28:38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before YHWH.
The protective power of the writing was understood by the 1st century C.E. Greek-Jewish text, Wisdom of Solomon, which describes how the high priest’s breastplate and frontlet keeps the destroyer at bay:
Wisdom 18:24 For on his full-length robe the whole world was depicted, and the glories of the fathers were engraved on the four rows of stones, and your majesty was represented on the diadem on his head. 18:25 From these the destroyer withdrew; these he feared, for merely the experience of anger was enough.
In the Torah, the colorful stones call YHWH’s attention to why the high priest is in the Tabernacle, namely as a representative of Israel. By covering himself in the purples and crimson of the Tabernacle, and highlighting the colored stones, the names of the Israelite tribes stand out to be noticed. The high priest thus disappears in protective colors in order to represent the people of Israel before YHWH.
The Tekhelet on the Fringes
In the book of Numbers, a string of memorable blue-purple thread connects the Tabernacle with the ordinary Israelite:
במדבר טו:לח דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת. טו:לט וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְ־הוָה וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם...
Num 15:38 Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 15:39 That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of YHWH and observe them…
Outside the Tabernacle, the tekhelet fringes on the corners of the Israelites’ garments prompt them to remember YHWH and his commandments. The situation is thus inverted: Outside the Tabernacle, it is thus the Israelites’ job to remember who is inside the Tabernacle and what its inhabitant represents. In the end, the purple color creates a thread running from inside the Tabernacle that ties every Israelite to YHWH through a double-sided remembrance.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 16, 2023
November 4, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Søren Lorenzen is Research Associate in Hebrew Bible Studies at Bonn University in Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Aarhus University and is the author of Spoken into Being: Self and Name(s) in the Hebrew Bible (Mohr Siebeck, 2022).
Essays on Related Topics: