The Obscure Ephod of the High Priest
The priests’ garments comprise one of the major themes of the last few Torah portions of the book of Exodus. The Torah originates from a time when such clothes were worn, and thus they did not need to be described there in detail. We would expect that the earliest classical rabbis, living so close to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, would have retained clear traditions about what they were. In fact we do have ancient rabbinical traditions about the physical reality of the mishkan (Tabernacle) and much of what goes with it, including some of the clothing. As Robert Kirschner writes in his book about Baraita di-Melekhet ha-Mishkan, an old rabbinic work:
In contrast to the aggadic streams of interpretation in rabbinic sources, early and late, there are substantial passages in tannaitic and amoraic sources that treat the Tabernacle and its vessels as concrete historical objects… The aggregate indicates that, beside the rabbinic tendency to interpret the tabernacle symbolically, there was also considerable interest in its physical reality.
The rabbis may have been interested, yet they were often unable to agree on even the most basic features of many objects. Their discussions also contain no precise descriptions of a few crucial items.
The Ephod in the Bible
The Torah’s description of the High Priest’s ephod in Exodus 28:6-7 is tantalizingly insufficient, most likely since it presumes that its readers know what it is:
ו וְעָשׂ֖וּ אֶת הָאֵפֹ֑ד זָ֠הָב תְּכֵ֨לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֜ן תּוֹלַ֧עַת שָׁנִ֛י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ מָשְׁזָ֖ר מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה חֹשֵֽׁב: ז שְׁתֵּ֧י כְתֵפֹ֣ת חֹֽבְרֹ֗ת יִֽהְיֶה לּ֛וֹ אֶל שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָ֖יו וְחֻבָּֽר:
6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.7 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends.
This only indicates the materials used for the ephod and the fact that it has shoulder pieces. The continuation shows that an ephod has a ḥeshev (NJPS “decorated band”; Exodus 28:8)—another unclear term, rings (Exodus 28:28) and a jacket (מעיל האפוד; Exodus 28:31), and that another mysterious item the ḥoshen mishpat (NJPS “breastpiece of decision” or judgment; Exodus 28:15) should be attached to the ephod.
Other biblical books describe an ephod that may or may not be similar to the one legislated for the High Priest. The verb ח-ג-ר, “to gird,” is used for an ephod, implying that an ephod contains (or perhaps is) a belt or sash. To most commentators, a belt and shoulder straps suggested an apron-like garment. But aprons come in many shapes.
Modern Explanations of the Ephod
Modern scholars are baffled as well. “We are uncertain what an ephod actually was,” writes William Propp in his 2006 commentary to the book of Exodus. The Anchor Bible Dictionary agrees: “Despite the enormous amount of detail provided (mainly in Exodus 28 and Exodus 39), a clear picture of what it looked like is difficult to obtain.” Nahum Sarna in the JPS commentary also acknowledges this lack of clarity. He speculates:
It may quite possibly have been an item of apparel that was once widespread among the upper classes in the Near East and that eventually became outmoded. The innate conservatism of religious institutions made for its retention in ecclesiastical circles alone, where it developed into a sacral vestment. A modern analogy to this process would be the distinctive dress of Hasidim, which evolved from the one-time attire of the Polish gentry.
No Traditions in Chazal (the Classical Rabbis) about the Ephod
When the Bible provides insufficient information, traditional Jews naturally turn to rabbinic traditions. But when Menahem Mendel Kasher did his monumental project of gathering together the vast sources of rabbinic literature and attaching them to the appropriate biblical verses, he came to a curious conclusion:
בסידורי החומר על פרשיות של עשיית בגדי כהונה, ראיתי דבר תמוה, והוא, ישנם הרבה פסוקים בתורה בפרשיות אלו שאין לנו עליהם שום ביאור בתורה שבעל פה, רק מה שכתבו הראשונים בפירושיהם ויש שהראשונים נחלקו בביאורם של פשוטי דקרא
When I assembled the material [from rabbinic literature] concerning these sections that deal with making the priests’ clothing, I found something strange. There are many Torah verses in these sections for which we have no explanations in the Oral Torah [i.e. nothing is written about them in the Talmud or any other work of classical rabbinic literature]. All we have is what the rishonim [the medieval Torah commentators] wrote about them in their commentaries. And sometimes the rishonim are unable to agree about what the plain meaning of Scripture is.
When he came to the ephod specifically, he also noted with perplexity that nowhere in rabbinic literature could he find a description of its appearance.
Medieval Interpretations of the Ephod – Rashi
Similarly, when Rashi attempted to describe the ephod, he candidly acknowledged (in his commentary to Exodus 28:4) that he had no sources to draw on other than his exegetical prowess and his creative mind:
ואפוד – לא שמעתי ולא מצאתי בברייתא פירוש תבניתו, ולבי אומר לי שהוא חגור לו מאחוריו, רחבו כרוחב גב איש, כמין סינר שקורין פורציינ”ט בלעז שחוגרות השרות כשרוכבות על הסוסים. . .
Ephod – I have never heard an explanation of what it looked like nor did I find any explanation in the Baraita. But my own mind tells me that it was tied on behind him [= the high priest]; its breadth was the same as the breadth of a man’s back, like a kind of apron called pourceint in Old French, which ladies of rank tie on when they ride on horses. . .
Rashi then provides a lengthy (presumably creative) description of how the ephod was made, but admits that even the assumption that the ephod is a garment can be questioned. In the continuation of that same comment he writes:
ועוד אומר לי לבי, שיש ראיה שהוא מין לבוש . . .
My mind also tells me that there is some proof that it is a garment….
Kasher speculates that Rashi’s independent analysis of the verses led him to the conclusion that this “garment” had nothing in common with any garment that Rashi ever saw a man wear. So instead he identified it with garments that were worn by noblewomen in his day. Thus, Rashi may be claiming that the ephod was not an everyday item, and it enhanced the honor and dignity of the person, in this case the priest, who wore it.
Sarna sought an explanation for the dignity of an apron-like garment in lost traditions of the ancient near east, while Rashi sought it in the clothing of aristocratic women in northern France where he lived. Two centuries after Rashi, Hezekiah ben Manoah (Hizkuni) criticized Rashi: how could Rashi say that an apron worn from the waist down was decorative when we have never seen such a garment
Medieval Interpretations of the Ephod – Rashbam
Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who is famous for providing a novel and more peshat-like alternative to his grandfather’s commentary, here tells us that he has little to add: 
פרשיות של משכן חשן ואפד, אם אקצר בפרושן, יימצאו בפרושי רבנו שלמה אבי אמי זצ”ל.
If I write in brief concerning the [next] sections of the text dealing with the Tabernacle and the breastpiece and the ephod, [more] details may be found in the commentaries of Rabbi Solomon‑‑may the memory of the righteous be a blessing!‑‑my mother’s father.
He seems to be saying that Rashi has done a fine job of explaining these texts and so he, Rashbam, can be brief. He reiterates this commitment in the middle of the verses concerning the priests’ clothing, in his commentary to Exodus 28:6:
אפוד וחשן זקני פירשם. אך אני אפרש בהם דברים שלא נתפרשו:
My grandfather [Rashi] explained the breastpiece and the ephod [at great length]. I, however, will explain aspects of them that were not explained before.
But when we examine Rashbam’s commentary we see that he did not “write in brief” about these topics nor did he simply supplement Rashi’s commentary to the ephod and the breastpiece, as he said he would. His understanding of the ephod differs significantly from Rashi’s—as is typical. He argues that the shoulder straps of a garment made according to Rashi’s interpretation would be constantly falling off (Rashbam to 28:6):
שאם לא היו חוברות הכתפות יחד אלא כמו שתי רצועות עולות על צוארו . . . א”כ כשהכהן עסוק בעבודה וכופף את צוארו למטה, יהיו נופלות הכתפות ומתפרדות.
If [one interprets that] the shoulder‑pieces do not come together [to cover all of the priest’s back] but rather that they are two straps that go over his shoulders…, then when the priest would be busy doing the service and would bend over, the shoulder straps would separate and fall off his shoulders.
But the major dispute about the ephod concerns whether it covered the priest only from behind, as Rashi argues, or also in front, as Rashbam explains. The drawing at the top of this article shows how each of them envisioned an ephod.
Rashbam may have written that little new could be said about the priests’ clothing, but once he actually started writing, he seems to have discovered what Kasher later wrote—that we have very incomplete traditions about these sections of the Torah. So he tried to fill in the gaps.
Many additional explanations of what an ephod looked like are found in classical Jewish commentaries. For example, R. Meyuhas (12th cent., Greece) argued that it was like a tallit, not an apron. Abraham ibn Ezra dismisses explanations of the ephod that he had read, writing intriguingly, but not very clearly:
ופרשנים רבים פרשו . . . ולא שמו לב לדעת האמת.
Many exegetes explained . . . but they were not seeking truth. 
It’s Not Just the Ephod….
The problem of the ephod is but one of many questions related to these Torah portions that the Bible and rabbinic tradition leave inadequately explained. Although the Urim and Tumim are important items, we have no idea what they were. As Sarna writes:
It is clear . . . that these two items constituted a device for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide. . . . While the function of this device is clear, [the texts that relate to it do not] carry a description of it or of the technique employed in its use. . . . The meaning of the two terms remains obscure.
Again classical rabbinic texts do not give us any clearer picture of what the Urim and Tummim were, and again we find a wide variety of explanations in the medieval Jewish commentaries. Rashi sees them as an object on which God’s name was written or engraved. Lekah Tov, a contemporary of Rashi, identifies the Urim and Tummim with the twelve precious stones mentioned in Exodus 28:17-20. After declaring that we do not know what the Urim and Tummim were (והנה לא ידענו מה הם), ibn Ezra seems to suggest that they were made of gold and silver.
Is There Anything Left to Say?
Here and indeed in many important sections of the Torah, traditional Jewish interpretation lacks consensus. Many riddles are still left for the exegete, medieval or modern.
This survey offers two more important, general warnings: If you hear that someone is studying how to prepare clothing “according to halakhic tradition” for the priests for a rebuilt Temple, be suspicious. And be even more suspicious if someone tells you that the gates of interpretation are closed, and all we can do now is study the traditional authoritative interpretations of the Torah.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 14, 2016
October 22, 2019
Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin is a professor at York University and is currently the Chair of the Department of Humanities. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his five volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series