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Hanna Liss





The Priestly Garments: Recreating Them Just from the Text?





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Hanna Liss





The Priestly Garments: Recreating Them Just from the Text?








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The Priestly Garments: Recreating Them Just from the Text?

The medieval commentators, most famously Rashi, tried to describe the ephod and the choshen by reconciling the various biblical accounts. Azariah dei Rossi (ca. 1511–ca. 1578) argues that such efforts are futile; only eyewitness reports are helpful.


The Priestly Garments: Recreating Them Just from the Text?

An illustration of the High Priest, 'The History of Costume' by Braun & Schneider, published 1861-1880.

The instructions and implementation accounts of the building of the Tabernacle (mishkan) and its priestly equipment force the reader to imagine the items described in such detail. But this is impossible, not only because the text lacks sufficient detail, but because the biblical ekphrases (sing. ekphrasis, a detailed description of a work of art) contain a number of inconsistencies, which were observed by many early commentators.

Consider, for example, the description of the high priest’s garments:[1]

שׁמות כח:ד וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חֹשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט...
Exod 28:4 These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash...

The construction of the ephod is subsequently described:[2]

שׁמות 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. כח:ח וְחֵשֶׁב אֲפֻדָּתוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ מִמֶּנּוּ יִהְיֶה זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר.
Exod 28:6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs. 28:7 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends. 28:8 And the decorated band that is upon it shall be made like it, of one piece with it: of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.

Rashi’s commentary on the ephod (v. 4) starts with an exegetical apology:

לא שמעתי ולא מצאתי בבריתא פירוש תבניתו.
I have not heard nor found in a baraita[3] an explanation of its design.

Finding himself without a solid rabbinic precedent, Rashi offers an explanation based on his own considerations. His approach is clear from his opening phrase, ולבי אומר לי, “my (common) sense [lit. “heart”] tells me,” which is used infrequently in Rashi’s commentaries and usually serves to distinguish his own explanation from a rabbinic interpretation:[4]

ולבי אומר לי, שהיא חגורה לו מאחוריו, רוחב כרוחב גב איש, כמין סינר שקורין פורצי"נט בלעז, שחוגרות השרות כשרוכבות על סוסים... שנאמר ודוד חגור אפוד בד.
However, my (common) sense tells me that it is belted around him from behind, (its) width being like the width of a man’s back, like the apron that is called porceint [in Old French], (a clothing item) with which noblewomen gird themselves when they ride horses... for it is said: “And David was girded with a linen ephod” (2 Sam 6:14).

Although 2 Samuel does not describe the ephod worn by David, Rashi cites this verse as evidence that the ephod is an apron that wraps around the priest’s back like the Old French La‘az porceint, i.e., “belt/waistband” (ceinture/tunique in Modern French)[5] used for riding by noblewomen. He concludes:

למדנו שהאפוד חגורה היא.
This teaches us that the ephod is a belt.

Yet, in the very next sentence, Rashi partially retracts this explanation, as he incorporates a description from Leviticus that distinguishes between the ephod and a sash (cheshev) to which the ephod is attached:

ואי איפשר לומר: אין בו אלא החגורה לבדה, שהרי נאמר ויתן עליו את האפוד, ואחר כך ויחגר אותו בחשב האפוד, ותרגם אונקלוס בהמיין אפודא.
However, it is impossible to say that (the ephod) consists of a belt only, for it is said: “And he put the ephod on him” (Lev 8:7), and afterwards (the verse continues): “girding him with the ḥeshev of the ephod.” And [the Aramaic Targum] Onkelos translates as “with the belt of the ephod.”

On the basis of the targum, Rashi therefore comes to a further conclusion that the ephod is a kind of a piece of jewelry:

למדנו, שהחשב הוא החגור, והאפוד שם תכשיט לבדו.
This teaches us that the ḥeshev is the belt, and the ephod is a separate decoration.

The phrase למדנו, “this teaches us,” introduces a synthetic judgment, i.e. a judgment expanding on the topic at hand, thus allowing Rashi to reconcile various Bible verses in which an ephod is mentioned.

Rashi then brings to bear a third verse to resolve his contradictory understandings of the ephod as a belt and a piece of jewelry: a description of the ephod having shoulder pieces, which supports his second explanation:

ואי איפשר לומר, שעל שם שתי כתפות שבו הוא קרוי, שהרי נאמר שתי כתפות האפוד.
However, it is also impossible to say that it is called ephod because of the two shoulder straps in it, for it is said: “the two shoulder straps of the ephod” (Exod 28:27).

Rashi relies on grammar here to prove that ephod, belt, and shoulder pieces are each separate items of clothing, and therefore their names should not be used interchangeably:

למדנו שהאפוד שֵם לבד, והכתפות שם לבד, והחשב שם לבד.
This teaches us that the ephod is a distinct noun, the shoulder straps are a distinct noun, and the belt is a distinct noun.

In addition, he takes up the verse from Leviticus that had already been introduced in the beginning of his argument, but now he explains the etymology of the word ephod (from the root א.פ.ד), rather than its appearance:

לכך אני אומר, שעל שם הסינר של מטה הוא קרוי אפוד, על שם שאופדו ומקשטו בו, שנאמר ויאפד לו בו; והחשב הוא החגור שלמעלה הימנו, והכתפות קבועות בו.
Therefore, I say that because the apron in its lower part is called ephod, since it decorates and adorns (the priest) with it—as it is said: “And he decorated him with it” (Lev 8:7)—the cheshev is the band above it, to which the shoulder straps were attached.

Rashi wraps up this first section with a proof based on Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which translates both ephod (in 2 Sam 6:14) and me‘ilim, the upper garments of the king’s daughters (2 Sam 13:18), as karduṭ(in).[6] Rashi therefore understands the expression אפוד בד, “linen ephod” (2 Sam 6:14) as a “linen garment”:

ועוד אומר לי לבי, שיש ראייה שהוא מין לבוש, שתרגם יונתן ודוד חגור אפוד בד כרדוט דבוץ, ותרגם כמו כן מעילים כרדוטים במעשה תמר אחות אבשלום כי כן תלבשנה בנות המלך הבתולות מעילים.
Moreover, my common sense tells me that there is evidence that it is a kind of garment, for [Targum Pseudo-]Jonathan rendered “and David was girded with a linen ephod” (2 Sam 6:14) as a linen karduṭ, and he renders likewise “robes” as karduṭin in the narrative of Tamar, Absalom’s sister, “for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments” (2 Sam 13:18).

At this point, we are far from having any conclusive information regarding the appearance of this item. If I had sat in Rashi’s class, I would have asked him whether he was really interested in conveying what an ephod is (per se) and what it once looked like. His focus on reconciling the verses in which the ephod appears seems counterproductive to producing an archeological or art-historical reconstruction of the ephod.

The Choshen and the Stones of Remembrance

The challenge of reconciling the biblical descriptions of the construction of the priest’s garments continues with the instructions to create two inscribed אַבְנֵי זִכָּרֹן, “stones of remembrance” (Exod 28:12), which are to be placed on the shoulder pieces of the ephod:

שׁמות 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 And you shall take two lazuli stones and engrave upon 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.

Rashi explains the בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “sons of Israel,” as the twelve sons of Jacob, and elucidates the biblical expression כְּתוֹלְדֹתָם, “according to their births” (v. 10) as denoting the order in which the twelve sons of Jacob were born:

כסדר שנולדו ראובן, שמעון, לוי, יהודה, דן ,נפתלי על האחת, ועל השנית גד, אשר, יששכר, זבלון, יוסף, בנימין מלא, שכן הוא כתוב במקום תולדתו, עשרים וחמש אותיות בכל אחת ואחת.
According to the order in which they were born: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, on the one; and on the second one: Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin spelled full, for it is written thus in the place of his birth (Gen 35:18)—twenty-five letters on each one [stone].[7]

A second set of stones should be mounted on the חֹשֶׁן (choshen), “bag of lots,” that is attached to the ephod:

שׁמות כח:טו וְעָשִׂיתָ חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֵפֹד תַּעֲשֶׂנּוּ...
Exod 28:15 You shall make a choshen of judgment, the work of a master weaver…
שׁמות כח:יז וּמִלֵּאתָ בוֹ מִלֻּאַת אֶבֶן אַרְבָּעָה טוּרִים אָבֶן טוּר...
Exod 28:17 And you shall fill into it stone fillings, four rows of stones...

The biblical terms for these stones are difficult to identify with any certainty. The proposals of modern Bible commentators and translators suggest a colorful picture,[8] though some hesitate to identify the stones at all.[9]

Row 1 (v. 17)


chrysolite / topaz

emerald / malachite

Row 2 (v. 18)



amethyst / moonstone

Row 3 (v. 19)



crystal / amethyst

Row 4 (v. 20)


lapis lazuli / onyx


The text concerning the choshen does not specify the order in which the names of the children of Israel should be engraved:

שׁמות כח:כא וְהָאֲבָנִים תִּהְיֶיןָ עַל שְׁמֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עַל שְׁמֹתָם פִּתּוּחֵי חוֹתָם אִישׁ עַל שְׁמוֹ תִּהְיֶיןָ לִשְׁנֵי עָשָׂר שָׁבֶט.
Exod 28:21 The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

Rashi explains the distribution of the names on these stones:

איש על שמו כסדר תולדותם סדר האבנים אדם לראובן, פטדה לשמעון, וכן כולם.
Every one according to his name: According to the order of their births shall be the order of the stones, odem for Reuben, pitdah for Simon, and similarly for all of them.

If the expression תולדות in his explanation, however, refers to the absolute sequence of their births, then the fifth stone should have been reserved for Dan.[10]

However, the fifth stone, the sapphire (= 2nd row, 2nd stone; Exod 28:18), is not connected to the tribe of Dan. The stone of Dan is the leshem (= 3rd row, 1st stone; v. 19), as Rashi explains in his commentary on Laish (Judg 18:27), the name of the city where the Danites relocated:

ליש. שם העיר, ובספר יהושע (יט מז) קורא שמה 'לשם', על שם שמצאו שם אבן טובה ששמה 'לשם', והיא היתה על החשן לשבט דן, שמו כתוב על 'לשם', וידעו שבאמת היא נחלתם:
The book of Joshua entitles it “Leshem,” because they discovered, there, a precious gem called leshem. This was inlaid in the choshen plate, and symbolized the tribe of Dan, whose name was inscribed on it. Thus, they were certain that this was actually their ancestral property.

Thus, the stones are not set in the birth order of the sons of Jacob. It seems that in each passage, Rashi has explained the peshuṭo shel miqra, i.e., the meaning that best fits the immediate context.[11] Strikingly, he is not particularly interested in the potential contradiction regarding how the stones were placed on the ephod and choshen.

Rashi elsewhere is aware of the problem with the placement of Dan in the series. He resolves this (exegetical) contradiction in his Talmudic commentary (b. Sot. 36a) by expounding that the term כתולדותם does not relate to the absolute birth order of the sons, but to the order in which the children are born to each mother. Thus, Leah’s six children are counted first, followed by the sons of Bilhah etc.:

כתולדותם כסדר לידתן ששה האחרונים כסדרן גד ואשר יששכר וזבולן יוסף ובנימין זהו סדר לידתן וששה ראשונים נכתבו בה יהודה ראובן שמעון ולוי דן ונפתלי כסדר לידתן חוץ מיהודה.
“According to their births” (Exod 28:10), i.e., in the order of their birth, the last six are in the [absolute] order [of their births]: Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Yosef and Benjamin. This is the [absolute] order of their birth. And the first six are written as follows: Judah, Reuben, Simon, Levi, Dan, and Naphtali—[all] in the order of their birth, except Judah.

This calculation moves Dan from the fifth to the seventh son in the rows of stones.[12]

Row 1




Row 2




Row 3




Row 4




Exegesis versus Historical Reconstruction: The Case of Azariah de Rossi

The exegetical explanations of Rashi and his school on the priestly garments were already heavily criticized by Azariah (Bonaiuto) ben Moshe dei Rossi (ca. 1511–ca. 1578), also known by the name of his family Azariah min ha-Adomim. He is considered to be the first Jewish historiographer.[13] Azariah led an unsettled life as a doctor between Ferrara, Ancona, Bologna and Sabbioneta, but returned to Mantua in old age. He only began to write at an advanced age and apparently under the influence of a natural disaster.

His main work Me’or Enayim, “The Light of the Eyes” (Mantua, 1573) comprises various treatises.

  1. Qol Elohim, “The Voice of God,” is an account of the great earthquake that struck the cities of Florence, Modena, Venice and above all Ferrara in November 1570, in which many churches were reduced to rubble and ashes. It was not surprising that Azariah, like many others, saw this earthquake less as a natural disaster than as a divine visitation.

  2. Hadrat Zeqenim, “The Splendor of the Ancients,” is a Hebrew translation of the Latin version of the so-called Letter of Aristeas, which he had received from the Christian scholar Garbitius.[14]

  3. Imre Bina, “Wise Sayings,” Azaria discusses not only the question of Jewish chronology but also a variety of biblical topoi, including various aspects of Bible translations, the origin of the Hebrew Alef-Bet and the Teamim, the prophecy of Haggai regarding the second Temple, and Hebrew poetry.

In this third part of his book, Azariah attempts to reconstruct (among other things) the appearance of the priestly garments and their accessories on the basis of the biblical text and its exegetical commentaries. Already in Qol Elohim, Azariah had announced that he will draw on Christian sources as well as on biblical and rabbinic texts. This appreciation of non-Jewish authors led Joseph Karo to write a condemnation of the book, and the rabbis of Venice also forbade the reading of Me’or Enayim for all men under the age of 25, and would only allow it to be read under special circumstances and with permission.[15]

In his analysis of the appearance of the priestly garments, Azariah confronts the rabbinic discussion with two accusations: He criticizes that the rabbis did not address historical problems, e.g. the nature and quality of the vestments, and that they did not pose the overall question of why certain cult objects no longer existed in the second temple period. As regards the Urim and Tummim he states:

לא מצאנו לתנאים או אמוראים שדברו על מהותם מאומה
We could not find any statement of the Tanna’im or Amora’im as regards their nature and quality.[16]

To Azariah, the later commentators like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, or Menahem Recanati are even less worth wasting time on, as their commentaries are nothing but delusional and empty talk.[17] Thus, he concludes of the Urim and Thummim:[18]

וסוף דבר כי לא ידעו מה המה.
And the conclusion is—they simply just did not know what they were.

For this reason, Azariah draws on non-Hebrew sources, which were not available to later commentators because they were written in Greek. These texts are relevant as “contemporary witnesses,” whose testimony allows for deciding and dispelling any later doubts that might have arisen:

והנה המספרים הנזכרים מסיחים לפי תומם על תכונת קצת הבגדים שזכרנו כמו חבור אריסטיאה אשר העתקנו למעלה וספרי ידידה האלכסנדרי ודברי יוסיפון מכת הפרושים,אשר כלם היו בפני הבית
But behold, those narrators simply report the appearance of some (of those priestly) garments (already) mentioned, such as the letter of Aristeas, which we have translated above, the books of Yedidyah, the Alexandrian, or the words of Yosippon [JosephusJ, a Pharisee, all of whom lived when the temple existed.
ודבריהם לא מאומד ולא משמועה כי אם לפי מה שעיניהם ראו ולא זר...
Their words are (therefore) neither (freely) imagined nor hearsay (reconstructions handed down), but (reflect) what their eyes saw and nothing beyond that...[19]

Azariah continues:[20]

ועל כן כל דברי החכמים שזכרנו אשר לא מבני ישראל היו או שהם מהם אך אינם בכתובים אצל רבותינו ובפרט מן שלשה הראשונים המעידים על פי הראיה
Therefore, as regard to all the words of the (various) sages we have mentioned, whether they were of the sons of Israel or not—with the exception of those in the writings of our (Palestinian) masters,[21] and especially regarding those three who assert their (views) on the basis of evidence:
לך קורא משכיל אמר לבי שהמקומות אשר נמצאו ולחכמים ז״ל על בגדי קדש אלה דברים ברורים הן שראו אותם והעידו עליהם הן שידברו בקבלה. אין ספק כי דברי כל זולתם הבל ורעות רוי.
My heart tells you, enlightened reader, that only in those places where the sages say something about the garments of the sanctuary, their words are clear where they either saw (it with their own eyes) and asserted (it), or said it in the course of tradition. There is no doubt that all utterances other than these are delusional gossip and nonsense.[22]

Azariah here argues that instead of harmonizing various biblical verses with one another, the study of biblical artifacts should emphasize determining the historical details behind the text (or at least, what was thought to be the historical details). In fact, Azariah’s claim led to a previously unknown one-dimensionalization of the biblical text; he replaces the authority of the Oral Torah with eyewitness accounts.

Between Historical Reconstruction and Traditional Commentary

Bible scholars are sooner or later caught in a discussion of whether the objects described here ever existed—what they may have looked like, but also whether an art-historical or archeological reconstruction should be a possible goal of interpretation. Indeed, they sometimes find themselves caught between literary-historical or archaeological research on one hand and traditional commentary on the other.

It seems today as if archaeological parallels and ancient Near Eastern artifacts have taken on the role of Azariah’s eyewitness accounts. Yet reconstructing the appearance of these objects was not necessarily the focus of Rashi’s explanations. Rather, he sought to reconcile the texts.


February 22, 2024


Last Updated

April 7, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Hanna Liss is Full Professor and Chair of the Department of Bible and Jewish Exegesis at the Heidelberg Center for Jewish Studies and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Her main research areas are medieval Jewish exegesis and commentary literature, research on the Masorah in Western European biblical and commentary literature and in modern Jewish Bible exegesis. She is Principal Investigator of the long-term projects “Corpus Masoreticum: The Inculturation of the Masorah in Western European Jewish Learning Culture from the 11th to the 14th Centuries” and “Bible Glossaries as Hidden Cultural Carriers: Judeo-French Cultural Exchange in the High Middle Ages.” She has written numerous articles on the northern French exegetical school and on Western European Masorah. Her most recent book publications are Jüdische Bibelauslegung (Mohr Siebeck, 2020) and Philology and Aesthetics: Figurative Masorah in Western European Manuscripts (editor in cooperation with Jonas Leipziger; Peter Lang, 2021).