Tetzaveh | פרשת תצוה

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In the previous parsha, Terumah, Bnei Yisrael began receiving instructions for building the Mishkan. (When exactly this occurs in the chronology of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, is a matter of dispute among the commentators; see Parashat Terumah for more on this, which applies also to our parsha.) In Tetzaveh, the instructions for the Mishkan are continued, with a focus on the kohanim (priests).

Oil for Lighting the Menorah

[Shemot 27:20-21]

The parsha opens with a brief explanation of the proper oil for lighting the Menorah, “clear oil of beaten olives” (שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית). The Menorah is to be lit constantly for all time.

The Bigdei Kehuna (Priestly Clothing)

[Shemot 28:1-43]

Next, Aharon and his four sons are summoned: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar. First, consecrated clothing (bigdei kodesh – בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ) is to be made for the kohanim. These will be made by those who are “wise of heart and filled up with the spirit of wisdom” (חַכְמֵי לֵב אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאתִיו רוּחַ חָכְמָה).

The pieces of the kohen’s wardrobe noted here are:

  • a breastpiece – choshen, חֹשֶׁן
  • an apron – efod, אֵפוֹד
  • a robe – meil, מְעִיל
  • a checkered tunic – ketonet tashbetz, כְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ
  • a headdress – mitznefet, מִצְנֶפֶת
  • a sash – avnet, אַבְנֵט

They are to be made using yarns of gold (zahav – זָּהָב), blue (techelet – תְּכֵלֶת), purple (argaman – אַרְגָּמָן), and crimson (tolaat ha-shani – תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי), and fine linen (shesh – שֵּׁשׁ). These components are familiar from the materials contributed by Bnei Yisrael for the making of the Mishkan in the previous parsha.

Two additional pieces of the wardrobe are detailed a bit later, below: the frontlet (tzitz – צִּיץ)1 and cloth pants (michnesei bad – מִכְנְסֵי בָד).2 These eight garments would be known as the Golden Garments (Bigdei Zavav – בגדי זהב) worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) during daily service. In Sefer Vayikra, Parashat Achrei Mot, we will be given the instructions for the special white garments worn by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, the Bigdei Lavan – בגדי לבן.3

The Efod (Apron)

The efod, an outer garment, is to be made with the gold, blue, purple, and crimson threads and fine linen, all woven into a design, like brocade (מָשְׁזָר מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב). The efod is to have two shoulder-straps made of one piece with the main part of the garment, and of the same materials. As well, it is so have a decorated band made of these materials.

Each shoulder-strap of the efod is to be adorned with special shoham stones (possibly aquamarine beryl),4 engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, six on each stone, according to birth order of the twelve sons. The names are to be “seal engravings—the work of a lapidary” (מַעֲשֵׂה חָרַשׁ אֶבֶן פִּתּוּחֵי חֹתָם) and the two stones bordered in frames of gold.

The Choshen (Breastplate)

Next, instructions are given for making the Choshen Mishpat, “the breastplate of judgement.” This is the most complicated element of the Kohen Gadol’s garments. It begins with two small frames made of gold and two pure gold, corded chains. Later, we will be told how these are to be used to attach the choshen to the efod.

For now, the text proceeds with the main part of the choshen. A doubled fabric square is made of cloth in the manner of the efod, a zeret (“span”) in width and length.5 On this fabric square are to be placed four rows of mounted precious stones, representing the twelve tribes. The Torah text gives as the name of each stone and its place in the arbaa turim (ארבעה טורים), the four rows. However, there is much uncertainty about the precise order and identification of the stones and their placement. The names of the stones themselves are difficult and no direct tradition exists about their identity. In addition, there is debate about whether the stones are arranged in strict birth order (per Targum Onkelos) or in birth order by mother (so, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rachel, as per Targum Yonatan). And then there are multiple authoritative. about whether a tur goes across (what we call a row as a technical term) or up and down (i.e., what we call a column).

One important set of evidence is provided in Bemidbar Rabba 2:7, which records that the colors of the stones matched the colors of the flags carried by each tribe during its wandering years in the wilderness. This midrash then details the appearance of the tribal flags, giving clues to their identities. The following account presents the rows as being horizontal and the order of the stones according to strict birth order (Onkelos). Their names are approximated based on common characteristics of gems:

  • First row:
    • Ruby (odem – אֹדֶם): red, for Reuven;
    • Emerald (pitda – פִּטְדָה): green, for Shimon;
    • Agate (bareket – בָרֶקֶת): a combination of red, white, and black, for Levi;
  • Second row:
    • Turquoise (nofech – נֹפֶךְ): sky blue, for Yehuda;
    • Black Sapphire (sapir – סַפִּיר): black-blue, for Isaachar;
    • Quartz (yahalom – יָהֲלֹם):6 white, for Zevulun;
  • Third row:
    • Sapphire (leshem – לֶשֶׁם): dark blue, representing Dan;
    • Amethyst (shevo – שְׁבוֹ): purple, representing Naftali
    • Crystal (achlama – אַחְלָמָה): gray, representing Gad.
  • Fourth row:
    • Beryl (tarshish – תַּרְשִׁישׁ): blue-green, for Asher;
    • Onyx (shoham – שֹׁהַם): black, for Yosef;7
    • Opal (yashfeh – יָשְׁפֵה): multicolored, for Binyamin.

The Choshen ha-Mishpat is attached to the efod by a series of gold rings and corded gold chains set in golden frames. Two of these, described already above, form the fastening between the upper shoulder straps and the choshen. Another set of these is placed on the lower, inner side of the choshen, and a blue cord holds the choshen in place at the bottom, going through gold rings at the back of the efod.

The Urim and Tumim, a special tool for obtaining oracles, was placed inside the choshen.8 (These, however, ceased to function with the destruction of the first Beit ha-Mikdash,9, possibly earlier.10

The Me’il (Robe)

The me’il (robe) is to be made of pure techelet blue with a reinforced opening in the middle for the head. The bottom of the me’il gets special ornamentation:

וְעָשִׂיתָ עַל שׁוּלָיו רִמֹּנֵי תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי עַל שׁוּלָיו סָבִיב וּפַעֲמֹנֵי זָהָב בְּתוֹכָם סָבִיב: פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן עַל שׁוּלֵי הַמְּעִיל סָבִיב.: וְהָיָה עַל :אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה’ וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת

On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aharon shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before Hashem and when he goes out—that he may not die.

Shemot 28:33-35

The Tzitz (Frontlet)

Attached to the headpiece with techelet-blue cord, the tzitz is to say “Holy to Hashem” on it. It should sit permanently on the Kohen Gadol’s forehead while he is serving.

The Ketonet (Tunic), Mitznefet (Headdress), and Avnet (Sash)

The tunic (ketonet) is to be made of fringed fine linen; the headdress (mitznefet) too is to be made of fine linen, and the sash (avnet) is to be embroidered (מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵם). Finally, they are to have linen pants. These four garments constitute the uniform of a regular kohen as well as the basis over which the Kohen Gadol wears his special vestments.

Wearing these garments, Aharon and his sons can be prepared to serve.

Seven Days of Miluim: The Consecration of the Mishkan

[Shemot 29:1-46]

The following needs to be done in order for Aharon and his sons to be consecrated as kohanim to serve Hashem: first, a young bull and two unblemished rams are to be taken from the herd. In addition to these unleavened bread (lechem matzot – לֶחֶם מַצּוֹת), unleavened cakes with oil kneaded into them (challot matzot – חַלֹּת מַצֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן), and unleavened wafers spread with oil (rekikei matzot – רְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן) are to be prepared, all made from fine wheat flour (solet chitim – סֹלֶת חִטִּים). Once ready, they are to be presented in a basket (sal – סַל) along with the animal offerings.

Aharon and his sons are to wash with water. Aharon is first to don the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, after which his head is anointed with oil. His sons are then dressed with the tunics of the kohanim. All are girded with sashes, and the sons are fitted with turbans (migbaot – מִגְבָּעֹת).

The bull is then led to the opening of the Ohel Moed (the inner tent of the Mishkan). Aharon and his sons are to lay their hands upon the head of the bull (וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁ הַפָּר), then slaughter it. Some of its blood gets dabbed on the horns of the Mizbeach (outer altar), and the rest is poured out at the base of the altar. The fats and innards are burned on the Misbeach. The flesh, hide, and dung of the bull are placed outside the camp. This, we are told, is a Chatat (חַטָּאת), conventionally translated as “Sin Offering.”

The offering of the first rams begins the same way as that for the bull, but after its blood is poured out on the base of the Mizbeach, it is quartered and burned on the altar in its entirety. This is an Olah (עֹלָה), a Burnt or Whole Offering.

The second ram is a third, special kind of offering, an Eil Miluim (אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים, “Ram of Ordination”). After it’s slaughtered, they are to take the fat parts—the broad tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the protuberance on the liver, the two kidneys with the fat on them—and the right thigh.

To these parts are added one loaf, one cake, and one wafer from the prepared basket, which are lifted up by Aharon and his sons in their palms as a Tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), “Elevation Offering.” They loaves are to be burnt on the Mizbeach with the Olah.

The breast and thigh of the second ram are turned into a Tenufah and a Terumah (תְּרוּמָה, “Gift Offering”), respectively. The breast and thigh are to become the portions due to the kohanim in perpetuity. Within the sacred precincts, the Ram of Ordination is to be boiled and eaten by the kohanim, along with the remaining breads. They are consecrated foods and may not be eaten by ordinary people. Any of these foods left over until morning are to be destroyed utterly by burning them in a fire.

Aharon’s special garments are to be passed on to his sons. A Chatat is to be offered on the Mizbeach daily.

The consecration of the Mizbeach will take seven days. Each of the days, two year-old lambs are to be offered, one in the morning (בַבֹּקֶר) and one at twilight (בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם), each time with a Mincha (“Meal Offering”) of a tenth of a measure of choice flour with a quarter of a hin of beaten oil mixed in, and a libation of a quarter hin of wine for one lamb.

As well, there should be a regular Olah (Olat Tamid – עולת תמיד).

When this is accomplished,

וְקִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי: וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹקים: וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי :אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיהֶם

I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests. I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d. And they shall know that I Hashem am their G-d, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them—I, their G-d Hashem.

Shemot 29:44-46

The Altar for Incense

[Shemot 30:1-10]

Now the text provides instructions for a second, smaller Mizbeach ha-Zahav (Golden Altar) for the burning of incense (ketoret – קְטֹרֶת). It is to be a 1 cubit square and 2 cubits high, with four horns, made from the same piece of acacia wood as the main altar. The entire incense altar is to be overlaid with gold and have a gold molding around it. Two gold rings go on opposite sides beneath the molding, to hold carrying poles (badim – בַּדִּים). The poles, too, are to be made of acacia and overlaid with gold.

The Mizbeach ha-Zahav goes in front of the Parochet (curtain) that is over Aron ha-Edut (the Ark). Every morning when he tends to the Menorah lamps, Aharon is to burn incense on this altar. This is to be a regular practice for all time: a ketoret tamid (קְטֹרֶת תָּמִיד). Only the proper incense is to be burned upon it, and no korbanot (animal or meal offerings), or libations, are to be offered on this altar. Once a year, on Yom Kippur,11 the Mizbeach ha-Zahav will be purified by placing the blood of the Yom Kippur Chatat on its horns.

After seven days of Miluim, the Mishkan is consecrated for service. The conclusion of the process is the subject of Parashat Shemini in Sefer Vayikra.

Haftarah Summary – אתה בן אדם

[Yechezkel 43:10-27]

The haftarah consists of the concluding segment of Yechezkel’s ecstatic vision of the future, rebuilt Beit ha-Mikdash in a restored Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). It takes place in Babylon at the time of Galut Bavel, the first mass exile of Jews from the Land of Israel to foreign soil, after the destruction of the First Beit ha-Mikdash. Intended to inspire recrimination as well as hope for the future, this part of Yechezkel’s vision describes the dimensions of the Mizbeach and the seven days of Milium by which the future Temple will be inaugurated for service, echoing the content of our parsha.

Image: James Tissot, “The Costume of the High Priest,” c. 1900.


  1. Shemot 28:36.
  2. Shemot 24:42.
  3. For one visual interpretation, see the Temple Institute’s rendition.
  4. On the identification of shoham, see here. Another commonly-given possibility is onyx or sardonyx. This is supported by the midrash discussed below.
  5. This measurement describes the distance from thumb to little finger when a man’s hand is stretched apart, approximately half an amah (cubit).
  6. In modern Hebrew, this is the word for diamond, though it likely doesn’t mean that here.
  7. According to Bemidbar Rabba 2:7, shoham is explicitly black, supporting that reading.
  8. On the Urim and Tumim, see Yoma 73b.
  9. According to Sotah 48b
  10. See Yerushalmi Sotah 9:14.
  11. Rashi on Shemot 30:10.

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