The Kohen Gadol’s Responsibility

V’lakachta es shtei avnei shoham u’pitachta aleihem shemos Bnei Yisrael (Shemos 28:9)

Parashas Tetzaveh introduces us to the special vestments worn by the Kohanim when serving in the Mishkan. Among the eight unique vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol was a large apron called the ephod and a breastplate known as the choshen, each of which contained precious stones on which the names of the 12 tribes of Israel were engraved.

One set of stones was called the avnei shoham, which was part of the ephod and was worn on the Kohen Gadol’s shoulders, while the other set was known as the avnei milu’im, which was part of the choshen and was worn on his chest. While it is understandable for the Kohen Gadol, who represented the entire nation, to have the names of the tribes on his clothing as a reminder of his mission, why was it necessary to repeat the list a second time?

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Senter explains that the names that were engraved on the choshen were placed next to the Kohen Gadol’s heart, which served to remind him of the need to empathize with his brethren. However, empathy alone is insufficient. The Kohen Gadol was required to wear an additional set of names on his shoulders to teach him that he must also be prepared to act on his feelings by getting involved and actually shouldering the responsibilities of the nation.

Similarly, when we hear about the suffering of our fellow Jews around the world, we must identify with their plights and feel their pain, but we must remember that this alone is not enough; we must also get involved and invest our time and resources to assist them as much as possible.

Rabbi Senter adds that this dichotomy can also be found in the upcoming festival of Purim. One of the unique mitzvos of the day is mishloach manos, in which we are commanded to give gifts of food to our friends and relatives in order to increase feelings of friendship and togetherness. This mitzvah corresponds to the heart. There is an additional mitzvah on Purim of matanos la’evyonim, in which we are specifically commanded to give money to the poor and less fortunate as a way of pitching in and shouldering their burdens.

Alternatively, Rabbi Amnon Bazak points out a distinction between the two sets of names worn by the Kohen Gadol. The names of the tribes that were engraved on the ephod were all written on the same type of stone and were written together to the extent that was physically possible. On the other hand, the names of the tribes that were engraved on the choshen were each written separately and on a different type of precious stone. Symbolically, the names on the ephod represent the fact that all Jews are united in their common mission of serving Hashem through studying Torah and performing mitzvos, while the names on the choshen denote the existence and importance of different approaches to fulfilling that shared obligation.

While both components are necessary, the fact that the ephod was the larger of the two garments indicates that while individuality is valuable, the overarching central mission that unites us all is more prominent and fundamental.

Q: The Gemara in Yoma (9b) teaches that the first Beis Hamikdash was destroyed for the sins of idolatry, murder and forbidden relationships. As the Gemara in Zevachim (88b) teaches that the ephod (28:6–12) atoned for the sin of idolatry, how could the Beis Hamikdash be destroyed for a sin for which the ephod effected atonement?

Q: As the me’il (28:31) was a four-cornered garment, why wasn’t the Kohen Gadol required to place tzitzis on its corners?

A: The Maharsha maintains that the garments of the Kohanim only atoned for sins that were committed accidentally, but the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed for intentional acts of idol worship that were not atoned for by the ephod.

Harav Aryeh Leib Tzintz answers that idolatry is different than all other sins, in that the Gemara teaches that although Hashem does not punish a person for thinking about sinning unless he goes ahead and commits the sin, in the case of idolatry Hashem punishes a person merely for thinking about worshipping an idol.

The ephod only atones for the component of the sinful thoughts, which is alluded to when it is referred to (28:6) as maaseh choshev, but not for the actual act of idol worship for which the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. The M’rafsin Igri cites the opinion of Tosafos that the ephod only effected atonement for those who repented their sins, but prior to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, many Jews repeatedly engaged in idol worship without repenting their sins, and the ephod was unable to atone for their actions.

A: The Minchas Chinuch cites the Gemara in Chullin (136a), which rules that one is only required to put tzitzis on a garment that he owns, but he is exempt from placing tzitzis on a borrowed item. Since the garments of the Kohen Gadol were sanctified and holy and did not belong to him, the me’il was therefore exempt.

The Radvaz suggests that because the me’il was only attached at the Kohen Gadol’s neck, it was not considered a four-cornered garment that required tzitzis. The Dovev Mesharim answers that because the Torah specifies (28:2) that the garments of the Kohen Gadol were only for the purpose of giving him honor and glory, they were not considered traditional clothing and were exempt from tzitzis. The Mirkeves Hamishneh maintains that the me’il did not even have four corners.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email