The Efod and the need for Creativity
A friend of mine asked me a question last Shabbat. Was Bezalel a great artist or did he simply follow the directions of Gd and Moshe when it came to building the Mishkan? Was he an architect or a contractor?
How we answer that question is very relevant to how we practice our Judaism today. We can see a hint to that answer by a quick study of one of the garments of the kohen gadol, the efod.
Bezalel was given the commandment to build the mishkan and the garments by Moshe (31:10). In addition to offering directions for setting up the mishkan, parashat Tetzaveh also describes for us the garments that the kohanim and the kohen gadol were required to wear when they performed their service.
The making of these garments was entrusted to “wise men (chachmei lev) who were filed with the spirit of wisdom” (28:3). Who were these wise men? If they were simply tailors or contractors why is the requirement for them to be wise?
The regular kohen wore four garmets, and the kohen gadol wore eight garments. The eight garments are: breeches (mikhnasayim), tunic (ketonet), robe (me’il), belt (avnet), forehead plate (tzitz), breast plate (choshen), turban (mitznefet), and the efod.
What was the efod? If you ask most people, they will say, “oh, the efod is the apron of the kohen gadol.”
This is in fact the way the efod is depicted in the picture accompanying the commentary to the standard chumash that we use in our shul (Stone, 467).
This depiction of the efod is based upon an interpretation offered in the commentary of Rashi (28:4).
Rashi’s comments here are fascinating. He writes:
an ephod: lo shamati ve lo matzati be-beraita pirush tavnito. I did not hear (that it was a garment) [i.e., I have no tradition concerning the ephod], and I did not find the explanation of its pattern in the Baraitha. Libbi omer li, My heart tells me that he [the Kohen Gadol] was girded with it [the ephod] from behind, its width being like the width of an [average] man’s back, similar to a kind of apron called porzent [or pourceint], [a kind of] belt, [like an] apron [back to front] that princesses wear when they ride horseback.
In other words, Rashi is actually telling us two things:
First, that there is no accepted tradition of what the efod is supposed to look like. The Torah doesn’t tell us, nor do the sages of the Talmud. Rashi looked through the whole Talmud and did not see a depiction of the efod.
Second, if there is no tradition as to what the efod is supposed to look like, then how does Rashi know?
Rashi’s “heart tells him.” In other words, he uses his imagination and his creativity to imagine that the efod looks like the apron that the distinguished women of his time wore when they rode their horses. Perhaps Rashi saw these women riding up the streets of his town of Troyes in the eleventh century. He was so amazed by the beauty of their garments that he imagined that this is what the efod looked like.
Where Rashi was imaginative and creative, we have become slaves to his depiction. We have adopted his approach in our textbooks and standard bibles without recognizing that Rashi’s approach to the efod was simply the imagination of his heart based upon what he saw in his own culture.
It is interesting that many of the medieval commentators put forth interpretations of the efod that were also very creative and significantly different from Rashi. (See many different possible depictions of the efod in Kaplan, The Living Torah, 417.)
Thus, for example, Rashi’s own grandson, Rashbam, suggests-–“in his own opinion, lefi daati”--that the efod, was a skirt-like garment that covered the kohen gadol in the front and back up to the waist and then fully covered the kohen’s back (28:7).
Another medievalist, Chizkuni from 13th century France, describes it in an entirely different manner as a vest that can be tied around the front. He too, seems to be influenced by contemporary style. He writes that the efod was: “ke-min levush katzar she-korin korshette, it is a small garment like a corset (28:27). It is significant that Chizkuni uses the term corset because that is when the term first starts appearing in any language. In fact, one respected source that I checked sees the term corset only appearing starting in the year 1300. Clearly that source missed this Chizkuni! (See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=corset ) A medieval Jewish rabbi writing in 1240 is one of our earliest sources of a term and description of a staple of women’s fashion!
Another commentator who is influenced by the fashion that he saw around him is a little known commentator called Rabbeinu Meyuchas. He is most likely a medieval, Greek commentator (at least according to one of my teachers, Rav Michoel Katz who published his works), and he describes the efod (according to Kaplan, 417) as a “kind of cape made of single rectangular piece of cloth, draped over the shoulders like a large tallith, and hanging down to the feet in back. At the waist it had a belt to hold it. It is described as being like the robes used by Greek priests.”
Perhaps most significant is the commentary of the first century, Josephus. Josephus was a kohen who fled to Rome and recorded for history many of the details of his era, including the details of the Beit Hamikdash.
In Book Three of his Antiquities (162) he describes the efod as “similar to a Greek epomis.” My teacher, Professor Louis Feldman, describes Josephus’ term, epomis, as “part of the women’s tunic that was fastened on the shoulder by brooches.” (Footnote 424 to the Loeb edition of Antiquities, page 275.)
I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. But luckily, another student of Prof. Feldman, named Stuart Dunbar Robertson, actually wrote a doctoral dissertation on this topic in 1991 (227). (The source was kindly shown to me by Prof. Daniel Schwartz.) Robertson writes:
“The Greek epomis denoted the shoulder of a women’s tunic. Apart from the Greek Exodus, I know of no instance of epomis being used in this cultic sense. Josephus, like Philo, is adopting the LXX translation, perhaps because there was no suitable Greek word, describing a counterpart to the ephod in a Greek cultic setting. As the first Greek biblical translators thought that the ephod looked the epomis they saw woman wearing, their translation reflected this.”
In other words, across three different cultures (first century Palestine, medieval France, and medieval Greece) we see commentators of the Bible using their own imagination and creativity to describe the efod. Significantly, their understanding of the efod matches the style of their times. For Rashi it was the noblewoman he saw riding down his streets, for Chizkuni it was the newly introduced corset, for Josephus, it was the distinguished woman of his era, and for Rabbeinu Meyuchas it was the priests of his own time.
How is any of this relevant to our lives?
The Torah tells us that the kohen gadol was supposed to wear these special garments, “likhavod u-litifaret, for honor and glory” (28:2).
The most common explanation of this term is that of Ramban, who suggests that it means the garments of the kohen gadol were supposed to look like the garments of the kings in that time period, “eleh habegadim levushei malkhut hein” (28:2).
But perhaps likhavod u-litifaret means something else. Maybe it simply means that the garments were supposed to be stylish. Maybe the kohen gadol’s clothing was supposed to be cutting edge style so that when he walked in front of the people, the people took immense pride in his appearance.
This is at least the upshot of the interpretation of all the commentaries that we saw above. All of them are suggesting that the efod was a stylish garment worthy of being worn in their own time.
Maybe on a deeper level, the intended message of the kohen gadol’s garments was that the kohen gadol is supposed to present himself as a contemporary figure and not as someone who is out of style.
Based upon this, we can suggest that if the Beit Hamikdash were to be built tomorrow, instead of trying to recreate Rashi’s depiction of the efod, we should bring in the most skilled and trendiest designers and have them design the efod using the principles of the Torah and contemporary fashion.
The fundamental question is not what did the efod look like, but rather, why didn’t the Torah give us an exact description of the efod? How come there is no blueprint for how to make an efod? And even if the Torah doesn’t describe an efod, how come the rabbis of the Talmud don’t give us a description of it?
I think that the answer is because the Torah wanted to give us room to be creative in our religious experience. Think about how the efod is usually taught in our educational system. Usually students are taught this is how the efod looked. Students are almost never challenged to answer the question: how would you design the efod if you had to clothe the kohen gadol tomorrow?
This is true for the way we understand the garments of the kohen gadol.
But it is also true of our approach to religion in general.
One of the biggest dangers facing Modern Orthodoxy today is that it might become stale. If it becomes stuck in its ways it may lack the fervent dedication of the Chareidim or the flexibility of the liberal movements.
A dynamic element of Modern Orthodoxy took a major step back with the death of Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav). When Rav Soloveitchik was alive, Modern Orthodoxy was full of vibrancy and dynamism. The Rav layed out a theology and approach to the Torah that was inspiring and exciting. Even though he has been gone for more than two decades, Modern Orthodoxy is still feeding off of the Rav’s energy.
But in the long run that won’t be sufficient. In the long run we need to bring our own energy and creativity to our spiritual devotion.
We are too often asking the question, what did the Rav say or do, and not what would the Rav say or do if he was in our shoes today.
In some ways Modern Orthodoxy is more bound by the legacy of the Rav, than the chabadniks are bound by the legacy of the Lubaviticher Rebbe. We see tremendous innovation and creativity coming out of the Chabad world that the Modern Orthodox community should try to emulate.
This is why Rabbi Avi Weiss is offering such an attractive opportunity for so many people. Rabbi Weiss is above all else creative. He has been teaching us to move beyond Modern Orthodoxy and to also embrace, Open Orthodoxy. In doing so he is teaching us that we can never accept staleness as a guiding principle in our religion. For sure we have to be bound by tradition. But it is equally important to be bound by creativity.
This is what Open Orthodoxy means to me. It is not just an openness to engage with certain hot button issues of the day—it is an openness to creativity in our religious lives. It is an openness to having a living and vital spiritual connection with Hashem.
This is why I sometimes urge our congregation to embrace new customs that typical modern orthodox shuls don’t embrace: for example, the baking of matzah, the making of our own Tefillin, the practice of men going to the mikvah on a regular basis, and maybe even adopting the Israeli and Sefardic minhag of having a daily birkat kohanim.
Another one of the garments of the kohen gadol was the forehead plate known as the tzitz.
There is a debate in the Talmud as to how the tzitz looked. Was the writing on the tzitz all on one line or on two separate lines?
So there is a story in the Talmud about the this. (See Shabbat 63b and Me’ilah 13b.)
A sage of the Talmud somehow miraculously cured the daughter of the Roman emperor. As a reward, this sage was allowed to enter into the treasure house of the Romans and he saw many of the spoils from the Temple. The sage actually saw the tzitz and he saw that all of the writing was on one line. Surprisingly, even in the face of this overwhelming evidence, Rambam rules in the opposite fashion that the tzitz should be made with the writing on two separate lines.
Even in the face of concrete evidence, the Rambam was not willing to limit his creativity about how he imagined the tzitz looked.
Our greatest sages were giants of creativity and innovation.
Without our traditions we will not have our roots. But without our creativity we will not have our branches and our leaves.
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