Wearing Our Hearts on Our Sleeves: Aaron haKohen the Fashionista (Parashat Tetzaveh)

The author explains that Aaron wears the names of the 12 tribes on his “shoulder-pieces for remembrance” and on his “breastpiece of judgment,” detailing the makeup of this breastpiece. The author imagines that Aaron is meant to wear the collective memory of the Israelites on his sleeves. In this post-Temple period, the responsibilities of the priests in the Temple have been transformed into communal responsibilities.

February 15, 2008

By Marisa Elana James

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Parashat Tetzaveh
Wearing Our Hearts on Our Sleeves: Aaron haKohen, the Fashionista
by Marisa James on Friday February 15, 2008
10 Adar 1 5768
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10


In this weeks’ parasha, Tetzaveh, we learn that Aaron is to wear the names of the tribes on his shoulders and on his chest as part of his Desert-of-Mitzrayim fashion-week apparel. He wears the 12 names on his “shoulder-pieces for remembrance” and on his “breastpiece of judgment.”

God tells Moses:

…take two lapis lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: […] attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance before the Lord. […] You shall make a breastpiece of judgment […] Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. […] They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28: 9, 12, 15-21)

In Jewish tradition, we generally don’t do such things; in other communities, it’s customary to wear jewelry engraved with the names of loves ones, or even to tattoo the names of the dead on one’s body, as a remembrance. This example from the Jewish tradition is a notable exception, and one that is only granted to the high priest, who is possibly the most important member of the community. God asks the best and most skilled artists of the people Israel to carve these names on Aaron’s adornments for remembrance and for judgment.

But Aaron wears “remembrance” and “judgment” differently. If we think of the common expression “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” we can imagine that Aaron is somehow meant to wear the collective memory of the Israelites on his sleeves. But what about judgment?

Note where these two sets of names are inscribed: For “remembrance” the names are inscribed on two panels of lapis lazuli and placed on Aaron’s shoulders. Each name has been engraved on the same type of stone, indicating that Aaron is required to remember each tribe equally, without preference for one over another.

For “judgment,” the names are each inscribed on a different precious stone and arranged all together on Aaron’s breastplate. By doing this, Aaron is necessarily reminded that each tribe is precious in ways that distinguish it from the other eleven. There may only be one God, but there are at least a dozen ways to have value in God’s eyes.

When Jacob blessed each of his sons, each blessing was very different, unique to each son’s strengths and weaknesses and history. Some of the blessings sounded more like curses, depending on whether Jacob approved of each son’s actions. But Aaron, who will be the one to approach God on behalf of all of the tribes, cannot show preference for any of them. By carrying each name in these two ways, on his shoulders and on his breast, he literally must feel the weight of his equal responsibility to each member of each tribe, while also keeping in mind that these individuals are also to be valued for their unique characteristics.

Aaron may be the high priest, but he is also human, and it is a human failing that we judge the value of the people we know. We decide that we don’t like this one, or we think that one is too loud, or too weak, or that another doesn’t deserve what they have achieved. And when we stand up to represent our communities, it can be hard to keep in mind that the people we are representing are not all exactly the same, that we all have different strengths and needs and desires. Aaron needs to be able to stand before God and represent everyone equally, including the people he doesn’t like, doesn’t know well, or doesn’t understand.

While some Jews wear the tzitzit, to remind us of the commandments, or the tefillin, to physically bind ourselves in God’s words, Aaron additionally has the responsibility to put on garments that are designed to help him remember and give fair treatment to each of the Israelites. Some of these garments are wildly elaborate, flashy, and colorful; God dresses Aaron “flamboyantly” in order to unavoidably show that he represents the larger community. This is especially important for those who are minorities struggling for recognition in a hostile environment; the people who gain visibility are generally the most colorful and interesting, and our best leaders are the ones who can speak for the community without forgetting that it is made up of wildly differing groups and individuals.

In these delightfully post-Temple days, we no longer have a priestly class which is responsible for representing each of us before God. But in many ways, the responsibilities of the priests in the Temple have been transformed into communal responsibilities. While we certainly don’t take our fashion tips from Aaron and the Kohanim (priests), today we wear shirts or hats or kippot which proclaim the names of the communities to which we belong, and rainbow colors to proclaim our identities. This is akin to “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” and shows the world that we are working to fulfill God’s desire that each member of the kehilla (community) is treated and represented equally, and that we remember those who might otherwise be forgotten.