The High Priest had a full set of regalia, which may seem to be more-or-less irrelevant to our lives today. But the language of the text leads us to a different conclusion!
There is an uncommon word that comes up in the description of the garments – the word for “seal” chosam. It appears to describe just two of the garments – the breastplate (with the twelve stones on it) and the gold band on the forehead. Here is the text for the breastplate:
The stones corresponded to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names; engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.
And for the gold band:
You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: “Holy for G-d.”
Why does the Torah use the word “seal” in these verses? I think the reason is connected to the first time and place where this word is used: when Tamar bargains with Judah:
And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.”
The seal that Judah carries is his legal instrument, the formal proxy for his office through which he can make his commitments even when he is not there in person. In other words, a letter that bears Judah’s seal is a letter in which Judah is symbolically and legally present, even though he may be nowhere near in person!
Which explains why the high priest had “seals” as well: the twelve seals of the stones mean that the high priest symbolically and legally carried the twelve tribes of Israel – the Jewish nation – with him wherever he went.
And the seal of the gold band, called the tzitz, was marked “Holy for G-d,” which symbolically and legally suggests that G-d’s presence was also carried on the person of the high priest.
So the high priest used these seals to wear the representation of both the Jewish people and G-d! But why does it matter?
In the larger sense, this idea is of central importance to Judaism. Our lives are a battle to elevate the physical toward the spiritual, to find ways to connect man and G-d, to unite, in a holy way, all the dualisms found in our world. The High Priest has to do this on the grand scale: not merely connect G-d and man, but instead connect G-d to the entire people. Yet the core concept remains the same either way.
In a single person, this closing of dualisms necessitates constantly reminding ourselves to guide our physical persons using our G-d-given souls: our thoughts, words and deeds should be guided, as much as possible, by the commandment to be holy. The Torah tells us how each man (because men have a harder time doing this than do women) is to be reminded: “Bind them as a sign on your arm and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” (Deut. 6:8)
Here is how it looks visually, as worn on a daily basis by observant Jewish men – next to the high priest:
Notice the similarity? Our heads and hearts are joined, unified to remind us both of our purpose, and the weight we carry, the obligations of our people through history to be ever-mindful of what it means to strive to be a holy people. The common garment is certainly much less involved and much less glorious than that of the high priest, but the underlying symbolic connection between the two is strong.
There is another connection as well. I wrote recently on the common garment commanded by the Torah for all Jewish males:
Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their begadim throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. (Num. 15:38)
This is the only reference to a beged that all Jewish males wear for all time. As such, the garment refers to a national identity, something that we all look at regularly and that makes us Jewish. Why, of all things, this garment? Because…
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all G-d’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.
Because the “blue” reminds us of the skies, a reminder of the core Jewish mission, that when we look toward our more “animalistic” parts, we are reminded to look upward instead, and always seek to connect the waters below to the waters above, adding holiness to this world.
And the word translated as “corner” has a more usual meaning in the Torah: wings, just like the wings of birds and of the angels over the ark of the covenant. Wings remind us that we are meant, at least spiritually, to always seek to grow upward, to fly and connect to the heavens. Thus, the clothing we wear that reminds us of all things is rightfully a beged, an identifying garment. We Jews are commanded to constantly remember that we must always keep an eye on our higher purpose.
There is one word in this section that also must be discussed: the word for “fringes,” transliterated, is tzitzis. There are four fringes on the garment, one in each of the four corners.
This word is not found in the Torah for anything except these fringes, tzitzis. “That shall be your fringe.” Why does the text call it your fringe? I think because there is a tzitzis found elsewhere: the tztitz that is the gold band of the high priest! Which means there is a direct link between our prayer shawls (and a smaller garment we wear under our clothes that has the same fringes), and the garment of the high priest. Both of them are reminders of our higher purpose, that every Jew has a constant reminder to be “Holy for G-d.”
When we draw these connections, as roadmapped in the text, the garments of the high priest remain relevant for every Jew even today, over two millennia since those garments were last worn.
[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work!]
P.S. The word I translated as “for,” as in “Holy for G-d,” is a prefix formed by the letter “lamed,” which is first found as a proxy representative in the very first day of creation: “God called (for) light ‘day’ and called (for) darkness ‘night.’” Which means that when the same letter, the lamed, is used in the verse concerning the gold band, then “Holy for G-d” is really more of an equivalence than a mere connection, making the tzitz the proxy for G-d’s presence, in the same way that Judah’s seal represented his legal proxy.