In the second century, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yosei, traveled from the Galilee to Rome to plead for the repeal of a royal edict forbidding Shabbat, circumcision, and the laws of ritual purity. While there, the rabbis gained the emperor’s trust by curing his daughter’s illness and were invited into the royal treasury to select a reward. They came upon the actual written edict, requested it as their reward, and promptly ripped it up, thus nullifying it (BT, Me’ila 17a-b). The Talmud records that while in the treasury, Rabbi Eliezer also saw the solid gold headplate, tzitz, once worn by the High Priest: “I saw it [in the treasury] in the city of Rome and “Kadosh L’Adonai, Holy to God,” was written on one line” (BT, Shabbat 63b).
How disheartened the two rabbis must have been witnessing the spoils of Jerusalem amassed in the emperor’s treasury! When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, its accoutrements were pillaged. The Romans treasured the headplate and other vestments and ceremonial objects for their value as precious metals and gems; Jews valued them as priceless instruments for the performance of sacrifices by Temple priests as commanded by God as the path to a holy life.
Focusing on the equipment needed for the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle, Parashat T’tzaveh includes the detailed instructions for making the priestly vestments. This portion describes the pure gold plate the High Priest, first Aaron and then his successors, wore hanging from their turbans. The words “Holy to God” were engraved on the headplates adorning their foreheads (Exodus 28:36). God commanded, “Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before the Eternal” (Exodus 28:37-38).
Addressing the removal of sin, Rashi (France, 11thc.) explains that the headplate was worn to atone for impurities which may have otherwise rendered sacrifices unacceptable (Rashi on Exodus 28:38). Rashbam (France, 12thc.) further clarifies this verse: “The specific sins referred to are inadvertent violations….” These comments explain the function of the headplate, but its words “Holy to God” are still perplexing.
It is easy to assume that “Holy to God” signifies the High Priest’s elevated status. However, he was not intrinsically holier than anyone else. Certainly, the priestly class had an auspicious role in the community with the High Priest at the top of this societal and religious structure. Yet, his function was to expedite holy actions, not to personally gain from his position. Speaking of the tzitz on Aaron’s forehead “at all times” (Exodus 28:38), Rashi clarifies that this means when wearing it, the High Priest had to be focused on it and the holiness required of his work. Modern commentator Aviva Zornberg teaches: “…to be a kohen is both to act out a role of service, to submit to a superior force, and to be an aristocrat, aware of power in oneself (The Particulars of Rapture, 363). Zornberg cites this teaching as a reflection of the grave responsibility of thought and action: “The High Priest's vestments invest him in anxiety, no less than in glory. Ultimately, it is not only the diadem [tzitz] that is to be ‘Holy to God,’ but its wearer” (369). Therefore, the phrase is instructive, not descriptive.
Offering a different interpretation of “Holy to God,” the Zohar (Kabbalistic text, 13thc.) describes the object of the phrase as the person who has come to offer a sacrifice. According to the Zohar, the phrase would be reflected from the High Priest’s headpiece onto the face of the person standing before him. When this occurred, it indicated that the person was righteous. If there were no reflection of “Holy to God,” then the High Priest knew that the one offering the sacrifice was arrogant, not ready to submit to God’s will and in need of his intervention. Then, the High Priest would pray for God to have mercy and forgive the person, accepting the sacrifice as pure (Zohar, 2:217). The Zohar’s teaching is based on Rabbi Hanina’s remark in the Talmud, “the headplate of the High Priest atones for arrogance“ (BT, Zevachim 88b). This negative trait is associated with the High Priest’s headplate, because in Hebrew the term for arrogance is the idiom “azut panim,” or literally “strength of the face,” which conjurers the forehead (Vayikra Rabbah 10:6).
Today, there is no Temple, no High Priest, no need of the golden headplate to strive for holiness. Instead, let us imagine that the words “Holy to God” shine forth from each of our foreheads. These words are far more valuable than pure gold or precious gems, for they reflect God’s light, challenging us to behave in ways that honor the holiness in ourselves and in others.