13th February 2019 • Dr Harry Freedman •
How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss
The High Priest in the Israelite Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple, was told to wear an object, identified as a tzitz, on his forehead. The instruction to make this object is found in the book of Exodus (28, 36-38), but no details are given as to its size, shape or weight. All we are told is that it is to be made of pure gold, placed upon the priest’s linen headdress and suspended from a woollen thread dyed with t’chelet, a blue pigment extracted from a particular species of marine snail. The tzitz is to have the words Holy to the Lord engraved upon it.
As we would expect, rabbinic tradition amplifies this very vague instruction. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) the tzitz was a plate, two fingerbreadths in breadth, that extended the full width of the forehead, from one ear to the other. To the Lord was written on one line, the word Holy was written beneath. R. Eliezer ben Yosé disagreed; he claimed to have seen the tzitz in Rome, taken there with the other treasures after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. The words Holy to the Lord were, he said, written on one line.
The tzitz was endowed with an intrinsic spiritual power. It atoned for offences committed with consecrated objects (the Talmud gives examples of sacrifices offered in a state of impurity), and it procured divine acceptance even, according to one opinion, when the High Priest was not wearing it (Pesahim 77a).
The idea that among the High Priest’s vestments were items possessing sacred, supernatural power is not unknown in the Torah. The stones that the High Priest wore on his breastplate, known as Urim and Tumim, were used in the right circumstances as an oracle, though exactly how is not clear. But the supernatural properties of the tzitz are harder to conceptualise. What does it mean for an object to effect atonement simply by being there? As long as it existed, even if not worn, then under what circumstances would atonement not be effected? The idea of the tzitz seems to give carte blanche to any improper act of sacrifice; it makes sacrificial offences redundant.
We can get a better understanding of the tzitz’s significance had by considering an associated concept in the book of Numbers (15,39). There we are told to place threads on all four-cornered garments. These threads are call tzitzit; the word comes from the same root as tzitz. The root meaning of this word is associated with ideas of blossoming, glistening or sparking; it can mean flower, fringe, tassel, a lock of hair. In Song of Songs (2,9) it means to peer through a lattice- the idea being that the image one sees is broken up by the network through which it is seen, the light reaches the eyes as if it were a fringe of individual sparks.
So while the tzitzit are physical woollen fringes, the golden tzitz sparkles, with fringes of light. There is a conceptual association between the two.
And the association is more than just in their names. Both the tzitz and the tzitzit are to have a thread of techelet, they are the only two biblical objects that require this. And they are each associated with the idea of holiness. The tzitz has engraved upon it the words Holy to the Lord. While the purpose of the tzitzit is to remind us to remember and perform the divine commandments so as to be holy to God.
But the big difference is that the tzitzit have no supernatural properties. God’s name is not written upon them, so they have no intrinsic sanctity. Instead they are physical reminders to perform religious obligations, so that we might remain or become holy. By contrast the tzitz is intrinsically sacred, it sparkles with sanctity. It is the ultimate expression of what the tzitzit encourage us to become.
The High Priest is the idealised, sacred human being, an ultimate religious aspiration. The tzitz symbolises this. It represents the idealised state that the tzitzit seek to lead us towards.