Fascinating bigdei kahuna, the Choshen Mishpat


The Choshen Mishpat, worn by the Kohane Gadol, is one of the more fascinating bigdei kahuna (garments of the kohanim) described in our parasha, Tetzaveh: “And you [Moshe] shall make a decision breastplate (Choshen Mishpat). It shall be a patterned brocade like the ephod. Make it out of gold [thread], sky-blue, dark red and crimson wool, and twined linen.”

This translation of “decision breastplate” derives from the placement within it of the Urim and Thumim, special stones from which prophetic communications were revealed to the Kohane Gadol.

Rashi cites an opinion found in Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a and Zevachin 88b, that suggests the purpose of the Choshen Mishpat is to procure atonement for error in legal decisions. The Netziv takes issue with Rashi’s approach, since “[these Talmudic sources suggest this explanation of the Choshen Mishpat] solely as an allusion and an intimation (remez v’asmachata), and as a statement that by no means represents its essential purpose.”

As such, the Netziv offers his own analysis of the inherent meaning of the Choshen Mishpat: “Rather, the primary explanation of the word, mishpat, is to seek redress for insults against the Jewish people. [So, too, do we find] that the Targum Yonatan on Malachim I:8:49, translates ‘v’asita mishpatam (and You will maintain their cause),’ as, ‘v’tit’p’rah ulbanhon (and You will seek compensation for their humiliation)’ … and, therefore, the [focus on] the Choshen comes to invoke the salvation of the Jewish people and seek revenge against those who pursue them.” 

In sum, the Netziv maintains that the role of the Choshen Mishpat is to “invoke the salvation of the Jewish people and seek revenge against those who pursue them.”

In my view, this concept is evocative of the tefilah we recite each morning immediately before the recitation of the Shemoneh Esrai, wherein we beseech Hashem to bring forth the redemption of our people: “Rock of Israel, arise to the aid of Israel and liberate, as You pledged, Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer — Hashem, Master of Legions, is His Name — the Holy One of Israel. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who redeemed Israel.” May this time come soon and, in our days, v’chane yihi ratzon.