"He (the high priest on Yom Kippur) must put on a sanctified white linen tunic, have linen pants on his body, gird himself with a linen sash, and bind (his head) with a linen turban. These are sacred garments…." (Levit. 16:4-5)

The eight garments worn year-round by the high priest atone for the entire Jewish people with regard to eight specific aberrations of attitude or behavior:

  • The headgear (the regular priests’ hats and the high priest’s turban) atones for haughtiness, as indicated by the fact that adds height to the priest wearing it.

  • The sash atones for sinful thoughts; it is therefore tied just under the heart.

  • The tunic atones for murders which were witnessed but for which the murderer cannot be tried, because he was not properly warned beforehand. (Witnessed and warned murder is atoned for by the execution of the murderer; unwitnessed murder is atoned for by the rite of the decapitated calf.) This sin is atoned for by the tunic because the tunic recalls how Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him on account of his tunic and used his blood-stained tunic to deceive Jacob into believing he had been killed.

  • The trousers, the purpose of which is to cover the reproductive organ, atone for carnal sins.

  • The breastplate atones for miscarriage of justice; it is therefore called "the breastplate of judgment."
  • The breastplate atones for miscarriage of justice; it is therefore called "the breastplate of judgment."

  • The ephod atones for idolatry.

  • The robe atones for public slander, since when the priest wearing it walks, the bells and pomegranates attached to it make an audible sound. (In contrast, the incense, which is offered up inside the Sanctuary, with no witnesses, atones for private slander.)

  • The Forehead-plate atones for brazenness, since a person’s forehead crumples when he assumes a "headstrong" attitude of insolence. (Zevachim 88b; Arachin 16a.)

Of these, the four basic priestly garments—both those worn by regular priests the year-round and those worn by the high priest on Yom Kippur—allude to the basic array of the soul’s faculties:

  • The headgear alludes to the presence of keter (supra-rational delight and will) in chochma (insight). Novel insight, drawn from the supra-rational faculties of the soul, is possible only when we are ready to abandon preconceptions and assume an attitude of non-self-awareness (bitul). The headgear, being the antidote to haughtiness, thus prepares us for new revelations of chochma.

  • The sash alludes to bina ("understanding"), or rational intellect, through which the transcendent insight of chochma is processed and made part of our way of thinking, only after which it can remake us as new, more refined individuals. It is therefore used to tie the garments to the body, alluding to the notion of bringing external, transcendent consciousness into ourselves. Its location next to the heart alludes how understanding and integrating new insight is meant to remake the whole person, just as the heart pumps blood throughout the entire body. The sash therefore atones for misuse of the intellect by sinful thinking.

  • The tunic alludes to the emotions...

    The tunic alludes to the emotions, which correspond to the torso and its limbs—which the tunic covers:

    §         chesed (“loving-kindness) corresponds to the right arm;

    §         gevurah (“might,” “severity”) corresponds to the left arm;

    §         tiferet (“beauty,” “harmony”) corresponds to the torso;

    §         netzach (“victory,” “perseverance”) corresponds to the right leg;

    §         hod (“splendor,” “acknowledgment”) corresponds to the left leg;

    §         yesod (“foundation,” “loyalty”) corresponds to the procreative organ.

  • The test of whether an intellectual insight (chochma) has been properly processed (bina) is if refines our emotions, helping us subjugate our innate animal nature to our higher, human nature. Metaphorically, then, murder alludes to the slaying of our human-self by our animal-self, which results when the intellect does not affect the emotions.

    · The trousers, unlike the tunic, do not extend down the full length of the body; they extend only from the waist to the thighs, for they are worn in order to modestly cover the procreative organ. They therefore allude to the proper relationship with our feminine side, malchut ("kingdom"), our powers of expression—thought, speech, and action—by which we aim to control and influence reality in accordance with our fully-processed new insight. This relationship must be characterized by modesty, i.e., humility in assessing our ability to influence reality, lest overconfidence lead us to attempt to rectify aspects of reality we are not equipped to rectify. This presumptuousness can backfire, causing us to succumb to the enticements of materiality rather than elevate the material world as we intended. Carnal sin is the epitome of such misuse of our creative powers; the trousers therefore atone for this type of sin.

    These four garments, as the verse continues, "are holy garments," meaning that the entire array of our soul’s faculties must be "holy," i.e. oriented toward God and harnessed in the service of our ongoing Divine mission, transforming the world into God’s home by propagating and disseminating Divine consciousness, which, as noted, depends upon our willingness and ability to negate our sense of self.

    The garments but also be "made solely out of linen." In contrast to other cultivated crops, the flax plant yields one stalk per seed, and that this alludes to the simple, intrinsic oneness of God. In the present context, the requirement that the Yom Kippur priestly garments be made out of linen indicates that our simple faith in God’s oneness, i.e., how He is in exclusive control of all reality, must permeate all the faculties of our soul. This ensures that the creative process beginning with insight and proceeding through intellect, emotions, and expression will develop properly and be fulfilled optimally.

    ...these garments also allude to four types of people...

    Although all of us possess the full array of soul-faculties alluded to by the four priestly garments, these garments also allude to four types of people, each of which chiefly manifests one of these soul-faculties:

    • The headgear (keter and chochma) alludes to creative, inventive types.

    • The sash (bina) alludes to intellectual, analytic types.

    • The tunic (emotions) alludes to emotional types.

    • The trousers (malchut) allude to industrious types, whose chief interest lies in palpable accomplishment, driving the world to its ultimate rectification.

    All four types of people must learn to perform their pursuits with faith in God. Clearly, the sophistication of their faith in God will vary in accordance with their innate propensities and gifts. (This is alluded to by the fact that the adjective "linen" in this verse is repeated for each of the four garments instead of being mentioned once in connection with them all together.) Nonetheless, just as the high priest cannot perform the Yom Kippur rites unless he is wearing all four garments, the collective body of the Jewish people requires all four types of people to manifest their faith in God, each according to their innate propensities. Only then are we assured of full, collective atonement: reinstatement with God.

    Similarly, each of us manifests one or another of these four personality types at various times in our lives. The lesson here is that we must learn how to bring God’s presence into our lives in whatever phase of life we are in.

    Although the actual Yom Kippur rites could only be performed by one individual (the high priest) in one place (the Temple) once a year (Yom Kippur), the lesson is meant, of course, to be universally and constantly relevant. Repentance is possible at any time, in all situations, and always leads us both to our own, personal redemptions and further toward the world’s collective Redemption.

    Adapted from Sefer HaMa’amarim 5736, pp. 188-192
    © 2001 Chabad of California/www.LAchumash.org