All of the notes below are taken directly from the Temple Institute which is an organization seeking to rebuild the third temple on Mount Moriah.
Moses was instructed by G-d that the garments of the priests were to be both dignified and beautiful; as precious as the garments of royalty. Indeed, the Talmud informs us that when the wicked Persian king Ahasuerus made a feast for his advisors and officers and sought to impress them with his greatness (as recorded in the scroll of Esther, which tells the story of Purim) he put off his own royal vestments and donned the uniform of the High Priest… which was more precious than his own. These priestly garments were in his possession since the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Understanding Life in the Holy Temple
It is noteworthy and revealing that one of the finest ways to gain insight into both the details of life in the Holy Temple, and to its inner spirit, is by a study of the priestly garments.
We shall see that these garments are essential in order for the priests to function in their sacred capacity; so much so that in their absence, the offerings made by the priests in the Temple have no validity! Without his uniform, the priest who serves in the Holy Temple is considered like a “stranger” serving before the L-rd – like an ordinary non-priest. What, then, is the basis for the garments’ powerful significance?
The Garments Possess An Intrinsic Holiness
No priest, neither lay nor the High Priest himself, is fit to serve in the Temple unless he is wearing the sacred garments. As the Talmud states, “While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them” (BT Zevachim 17:B). Conducting the service without these garments would render the priests the same as those who are not descendants of Aaron – all of whom are unfit for service in the Temple.
Why does the Bible attach so much significance to the garments? Because their quality is such that they elevate the wearers – Aaron and all his descendants – to the high levels of sanctity required from those who come to serve before G-d in the holy place. These garments themselves possess a certain holiness; powerful enough to sanctify all those who merely come in contact with them, as we read in the prophets: “… so as not to hallow the people with their garments” (Ezekiel 44:19).
Actually, the Hebrew expression which we are translating as “sacred” or “holy” garments also means “garments of the Temple;” that is, the garments themselves show that their wearers are standing in the Divine service. 1
The Garments Atone for Sins
Another important quality of the priestly garments is that their very presence, worn by the priests during the Temple service, serves to atone for the sins of Israel. It is taught that just as the sacrifices facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments (BT Zevachim 88:B).
This is one of the deeper aims of wearing these garments, and something for the priest to ponder while they are upon him. For his everyday actions in the Temple transcend his own personal idiom and take on a more universal theme… he makes atonement and spiritual rectification for all humanity.
Thus we are taught (ibid.):
- The tunic, which covers most of the priest’s body, atones for killing.
- The pants atone for sexual transgressions.
- The turban, worn on the head, atone for haughtiness.
- The belt, wound about the body and worn over the heart, atones for “sins of the heart” – improper thoughts.
- The breastplate atones for errors in judgment.
- The ephod atones for idolatry.
- The robe atones for evil speech.
- The High Priest’s crown atones for arrogance.
“For honor and for beauty”
The rabbis established that G-d’s command for the priestly garments to be “for honor and for beauty” teach us that they must be new and dignified. If the garments were soiled, stained, or ripped, the priests may not conduct the service while wearing them – and if they did, the service would be invalid.
Another aspect of “honor and beauty” means that the uniform must fit each fit perfectly. It was forbidden for the pants, for example, to be too long or too short. The garments were made to order for each priest, tailored to fit his measurements exactly.
This tells us something of the tremendous work force needed to turn out these garments in such quantities that every priest in Israel could be supplied with his own garments. As we shall learn with regard to the incense offering, there were so many priests available for duty in the Holy Temple that no priest ever offered the daily incense service more than once in his lifetime, and it was offered twice daily for many hundreds of years! Yet each had his own garments.
The Garments Were Not Washed
Furthermore, although the priests were extremely neat, just as they were diligent and careful – still, they were working with the sacrifices. Any garment which became soiled to the extent that its stains could not be removed, those garments were not washed. When they became disqualified from use in this manner, they were shredded and used to fulfill another of the Creator’s commandments! The tunics were used to make wicks for the menorah, and the belts and pants, wicks for the oil lamps of the Festival of the Water Libation which took place in the Women’s Court during the Festival of Sukkot. This applies only to the garments of the ordinary priests, of which there were a great many. When the High Priest’s uniform became unusable through wear and tear, it was not destroyed, but hidden away so that no other man could ever wear it.