The most iconic article of the Cohen Godol’s clothes is definitely the Choshen Mishpot – the breastplate. This vestment was created by weaving different colored threads into a rectangle, which was then folded in half to create a square. Studded on the front were twelve precious stones, each of the jems were engraved with the name of one tribe.
The name of this garment Choshen Mishpat is peculiar. The word Mishpat means judgement. Most certainly the Choshen came to atone for perversion of justice, and had miraculous powers to provide answers in cases of uncertainty, but should the name allude to its supernatural capabilities, we don’t find the trousers called the “trousers of immorality”.
The Choshen was square. Clothing is generally engineered to conform to a person’s form and figure. Yes the Choshen was pliable being woven from threads, and would conform to the contours of the chest, but the squareness of this item is striking.
Why on the Choshen did each Shevet have its own designated stone with the tribal name engraved on the front, but on the Eiphod the tribes were grouped together?
Many of man’s struggles are due to a lack of clarity. If a person was to be truly guileless in his perception of his beliefs and mission in life, much of the complexities he faces, would simply vanish. What truly enables man to achieve moral clarity are defined parameters. Having a framework within which to function means knowing that certain behaviors and beliefs are out of the box, and other truths are unimpeachable. With such guidelines man can soar and grow.
The Choshen as we shall soon see, reminded one of being cognizant of clarity not allowing oneself to become confused. Therefore the breastplate had a prime location “it should be on Aharon’s heart”,the heart which is the source of passion and desire the basis of all obscurity, could be reigned in with the Choshen.
Mishpat besides for meaning justice also means defined, in fact, this is why laws are called Mishpotim because they provide lucid definitive parameters. Hence the breastplate was called the Choshen Mishpot, because framing Aharon’s heart was an instrument instructing one and all, the need for definition. Definition of one’s priorities, definition of one’s beliefs and definition of one’s mission.
The Choshen was square, as the square shape denotes precise exactitude more than other shapes. If accuracy is needed to create a straight line, how much more so a square where all the lines are equal. This alluded to the fact that one’s heart needs borders and parameters to generate clarity. It is for this reason that the Choshen atoned for perverted justice. This item reinforced and influenced people in having just and straight ways contrary to fickleness and lawlessness.
We may further suggest why on the Choshen each Shevet had a designated stone whilst on the Eiphod they were grouped together. Seeing as the Choshen represented distinctiveness and clarity, it follows that each tribe which had its own singular method of serving Hashem, should be represented with a separate stone reinforcing the individuality of each Shevet.
How do we define our hearts, and what are their borders?
Reb Chaim Halberstam of Sanz was once passing through a small town. He noticed the smell of Gan Eden emanating from one of the houses, and asked for a tour of that home. The old Jewish man living there, a Gabbai Tzedakah in charge of the village charity, was honored by this attention. He showed Reb Chaim around, but was as stymied as everyone else in pointing out the source of the smell.
“The smell is strongest in this area,” said Reb Chaim, stopping outside a clothes closet. “Please open the closet.” The charity collector was discomfited by this request, but in deference to Reb Chaim, proceeded to open the closet. All assembled were shocked to see a full priests habit hanging there.
Rabbi Chaim exclaimed, “This is it! It is from these clothes the scent of Gan Eden is emanating. How does a pious Jew such as you come to have a priests outfit? What is the story behind this?” asked Reb Chaim. The charity collector, though somewhat embarrassed at its implications, began his tale:
On one occasion I had already been through the town collecting for various causes twice in one day. That evening, a man came to me in desperation asked that I collect on his behalf. I told him that as I had already made rounds today not once but twice, and nobody would give a third time, I could not help him. He persevered imploring with copious tears, and I felt for him. I decided to ask some people whom I had not asked before, and made my way to the tavern, not for the tavern keeper, but to ask the wild dregs at the gambling table.The men at their game laughed at me, to see me back so soon. I informed them that last time I had come to ask of the tavern keeper, but this time I had come to ask them to put the winnings of their next game to a good cause. The jeered at me, and would have refused – until one of them chose to make sport of me. He told me that he and his friends would give me all the money I needed, a large sum indeed, if I would only wear the clothes of a priest, and walk with them through town for an hour. Their derision pained me, but what could I do? A man’s life was at stake, certainly that was more important than my pride. So I wore the clothes, and the people of my town plainly showed their disgust. I kept the clothes as they had enabled me in the performance of collecting Tzedakah.
“What a great deed!” Reb Chaim exclaimed. “No wonder the smell is so beautiful. When the time comes you must be buried in these clothes, and they will protect you from any avenging angels.”
Reb Sholom Schwadron adds: The charity collector was indeed buried in the priests clothing. Years later, the cemetery was dug up to make way for a developing rail system. When the charity collectors body was moved, they saw that it had not decayed except for one foot, since one of the shoes was missing from the priest’s clothes, and in that place, only his bones remained. The rest of his body remained intact.
One should change one’s clothing in honor of Shabbos.