Tetzavveh: Flower on the Forehead

February 13, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Tetzavveh | Leave a comment

Garments of High Priest

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Some of the unique items the high priest wears, such as his sky-blue robe, add to his awe-inspiring appearance.1  Others items described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You shall command”), have an additional purpose; for example, the high priest wears a gem-studded choshen on his breast, and uses it to consult God with yes or no questions.2

Another item that only the high priest wears is a tzitz tied to his forehead.

And you shall make a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall engrave on it with engraving like a chotam: “Holy to God”.  You shall put it on a cord of sky-blue.  And it shall be on the turban; at the front of the turban it shall be.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-37)

tzitz (צִיץ) = a flower.  (Plural: either tzitz or tzitztim (צִצִּים).  From the root verb tzutz (צוּץ) = bloom.3  Another word from the same root is tzitzit (צִיצִּת) = tassel, fringe, or lock of hair.)

chotam (חֺתָם) = cylindrical seal or signet ring, carved to impress a design on damp clay that serves as the wearer’s signature.  (From the root verb chatam (חתם) = to affix a seal, to confirm, to close up securely.)

The noun tzitz appears 16 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first three times, tzitz refers to the gold engraved object the high priest wears on his forehead.4  The word tzitz next appears when God orders a demonstration to prove who deserves authority over the Israelites.  If the leader of each of the twelve tribes leaves his wooden staff inside the tent-sanctuary overnight, God will make the staff of the winner sprout buds.  In the morning:

Hey!  The staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had budded, and it had brought forth buds, and it had bloomed tzitz, and it had produced almonds.  (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)

In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, a tzitz is a flower.  In King Solomon’s temple, tzitzim are carved into wood panels for ornamentation.5   In five places where the word tzitz appears, humans are compared to wildflowers that quickly wilt and die.6  When Isaiah rails against rich drunkards, he describes their heads as crowned with wilted flowers.7

But the high priest’s head is crowned with a flower made out of gold.  The Torah assumes that this object, as well as the high priesthood, will continue indefinitely, passing from one man to the next.

The gold tzitz must have a flat surface where the words “Holy to God” are engraved, as well as two small holes for attaching the blue cord, but otherwise the design is a matter of speculation.  Flavius Josephus, describing the sacred items stored in a Roman treasury after the sack of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., wrote that around the high priest’s headdress was:

Hyoscyamus albus

… a golden crown polished, of three rows, one above another; out of which arose a cup of gold, which resembled the herb which we call ‘saccharis,’ but those Greeks that are skillful in botany call it ‘hyoscyamus.’  … a flower that may seem to resemble that of the poppy.  Of this was a crown made … [it] did not cover the forehead, but it was covered with a ‘golden plate,’ which had inscribed upon it the name of God in sacred characters.8

Several centuries later the rabbis of the Talmud described the tzitz as a kind of smooth plate of gold, and its width is two fingerbreadths, and it encircles the forehead from ear to ear.”  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosei added: “I saw it in the Caesar’s treasury in the city of Rome and Sacred to God was written on one line.”9

Whether the gold object tied to the high priest’s forehead is an engraved band with a gold flower rising up from it, or a flower-shaped gold medallion with engraving in the center, it is more than a symbol.  This week’s Torah portion continues:

And it shall be on the forehead of Aaron, and Aaron shall lift off any transgression from the holy things which the Israelites make holy, from all their holy gifts.  And it shall be on his forehead perpetually, for their acceptance before God.  (Exodust 28:38)

Just by wearing the tzitz on his forehead, the high priest compensates for any accidental ritual impurity in the people’s offerings to God at the altar.

How?  The words “Holy to God” are a double reminder.  The Israelites seeing it would remember that the whole purpose of their ritual sacrifices is to make themselves holy—i.e., to dedicate themselves to God above all other purposes.  This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold medallion the way an identity seal is carved.

The words on the tzitz also remind God to treat the people as sacred.  “Holy to God”, according to Rabbi Elie Munk, “relays a message of Divine love by proclaiming Israel as a nation consecrated to God.  Yet, it is also a reminder of Israel’s permanent duty to strive every closer to the ideal of holiness.  The Tzitz expresses both Divine love and Israel’s moral obligations.”10

*

The high priest’s tzitz could be viewed narrowly as a magical object designed to ensure conformity to God’s rules about ritual purity.  Or it could be viewed as an aesthetic object inspiring a feeling of spiritual elevation.

But Munk points out that love and moral obligations are more important than conformity or spirituality.  What good is a religious object if we are not kind and helpful to our fellow human beings?

So the built-in symbolism of the tzitz matters after all.  Gold is the most precious metal in the Torah, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary.  A flower is one of God’s most beautiful creations, and also one of the most evanescent.  Yet after a flower wilts, its fruit becomes the source of seeds for new life.

The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a possible permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”.  (See my post Beshellach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)  And the words “Holy to God” are to be carved in relief on the tzitz, like the symbol of identity carved on a chotam, a seal.  Thus the identity of God is confirmed and secured.

The flower and God’s name both remind us that our universe is always becoming.  Flowers wilt, but the spirit of God goes on creating as seeds fall and new plants bloom.

May we all walk through life as if we wear an invisible tzitz, dedicating ourselves to life despite death, to change rather than stagnation, to growth instead of destruction.  And may we all be kind to each another on the path of becoming.

(An earlier version of this post was published in February, 2011.)

  1. Exodus 28:31. The sky-blue dye is techelet; see my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
  2. Exodus 28:30. The choshen is a stiff rectangular pocket attached with gold rings and blue cords to the front of the high priest’s tabard (eifod).  On the outside front surface, over his chest, the choshen bears twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Inside the pocket of the choshen are the urim and tummim, used to divine God’s answers to yes/no questions.  (See Judges 20:27-28, 1 Samuel 23:9-12, 1 Samuel 30:7-8.)
  3. Out of nine occurrences of the verb tzutz in the Hebrew Bible, all but one clearly refer to budding or blooming. The questionable reference is in Song of Songs 2:9, in which the woman describes her male beloved as “This one, standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, meitzitz through the lattices.”  Meitzitz ((מֵצִײץ is usually translated as “peering” rather than “blooming”.  But this is the poem that says the beloved woman’s teeth are “like a flock of sheep climbing up from the washing pool” and her forehead is “like a slice of pomegranate”.  (Songs 4:2-3)  Maybe her lover is “blooming” through the lattices, like an eager flowering vine.
  4. Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9.
  5. 1 Kings 6:18, 6:29, 6:32, 6:35.
  6. Isaiah 40:6, 40:7, 40:8; Psalm 103:15; Job 14:2.
  7. Isaiah 28:1, 28:4. Tzitz also appears in Jeremiah 48:9.
  8. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baltimore, 1835, book III, chapter VII, p. 71.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 63b, in the William Davidson Talmud, Koren Noe Edition, sefaria.org/Shabbat.63a?lang=bi.
  10. Rabbi Eli Munk (20th-century), The Call of the Torah: Shemos, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publictions, Ltd., Brooklyn, 2001, p. 405.

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