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Vayakhel~Pekudai: The Breastplate-Canyon Connection – Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Exodus 35:24 – They attached (וַיִרְכְּסוּ) the Breastplate (Choshen) from its rings to the rings of the Ephod with a turquoise string, so that it would remain above the belt of the Ephod, and the Breastplate would not be loosened from above the Ephod, as G-d had commanded Moses .

In a literally identical (save for vocalization) sentence above (ibid. 28:28), the Torah commanded that the Choshen be attached to the Ephod, using the verb וְיִרְכְּסוּ. It repeats its use of this term in this verse, which discusses the Israelites’ fulfillment of this command. In his comments on this term, Rashi defines וַיִרְכְּסוּ as an expression of connection, and cites two additional instances in which this expression appears in Scripture with a similar meaning: i) [Shelter them in the cover of Your countenance] from the רֻכְסֵי of man (Psalms 31:21) means from the evil gangs who join together in order to harm them. ii) And the רְכָסִים will become valley (Isaiah 40:4) means “the mountains that so closely abut each other that one can only descend to the valley between them with great difficulty since their closeness makes that valley steep and deep — will become a flat valley that is easy to walk in.”

We find an additional allusion to the meaning “connection” if the root letters “רכס” are rearranged to form the root “סרך”, which also connotes attachment/connection in the Talmudic vernacular, as Rashi explains concerning the word סריך (Gittin 69a), and the word מסריך (Yev. 121b). The root סרך is itself derived from the Hebrew word שְׂרוֹך, strap/lace (see Genesis 14:23), which in its Aramaic form is spelled with a “ס” in place of the “שׂ” [see “משריכן” (harness straps) in Shab 53a].

All the commentators agree that “וירכסו” refers to connection in some general sense, since that is implied by this verse, which states that the Choshen was connected from above to the Ephod with chains between their respective rings, and that they were also connected via rings from below, although this connection was with a turquoise string. However, they differ in how they define the underlying root “רכס” that links the meanings of the word in these verses. According to Ibn Ezra, the root meaning of “רכס” is distortion/deformity, with its specific meaning in our verse being a “connection via entwining” (while the Isaiah verse refers to “uneven sites” becoming a smooth valley, and the Psalms verse refers to “crooked people”). Ribag sees the underlying root as strength/power, with וַיִרְכְּסוּ meaning that the Choshen was “reinforced by attaching it to the Ephod” (while the Isaiah verse refers to “tall, rugged mountains,” and the Psalms verse refers to “tough people”). Radak sees the underlying root as height, with וַיִרְכְּסוּ meaning that the Choshen was lifted up so that it could be connected to the Ephod from below (while the Isaiah verse refers to “tall mountains,” and the Psalms verse refers to “conceited people who think highly of themselves”). [This view is also supported by Sharshos Kesef.] To Malbim, the underlying root is a tight connection between two objects that necessitates a by-pass route, with וַיִרְכְּסוּ meaning that the Choshen was connected tightly to the Ephod (while the רְכָסִים in the Isaiah verse refers to “mountains so closely connected that one must travel around them,” and the רֻכְסֵי in the Psalms verse means man’s evil inclination and desires, which are so called because, like the aforementioned רְכָסִים, they force man off of the straight path). Finally, Yerios Shlomo explains that Rashi defines the root as “a perfectly aligned connection that does not protrude in any direction” (with the Isaiah verse referring to “mountains that jut out in perfect alignment opposite each other, leaving no possibility of passing between them,” and the Psalms verse referring to “untruthful people, who make an effort to align their statements perfectly to make them appear truthful”). He sees this explanation as serving to reconcile Rashi’s interpretation with that of the other commentators.

The emphasis by Radak and Sharshos Kesef on the aspect of height and elevation in their definition of וַיִרְכְּסוּ is especially interesting in light of the second part of the verse, which warns: and the Breastplate shall not יִזַח from above the Ephod. The word יִזַח has no parallel in Scripture. Nonetheless, most of the commentators interpret this word in the sense of separation. Ramban and Chizkuni equate it with יִסַח (using the exchange of the similarly produced “tongue” letters, ז-ס-ש-ר-ץ), relating it to the words יִסְּחוּ (Proverbs 2:22) and יִסַּח (ibid. 15:25), which mean separation and breaking apart. Hence, it matches the first half of the verse, as Scripture says that they shall connect the Choshen to the Ephod in such a manner that it will not be able to separate from it. Indeed, according to Rambam (Negative Commandment 87), the Torah does not merely provide a reason why the Choshen must be attached to the Ephod, but actually issues a separate command that the Choshen may not be removed from the Ephod.

Radak (under root “זחח”) also agrees that יִזַח refers to removal. However, in keeping with his interpretation of וְיִרְכְּסוּ in the first half of the verse as connection via lifting, he also ties the word יִזַח to elevation: “The meaning of and the Choshen shall not יִזַח [from upon the Ephod] is that ‘it shall not be raised above,’ i.e., you shall not remove or lift it off of the Ephod. Similarly, when our Sages state (Chullin 7a), ‘Once the זְחוּחֵי of heart became numerous,’ it refers to ‘the conceited and elevated hearts.’” Thus, in Radak’s view, יִזַח connotes lifting up in the sense of removal/separation.

To gain a fuller understanding of Radak’s definition, which is based on the words of our Sages in Chullin 7a, let us look at a more extensive quote from that gemara: “[Rebbe said:] ‘In my case as well, my forefathers left a place [in Halachah] for me to stand out [by making a groundbreaking ruling].’ We see from here that a if Torah sage issues a halachic declaration, we are not מזיחין him (we should not separate him from his statement by demanding that he retract it — Rashi); others quoted this teaching as stating that ‘we are not מזניחין it’ (we must not make abominable his declaration by denigrating it — Rashi); and others quoted this teaching as stating that ‘we are not מזחיחין him’ (we must not make him elevated, i.e., say that it was due to his haughtiness that he failed to heed what his teachers said and issued this newly lenient ruling — Rashi). The one who said [the correct version is] מזיחין, meant it in the sense of the verse (Exodus 28:28), and the Choshen shall not יזח (be lifted off) from above the Ephod; the one who said [the correct version is] מזניחין, meant it in the sense of that which is written (Lamentations 3:31), For the Lord does not (יִזְנַח) reject forever; and the one who said [the correct version is] מזחיחין, meant it in the sense of what we are taught (Tosefta, Sotah 14:9), ‘Once the זְחוּחֵי of heart became numerous, there were numerous quarrels among the people of Israel.” Thus, although Rashi defines each of the three versions of the term — מזיחין, מזניחין, מזחיחין — differently, there is arguably an underlying link between all three. They all connote some aspect of separation: מזיחין, via its literal definition; מזניחין, since make him abominable essentially means separating from him due to his repugnance; and מזחיחין, since make him elevated essentially entails separating from him due to his haughtiness. Indeed, Ribag (root “זחח”) makes just such a link: “What we derive from all this is that מזיחין, מזניחין and מזחיחין all connote the same notion, namely, repulsion and withdrawal from.

In any case, according to Radak’s comments, the term יִזַח, like its parallel word זְחוּחֵי in the Talmud, is primarily an expression of elevation, with the connotation of removal/separation merely being a secondary aspect of this act of elevation. [Interestingly, in discussing the “removal” of the Choshen from the Ephod, the Talmud (Yoma 72a) does not use a word like הסרה (removal) or ניתוק (severance): “One who is מזיח the Choshen from above the Ephod … is flogged, for it is stated, And he shall not יִזַח the Choshen from above the Ephod.” Perhaps the reason is similar to that which we have discussed here — that the aspect of removal is merely a secondary result of the elevation.]

In fact, this parallel link between the concepts of elevation and removal can also be found in three other words that connote ascent and elevation [namely, the roots עלה, נשא and רמם] : 1) In the verse (Genesis 2:6), A mist ascended (יַעֲלֶה) from the earth, Onkelos translates the word יַעֲלֶה as סַלִיק (departed). 2) The word “נשא”, which denotes elevation and ascent, also has a meaning of elimination and removal, as the author of HaKetav VeHakaballah demonstrates from various locations in Scripture in his comments to Numbers 14:18, which describes G-d as נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן, Forgiver of iniquity. Explaining why נֹשֵׂא, which translates literally as One Who lifts up, means Forgiver here, he notes: “Onkelos translates it as שָׁבִיק, leaves go of, while Yonasan ben Uziel translates it as שָׁרִי, pardon. We already find the expression נשׂא referring to the notion of cancellation or removal [in the verse] for then my Maker יִשָּׂאֵנִי (Job 32:22), [which] Rashi interprets as ‘will remove Me from the world’; and from this (II Samuel 5:21): And [the Philistines] left their idols there, וַיִּשָּׂאֵם David and his men, [which means] that ‘he removed and eliminated the idols from the world; likewise, וַתִּשָּׂא the earth from before Him (Nahum 1:5): [Rashi interprets וַתִּשָּׂא as] it vanished and disappeared, and Onkelos’s translation is it was destroyed; and from this (II Samuel 14:14): but G-d does not יִשָּׂא a soul, i.e., He does not wish to eliminate and remove the soul, but rather wishes that “the evil one will repent from his ways, and live.” [Similarly, the phrase נְשּׂוּי פֶּשַׁע (Psalms 32:1), which means one whose transgression is forgiven, is translated by Alshich as “one whose transgression is forgotten.”]. One final example of the connection between elevation and removal is illustrated in the word הרומו, which normally would mean to raise, but in the following verse bears the meaning of removal:  Remove yourselves (הֵרֹמּוּ) from this congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant (Numbers 17:10).

In any case, given Radak’s emphasizing the aspect of elevation in the definitions of both וַיִרְכְּסוּ and יִזַח, he apparently explains the verse as follows: Lift up the Choshen so that you shall be able to attach it to the belt of the Ephod; however, do not raise it excessively to the point where it is impossible to connect it to the Ephod from below.

Returning to the word יִזַח, a similar term, מֵזַח, is found several times in Scripture. Most commentators define the word מֵזַח either as a belt or strength. In his comments on the words מֵזַח in Isaiah 23:10 and Psalms 109:19, and the word וּמְזִיחַ in Job 12:21, Rashi interprets them as to mean a belt, but also notes that a belt itself usually symbolizes strength (similar to the dual meaning of “gird” in English). By contrast, Radak explains that their basic definition is strength and power, but since a belt fastens and strengthens one’s loins, it too is called a מֵזַח. Now, Menachem, links the word מֵזַח and the word יִזַח, placing both of them in the same category, under the root “זח” (as per his custom of limiting roots to two letters only). However, since Rashi and Radak define מֵזַח as strengthening and fastening, whereas יִזַח relates to separation, one would not seem to think of them as being of related roots. Indeed, Dunash ben Labrat (on p. 60 of his Sefer HaTeshuvos) refutes both Menachem’s assignment of “מזח” to a 2-letter root “זח”, and his linkage of “מזח” and יִזַח, arguing that the “מ” in “מזח” is a part of its root, and that יִזַח is a separate Arabic term meaning separate, or slip away. Rashi to our verse, in a rare instance, supports Dunash over his disputant Menachem and defines יִזַח as an Arabic term meaning severance. [Radak and Ribag also list יִזַח under the separate 3-letter root “זחח”.]

However, the aforementioned Ramban solves the mysterious word יִזַח by equating it to the word “יסח” by way of exchanging the letters “ז” and “ס” (based on the similar letters ז-ס-ש-ר-ץ, which are formed between the tongue and the teeth) and defining it as meaning separation and breaking apart. Like Menachem, he finds a Hebrew equivalent for it in the verse, and may it be for a מֵזַח with which he constantly girds himself (Psalms 109:19). While retaining its literal definition as a belt, he suggests that it may also imply severance and breaking apart, like יִזַח: “Perhaps, [since the preceding verse states that the scheming maligner shall don curse like his garment,] this verse is saying that he shall gird himself constantly with the curse, as others gird themselves with their belts, until he is destroyed and broken apart by it.” [Thus, Ramban links the opposing notions of attachment and breaking apart in the same word. We find a similar example in Ribag’s definition of the root “נקף”, which alludes to both surrounding and cutting off.]

Malbim (Isaiah 23:10) also tries to interpret the word יִזַח based on a comparison to “מזח”, by explaining that they have a common aspect of elevation: “The word ‘מזח’, as in the verse, and may it be for a מֵזַח with which he constantly girds himself (Psalms 109:19), connotes a belt that girds the body. But what differentiates a מֵזַח from [the standard terms for a belt,] an אֵזוֹר and an אַבְנֵט, is that a מֵזַח is a belt that one ties around long clothes in order to elevate them, so that they will be appropriate for his size. Just as in the expression, and the Choshen shall not יִזַח from above the Ephod, which refers to elevation, so does a מֵזַח lift up his clothes. Similarly, we find in Aramaic, the term זְחוּחֵי הַלֵב, raised hearts (i.e., conceited). Likewise, it says (ibid.) And he shall don curse כְּמַדוֹ, meaning that the curse should be like his size (מִדָה). [As the verse then continues,] May it be to him like a garment in which he wraps himself, and a מֵזַח with which he constantly girds himself — i.e., although it is customary for a garment to sometimes be longer than his body, the curse itself shall be like a מֵזַח which raises up the garment, so that it should fit his body size perfectly. This term is also used in a borrowed sense in reference to the banks of an island, which rise up from amidst the sea and gird the sea so that it should not ascend onto the island. [The banks are] the מֵזַח that keeps the island elevated above the water, and girds the sea. It is not a big stretch to explain the verse (Job 12:21), He pours scorn upon nobles, and loosens the מְזִיחַ of the אֲפִיקִים, as follows: אֲפִיקִים means springs (as in כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶגֶב), and G-d will loosen and remove the “belt” that begirds the springs of water, and [the waters] will flood the land portions of the rich, and in this manner will pour scorn upon them, as they will end up without any of their wealth.

Perhaps we can propose a third link between these two aspects. Our verse states: They attached (וַיִרְכְּסוּ) the Choshen from its rings to the rings of the Ephod with a turquoise woolen cord, so that it would remain above the belt of the Ephod, and the Choshen would not be disengaged (יִזַח) from above the Ephod, as G-d had commanded Moses. Thus, since the Torah specifies that the attachment of the Choshen to the Ephod from below be solely through a turquoise string, its aim is seemingly not to create a complete attachment. Had that been the case, the Torah would have commanded that they be directly tied or fastened together, or at least to link them with chains, like the top of the Choshen. Rather, this connection was to be similar to רכסים, the mountains that are adjacent to each other but not actually attached. Consequently, the expression וְלֹא יִזַח is meant to connote both aspects of its meaning: 1) On the one hand, it should not be elevated above the Ephod, as the threads of the turquoise cord keep it attached from below. 2) On the other hand, the Choshen is not to be attached to the Ephod in the manner of a מֵזַח, which is tightly fastened. That is, the threads keep the Choshen from being elevated above the belt of the Ephod, but the warning not to be יִזַח alludes that we must also avoid making the attachment excessive.

Yet another perspective on the unbreakable link between the Choshen and the Ephod is presented in the “Daf al Daf” commentary to Erachin 16a. Our Sages teach us that the Choshen atoned for the sins of the Jewish people in monetary matters, while the Ephod atoned for their sins of idolatry. Thus, the Ephod atoned for the most fundamental sin between man and G-d (bein adam la’Makom), whereas the Choshen atoned for a most fundamental sin between man and his fellow (bein adam la’chaveiro). [Chasam Sofer states in his commentary to Exodus 28:16 that Aaron merited to atone for Israel’s monetary injustices because he himself did beyond what the law required in all matters of dispute with his fellow Jew.] Therefore, the Torah commanded that the Choshen not be separated from the Ephod, in order to emphasize that one may not differentiate between the commandments between man and G-d, and the commandments between man and his fellow. One may not be “good to Heaven” but bad to his fellow men, nor vice versa; both types of commandments are inextricably related.

In this light, we can perhaps explain why this connection had to be through a turquoise string. Discussing the uniqueness of this color, the Talmud states (Sotah 17a) that it was due to our forefather Avraham’s refusal to take so much as a “thread” to a shoestrap (Genesis 14:23) from the King of Sodom as compensation for saving his country, that his descendants merited “the ‘thread’ of turquoise wool,” i.e., the commandment of tzitzis. The Gemara goes on to explain why the thread of tzitzis must be precisely from turquoise wool: “R. Meir used to say: Why is turquoise specified from all the varieties of colors? Because turquoise resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the color of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the color of] the Throne of Glory, as it is stated, They saw the G-d of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity (Exodus 24:10), and it is written, the appearance of a sapphire stone in the likeness of a throne (Ezekiel 1:26).” In other words, by fulfilling this commandment, a person becomes connected to some degree with the Divine Presence (see Rashi, ad loc.).

In this light, we can perhaps explain the unique form of the lower connection of the Choshen to the Ephod. Avraham Avinu, in all of his actions — whether those related to man’s relationship with G-d, or those affecting interpersonal relations — desired to fulfill the will of G-d and thus become more closely attached to the Holy Throne in heaven. Therefore, the link between the Choshen and the Ephod — which symbolizes the linkage between these two categories of commandments — is not a tight and strictly fastened connection (מזיח) through gold chains; rather, it is merely achieved through material threads, in order to teach us that in order to sanctify G-d’s Name one need not invest a huge fortune, but can accomplish it even through the simplest of objects — threads and shoestraps. Such a connection to the Throne of Glory also protects one from haughtiness (זחיחות), because the entire world is but an expression of G-d’s Glory, while we are “but dust and ash.”

May it be the will of G-d that soon, in our own time, we merit seeing the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wearing the Choshen and Ephod, serving G-d in the rebuilt Temple and atoning for the sins of his nation, Amen.


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