What Does the Choshen Mishpat Teach Us About God's Relationship? | Aleph Beta

What Do The Laws Of Choshen Mishpat Teach Us About Our Relationship To God?

What Do The Laws Of Choshen Mishpat Teach Us About Our Relationship To God?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We learn in Parshat Tetzaveh about the specific laws relating to the Kohen Gadol’s Breastplate — the Choshen Mishpat, or Breastplate of Judgment. But why should we care about these esoteric and seemingly inapplicable laws? Join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu as they take a look back at Parshat Mishpatim and find an intriguing relationship to the laws of the judges. You’ll never think of Choshen Mishpat the same way again.


Imu Shalev: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Parsha Lab. I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: And I am Rabbi David Fohrman.

Imu Shalev: And this week's parsha is Tetzaveh.

Rabbi Fohrman: So it is. And Imu I have a little Tetzaveh quiz for you. Are you ready?

Imu Shalev: I love quizzes.

Law Codes or Clothing of the High Priests?

Rabbi Fohrman: Excellent. We're going to play a little Rorschach test, a little yeshiva Rorschach test right over here. I'm going to give you an item from the world of Torah and you're going to associate it with something and tell me what you think of first. Are you ready?

Imu Shalev: Did they do this at your yeshiva in general? Yeshiva Rorschach tests.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right, it's the yeshiva Rorschach. Are you ready Imu?

Imu Shalev: I'm ready.

Rabbi Fohrman: K'tzos?

Imu Shalev: K'tzos Hachoshen. K'tzos Hachoshen is a sefer that is used often to write commentary on major Talmudic sugyas.

Rabbi Fohrman: Excellent. Give that man a prize. Choshen mishpat?

Imu Shalev: Choshen Mishpat is one of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, the major law code.

Rabbi Fohrman: And now the Tur?

Imu Shalev: Tur is also a law code that predated the Shulchan Aruch. The Arba Turim.

Rabbi Fohrman: There you go. All right. Now notice that Imu answered this like any good yeshiva guy. The first things you think about are these great luminaries of Talmudic commentary, but they all come actually from vestments, from clothes of the high priest because the original choshen mishpat, the original tur, the original k'tzos hachoshen are right here in this week's parsha and they have nothing to do with books. They actually have to do with clothes.

Imu Shalev: So God named these clothing after famous law codes.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's amazing. God looked in the future, saw the law codes and figured wouldn't that be a great name for these clothes of the high priest. Something like that. Could you imagine the honor it gave each of these people to have God Himself name the clothing of the high priest after their books.

Imu Shalev: (Laughs).

Rabbi Fohrman: That's sort of the way you think about it if you are a yeshiva guy because the main thing you think in your head is the K'tzos Hachoshen, that's what I study in afternoon class and the Tur and the Choshen Mishpat, all these books. And then lo and behold, you actually read Parshat Tetzaveh and you encounter the original and it looks like the original is secondary.

So today we're going to talk with you about the original and one of the great puzzles is that we're so used to thinking about choshen mishpat, if you're in yeshiva, as something that you learn as one of the four main sections of Shulchan Aruch. You're so used to thinking of the Tur that way that you never sort of stopped and ask yourself that sort of lullaby effect question which is what the heck does that even mean.

The high priest of course has these different clothes that he wears and he's got this apron, he's got this eifod and on top of the eifod, he's got this breastplate. The breastplate is this choshen, but it's not just called a choshen, a simple breastplate. It's actually called the choshen mishpat and that's right there in Exodus 28, Verse 15. Imu, you read that verse, how would you even translate it?

What Is the Meaning of the "Breastplate of Judgment"?

Imu Shalev: Choshen mishpat, it's true. I would never really have thought about it until you mention it right now. The choshen is that breastplate with all the precious stones on it. But I realize it's the choshen mishpat, the breastplate of judgment or the justice breastplate.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. It's like Captain America with the shield or something. You know, the justice league. What exactly is that? It's such a strange thing to talk about --

Imu Shalev: It's not like the high priest is fighting crime with his breastplate.

Rabbi Fohrman: It doesn't sound like it is this great shield that he fights crime with. So what is this mishpat? So if you look actually a little bit further, we actually get a bit of a discussion or a little bit more of an elaboration as to what the choshen mishpat was. What kind of mishpat was it? Verse 30 here in Chapter 28. We actually hear something else about the choshen mishpat. Take a look at the end of that verse.

"V'nasa Aharon" and by carrying the choshen upon his body "v'nasa Aharon" he's thereby carrying "et mishpat B'nei Yisrael al libo" the mishpat of the Children of Israel upon his heart "lifnei Hashem tamid" before God always. And there the question is deepened.

We hear what this mishpat is. It's the mishpat of the Children of Israel. But then if you think, gee, how excited are you, Imu, about this notion that here is the high priest and he's got this breastplate and the sole function of the breastplate is to do this mysterious thing, to carry around the mishpat of the Children of Israel on his heart so that it's always in front of God, tamid, always. I think later on or earlier, you have this language that the mishpat is there as a zikaron, that God should remember this mishpat. It sounds, I don't know, it sounds kind of scary to me. What does it sound like to you?

Imu Shalev: It does sound kind of scary. The high priest always walking around carrying the sentence of Israel or the judgment of Israel or something like that.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. Very scary. And to think that we've got these books named after this which are all our laws and what's it named after? This reminding God of all these judgments? It's the last thing you'd want to remind God of somehow.

Imu Shalev: Unless you were like me and the best kid in the class in which case you love being judged.

Rabbi Fohrman: (Laughs).

Imu Shalev: I didn't have a lot of friends, but that's okay because the teacher was my friend.

Rabbi Fohrman: There you go. That's right. So if you're Imu then you have no fear of the judgment of the headmaster in chief, but for the rest of us it is a scary notion indeed. What do we make of this?

Imu and I were kind of chatting about this just a little bit yesterday and overnight I came up with a couple possible thoughts, Imu, and I want to sort of sling them your way and see what you and I might make of them. I'm not quite what's going on here, but I want to direct your attention to a section of text earlier in the Torah.

What I started looking around for, actually what you started looking around for was how the word mishpat is used earlier in the Torah. And in particular, I think the interesting thing is to think about the mishpat of someone. In other words, that's what we're talking about here. The choshen signifies the mishpat of the Children of Israel, the judgment of the Children of Israel. Is there a time where that phrase, the judgment of someone, is used earlier in the Bible? Does that sort of remind us of anything?

What's fascinating is that earlier in the Bible we actually have that phrase once and only once. There is only one time. Imu, you want to guess?

Biblical Connections to the Choshen Mishpat

Imu Shalev: I think I've guessed it. I'm pretty sure it's in Lot – Lot's mishpat. I have no idea.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's not there. Where you actually have mishpat earlier on is actually in Exodus 23. Take a look for a second if you could page over. I've created a little Google Doc. Maybe we'll put it in the show notes over here so you guys can see it too.

Imu Shalev: Exodus 23 is not that long ago.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's not that long ago at all. As a matter of fact, it actually is part of Parshat –

Imu Shalev: Mishpatim.

Rabbi Fohrman: There you go. Just to give the context. What happens is there's revelation at Sinai and there's these two Tablets of the law that are given and along with that "V'eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem" these are the laws, the mishpatim, that you should place before them. And then there's all these other laws that are given at revelation and here's one of those laws, one of the mishpatim that actually talks about mishpat. One of the mishpatim that talks about mishpat is right over there in Verse 6. Do you want to just read it there?

Imu Shalev: "Lo tateh mishpat evyoncha b'rivo" do not incline or make crooked the justice of the poor in his battle, in his court case, I would say.

Rabbi Fohrman: Mm-hm. So who would you say this law is addressed to? Who has to be careful about that law?

Imu Shalev: I would imagine the judge because the judge is pronouncing justice so he should not –

Rabbi Fohrman: So we're actually adjudicating and were telling the judge that he has to abide by something, that he has to be fair to the poor, that he can't sort of say conveniently that I'll give all the benefit to the rich and oppress the poor. But you can't in any way incline the mishpat. And over here mishpat sort of has another connotation. It doesn't really just mean laws, it sounds like. It sounds like you have to be just to the poor. You have to safeguard the rights of the poor in justice and make sure that you don't incline things against them b'rivo, in his argument. He's in an argument with someone. Someone presumably more powerful because an evyon is absolutely destitute, has no socioeconomic power. So you can't incline things against him.

Almost as if in your mind's eye you would imagine the evyon is down here and the rich guy is up there and if you would draw a line between the rich guy and the poor guy, what would the line look like?

Imu Shalev: Diagonal.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. Don't diagonalize it.

Imu Shalev: Oh. I didn't get that. Interesting.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's kind of cool, right? "Lo tateh mishpat" don't diagonalize this line. You have to look at them as even. There has to be an even playing field. You can't just take the socioeconomic power of the two sides into account. We're forcing the judge to take note of that.

Now here's the thing. I thought that was kind of interesting. Here the one time you have mishpat of someone earlier in the Torah before the choshen mishpat of the Children of Israel is this time "lo tateh mishpat evyoncha b'rivo". And the subject of this is the judges and the judge has to be careful not to diagonalize the mishpat of the evyon. Now think about lo tateh which could also mean either do not diagonalize or do not move. You cannot move it. You cannot incline it from its place.

Now think about the laws of the choshen mishpat on the heart of the high priest. So it just turns out, Imu –

Imu Shalev: Ah.

Rabbi Fohrman: You see that?

Imu Shalev: I do.

Rabbi Fohrman: Isn't that wild?

Imu Shalev: That is.

Rabbi Fohrman: All right. What was that about, Imu, that little ah? What did you just find about the choshen?

Laws of the Kohen Gadol’s Breastplate

Imu Shalev: Well it seems to say that there's this weird command that I never would've noticed that "v'lo yizach hachoshen mei'al ha'eifod", the choshen, the breastplate is supposed to be installed on the eifod which is this apron or tunic that the high priest was wearing, one of his eight garments. And the choshen you had to make sure that it didn't move, that it was... what's a good translation for yizach?

Rabbi Fohrman: It can't shift in place. It has to be affixed there. It can't move.

Imu Shalev: It can't tilt.

Rabbi Fohrman: It can't tilt. Isn't that something?

Imu Shalev: That's really interesting.

Rabbi Fohrman: Here you've got the one time we talked about the mishpat of someone, the mishpat of the evyon and it can't tilt and all of the sudden we have this vestment of the high priest that expresses the mishpat of the Children of Israel and lo and behold, it can't tilt.

Imu Shalev: It's like the fashion version of that law of not tilting justice ends up being that you can't, the breastplate can't move.

Rabbi Fohrman: And the funny thing is who was that law addressed to about the law of not tilting? Who had to make sure not to tilt?

Imu Shalev: It's the judge. So seemingly here, it seems like what you're saying is that The Judge with a capital J, God – is that what you're saying? It's almost like –

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, that's exactly where I'm going.

Imu Shalev: It's for Him to see. It's for Him to behold the justice of the Children of Israel, the mishpat –

Rabbi Fohrman: Who's much weaker than Him and it's like be careful with us.

Imu Shalev: So Aaron is sort of like the lawyer. "V'nasa Aharon et mishpat B'nei Yisrael" he's the one bearing the verdict or the justice of the Children of Israel "al libo" on his heart. He has to make sure to keep it on his heart before God. As it says "lifnei Hashem tamid" and that it can't be crooked. It can't tilt.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Close to his heart as if it's a lawyer with heart like Atticus Finch – is that his name?

Imu Shalev: It is.

Rabbi Fohrman: In "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Imu Shalev: "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. A good lawyer, somebody who cares and if it matters to Aaron and Aaron shows up before God, then it's going to matter to God and God, you have this fascinating thing. You have a commandment that the whole purpose of which is addressed to God to be careful about violating our rights.

Imu Shalev: What's interesting is the very next verse, Verse 29, and I think we didn't read it yet, is "V'nasa Aharon et shmot B'nei Yisrael b'choshen hamishpat". What he's bearing on his heart isn't just the choshen; it's the names of the People of Israel. The 12 tribes were inscribed on each of the stones.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. And you know and I at Aleph Beta land have done a lot of work about this notion of name. Names are tricky in the Torah. We talked a lot about yibum and about this notion of preserving one's name. And one of the common denominators I think we found is that when someone's in it for themselves about preserving their own name, there's something selfish about that, but there is no greater selflessness than to try to be out there and to preserve someone else's name. What's the high priest doing?

Imu Shalev: He's the lead defense attorney.

Rabbi Fohrman: It is kind of fascinating and I want to actually mention one last thing to you which is that this choshen is tied to something that makes sure it doesn't move. Physically there's a way that it doesn't move because there are these rings on the choshen and then there's these chains that go up from the choshen and where do the chains get fastened? They get fastened –

Imu Shalev: On his shoulders.

Rabbi Fohrman: On his shoulders. And what's on his shoulders?

Imu Shalev: Two more precious stones.

Rabbi Fohrman: The choshen has 12 stones. There's two stones on his shoulders that it gets fastened to. What written on those two stones?

Imu Shalev: Six names of the tribes on each shoulder so all 12 tribes in total as opposed to on the choshen which each stone gets its own name. Six and six.

Rabbi Fohrman: Almost as if you have got two shoulders and the tribes are divided into six and six and somehow that comes together over one heart, all 12, and the way it doesn't move are with these two stones.

The Deeper Meaning Behind the Kohen Gadol’s Breastplate

Imu Shalev: It's very vivid imagery. He's literally bearing the names of Israel on his shoulders and on his heart.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. He cares about them with his heart, sort of carrying them –

Imu Shalev: Takes responsibility.

Rabbi Fohrman: Taking responsibility for them on his shoulders. And if you actually look at that language over here "shishah mishmotam al ha'even ha'achat v'et shmot hashishah hanotarim al ha'even hasheinit k'toldotam" and these are known as avnei zikaron. These are stones of memory. It's like this sort of Harry Potteresque magical thing that these are stones of memory. Then you sort of think whose memory? They are "nasa Aharon et shmotam lifnei Hashem" Aaron is carrying these names before God "al shtei k'teifav l'zikaron". And you sort of ask yourself as he's carrying these names, who is the one being addressed? Whose memory are we seeking to sort of jog?

Imu Shalev: It sounds crazy to say this, but it feels like God because the verse keeps saying "l'zikaron lifnei Hashem" the memory before God.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. It does. And now lifnei Hashem is kind of interesting too because in the context of the Tabernacle, what is lifnei Hashem? Where does God reside in the Tabernacle?

Imu Shalev: In the kodesh kadashim. He hovers in a cloud above the Ark in between the two cherubim.

Rabbi Fohrman: And what's in the Ark?

Imu Shalev: Two stones. The two Tablets. Interesting. Luchot even.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. And what's written on those two Tablets.

Imu Shalev: Laws.

Rabbi Fohrman: Laws, mishpatim.

Imu Shalev: Interesting. So what's the connection between the two stones in the Ark and the two stones worn by the high priest?

Rabbi Fohrman: So it almost sounds like there are these two sets of two stones. There's God's set. God says look I've got these things that are really important to Me. They are these laws. Keep these laws and always remember Me and remember these laws. By the way, we've got a commandment to remember the laws. We have something we wear on our clothes to remember the laws. What are you supposed to wear every day to remember the laws of God?

Imu Shalev: Tzitzit, arba k'tzot.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. So we've got these tzitzit on our four corners and we've got, of course, our four corners of the choshen k'tzot hachoshen.

Imu Shalev: The k'tzot hachoshen and you have –

Rabbi Fohrman: Is there a vestment of the high priest that reminds you of tzitzit?

Imu Shalev: Tzitz.

Rabbi Fohrman: There is a word tzitz. We actually find that in Verse 36. "V'asita tzitz zahav tahor" this sort of headband out of gold is upon his face and what's fascinating is in our tzitzit, when we remember the commands of God, we look at the tzitzit, but what's the one thing you can't look at? Your own headband. You just can't look at your own headband, but who can look at it?

Imu Shalev: It's not for you. It's for anyone who sees you.

Rabbi Fohrman: And who sees you in the Kodesh Kadashim where no one else is allowed, but you?

Imu Shalev: Only God.

Rabbi Fohrman: Only God. I've got my tzitzit and God's got His.

Imu Shalev: Wow.

Rabbi Fohrman: I look at God's commandments and God looks at my mishpat. God looks at my tzitz. Look at what's on it, Imu. Verse 36 "V'asita tzitz zahav tahor." What are you supposed to put on that? Look at Verse 37, the very next verse that talks about what goes with the tzitz.

Imu Shalev: That's so cool. "V'samta oto al p'til t'cheilet." Wow. That's very cool. It has a blue string which the tzitzit also had a p'til t'cheilet, a blue string. Wow.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's exactly right. It's got the blue string. So what's this all about?

Finding Spiritual Meaning in the Choshen Misphat Laws

Rabbi Fohrman: It's about memory. It's about remembering. But it's not just us who are supposed to remember mishpat; it's God Who's supposed to remember mishpat too.

It's like God's saying here's my commands. Remember them. And you think oh my God. I got to remember Your commands, 613. What if I fail? I'm going to get creamed. You're so powerful and I'm this little nothing. Then God says yeah, I know you're a little nothing. I know. You're like an evyon and I'm really powerful, but there's a law about evyons. A law addressed to judges and the law that we address to judges is you got to be really careful when there's somebody who tries his best to keep the laws but doesn't have any power. "Lo tateh mishpat evyoncha b'rivo" don't incline mishpat against the evyon. Don't look at the power dynamic and assume it's a diagonal. You've got to somehow equalize it. He's doing his best.

Then there is this moment where we take our two stones and put them next to God's two stones and we tell God you know what, we've got our mishpat too. We've got something that's important to us too. What's important to you are these laws. What's important to us is our names. We don't want to get wiped out. We want to have some sort of legacy in the world. And God says yes. Take that and fasten that with chains together to this choshen mishpat, to this thing, this choshen of mishpat on the breastplate of your lawyer-in-chief, of your Atticus Finch, who is going to have that breastplate that will not move, that will not incline, and place that. The one who's supposed to look at that, like the one who's supposed to look at the tzitz is Me. This is a law addressed to Me, to be careful with your mishpat, to be careful with your rights.

Imu Shalev: This is incredible. It's almost like we're in a marriage. It's almost like we're connected. He has His vestments. We have our vestments. It's like I pictured a wedding ring. I wear my wedding ring. He wears His wedding ring. There's the tzitzit. There's the tefillin. There's the bigdei kehunah for God, for God to actually behold and have His tzitzit and his tefillin. That's really cool.

Rabbi Fohrman: If you even think about the tefillin like you mentioned, there's that tefillin sort of imagery here in these vestments also because there's the two stones that are over, my shoulders are between my head and then there's the choshen on my heart and then there's the tefillin. It's almost like God's tefillin for Him to remember. Our tefillin helps us remember His law. This is almost like a kind of tefillin of God to help Him to remember our mishpat, the mishpat of the Children of Israel and to be careful with it.

Imu Shalev: You know, just a really interesting thing you bring about the two stones on the shoulders and the two stones, the Tablets. It reminds me of a Midrash I forget where that says that the luchot avanim were actually – when you picture the two Tablets, you picture them as stone, but the Midrash says that they were made out of precious gemstone and that Moses got to keep the shavings, the etchings and that's what made him a very rich man. But this might be a really interesting proof that the stones were precious stones because if they were meant to mirror the two gemstones on the high priest's shoulders then of course the luchot avanim were precious gemstones.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's very interesting. Of course the preciousness of the gemstones, I think, suggests the preciousness of what's being given. For God law is precious, for us our names are precious and there's mishpat facing off to mishpat. We'll do our best to keep Your laws and You do Your best to honor our attempt to do so and not incline things against us given Your great power and our great lack of power in Your face. There's a sense that we are the evyon in the relationship.

There may be something happy about that because if you take that idea of marriage, of relationship, the idea of "lo tateh mishpat evyon" is that even though we're a nothing, you don't want to be a nothing in your relationship with your spouse. You want to be a something. And if it's "lo tateh mishpat evyon" and sort of create this equal playing field, it's almost like God artificially creates a certain kind of equality between us in a willingness to safeguard our rights in this relationship and maybe that too is something healthy and wonderful for a spousal kind of relationship between us.

Imu Shalev: Beautiful. Rabbi Fohrman, there are many secrets hidden in these parshiyot of Terumah, Tetzaveh, the implements and the vestments. So many incredible, incredible things. Thank you Rabbi Fohrman for podding with me today.

Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you Imu for podding with me and we'll see you guys all again next week.

Imu Shalev: Yes. And please make sure to share this podcast with friends and to comment. So write to us info@alephbeta.org. And we look forward to seeing you next week.

Rabbi Fohrman: See you then.

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