Tetzavveh: Holy Flower

April 11, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Tetzavveh | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2011.)

You will make a flower of pure gold, and you will engrave on it a relief carving like a seal: Holy to God.  You will place it upon a cord of sky-blue and it will be upon the turban; in front of the face of the turban it will be. (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-7)

tzitz = a flower, blossoms, buds; a sprouting, a visible protrusion, a glint; a “plate” tied to the high priest’s turban.

Last week’s instructions for making the menorah (lamp-stand) for the inner sanctum included ornamentation with almond flowers shaped out of gold.  This week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you will command”), gives instructions for the elaborate ritual garments of the priests.  The high priest wears several unique items, including a tzitz tied to the front of his turban.

The noun tzitz and its plural, tzitzim, appear only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.  The first three times, tzitz refers to whatever is on the front of the high priest Aaron’s turban (Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9).  The next appearance of tzitz probably means “blossoms”:

On the next day, Moses came into the Tent of the Covenant, and behold, the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; and it produced sprouts, and it blossomed “tzitz”, and it bore almonds.  (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)

After that, tzitz clearly refers to buds or flowers.  The four appearances of the plural, tzitzim, in the description of the temple King Solomon built (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32, 35) all refer to ornamental motifs carved into wood.  Some interior walls have wood-carvings of gourd-shapes and bud-cases of “tzitzim”, while other walls and two pairs of doors have wood-carvings of cherubim, palm-tree ornaments, and bud-cases of “tzitztim”.  And when the word tzitz appears in the poetry of prophets, it means “flowers”.  For example:  All flesh is grass/ and all its loyalty is like “tzitz” of the field …  Grass withers, “tzitz” fall/ but the word of our God lives forever.  (Isaiah/Yeshayahu 40:6, 8)

So why do many translations call the tzitz on the high priest’s forehead a “plate”?  Probably because of the way Flavius Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian who settled in Rome and wrote in Greek) described the high priest’s turban he saw after the sack of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  Josephus wrote that the turban was encircled with a gold crown that resembled a poppy flower, except that over the forehead there was a “golden plate” inscribed with the name of God.

Whatever the headdress from the Second Temple looked like, the instructions God gives Moses in Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, seem to call for a gold medallion that is shaped like a flower.  The words “Holy to God” (using the most sacred four-letter name of God—see my blog from October 2010, “Lech Lecha: Names of God” ) are to be carved in relief on the gold flower, like the symbol of identity carved on a seal or signet ring.

This is a powerful symbol.  Medieval commentary viewed the tzitz as a constant atonement for the unavoidable impurity of animal sacrifices to God, but I believe it means more than that.  It reminds the high priest wearing it, and everyone who sees him, and perhaps even God (c.f. 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk), that the purpose of the Israelite people is to be “holy”, i.e. to set themselves aside for God, dedicate themselves to God. This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold flower-medallion the way an identity seal is carved.

Furthermore, in the Torah gold is the most precious metal, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary. A flower is both a beautiful creation delighting our eyes, and the source of seeds for new life.  The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”.  The shape of a flower and the letters of God’s name both speak of becoming.  We bring flowers for the dead not only to honor them with beauty, but to open our own hearts to the hope for new life.  Flowers fall, as Isaiah says; but the spirit of God goes on creating, and plants that blossom go on to bear fruit.

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.  May we all do the holy work of consciously becoming and creating.

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  1. […] The high priest gets additional costume items. The hem of his robe has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates. (See my post Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing.)  Over his robe he wears an eifod (an over-tunic of two squares of material fastened by straps at the shoulders and waist) with a gem on each shoulder strap. Over the front of the eifod hangs a choshen (a square pocket) with gold embroidery and twelve gems on the front. And tied to the high priest’s forehead, in front of his turban, is a tzitz (an engraved flower-shaped gold plate).  (See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.) […]

  2. […] tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.) […]


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