The Function of Prophecy in the Resolution of Issues in Halachah

And you should make a Breast-plate of Judgment of a woven design. Like the design of the Ephod, you shall make it. You shall make it of gold, blue, purple, scarlet wool, and twisted linen. (Shemot 28:15)

The Kohen Gadol wore eight garments. These consisted of the four garments worn by every kohen and an additional four special vestments. One of the special vestments was the Choshen Mishpat – the Breast-plate of Judgment. The Choshen hung from the shoulders of the Kohen Gadol. The vestment was made of woven cloth. Embedded into the Choshen were precious stones representing the Shevatim – the Tribes of Israel. The Choshen had a unique function. Questions could be posed to the Kohen Gadol. He would respond by consulting the Choshen. Maimonides describes this process based upon the comments of Talmud. The proposed question would be brought to the Kohen Gadol. He would immediately be overcome with the spirit of prophecy. The Kohen Gadol would look at the Choshen. The response would be transmitted to him in a prophetic vision. The answer was expressed through the illumination of the letters engraved upon the stones of the Breast-plate.[1]

What type of questions could be addressed to the Choshen? In the Prophets we find that the Choshen was consulted on national issues. A king might refer to the Choshen for guidance regarding a military campaign. However, Rashi comments in Tractate Eruvin that questions of halachah were not addressed in this manner. This limitation upon the use of the Choshen reflects an important principle of the Torah. Prophecy cannot be used to resolve issues of halachah. Such questions are the responsibility of the Sages and the courts. They must address these issues using the standards of halachah and their own intellects.

Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel makes an amazing comment that seems to contradict this principle. In our pasuk, The Choshen is referred to as the Breast-plate of Judgment. What is the relationship between the Choshen and judgment? Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel explains that the Choshen could be consulted over legal issues! This seems to contradict the principle that issues of halachah cannot be resolved through prophecy.

A similar contradiction is suggested by the last mishna in Tractate Edyot. Our Sages teach us that the Messianic era will be preceded by the reappearance of Eliyahu, the prophet. The mishna explains that Eliyahu will help prepare the path for the Moshiach. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai posits that one of Eliyahu’s functions will be to clarify issues of lineage. Maimonides explains the meaning of this statement. Through prophecy, Eliyahu will identify those individuals who have become completely alienated from their Jewish roots. They will be welcomed back into Bnai Yisrael. In addition, impostors whose lineage is imperfect will be identified and excluded from the Jewish people. This would seem to be another example of prophecy used as a means to resolve an issue of halachah.

Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chayutz Zt”l, based upon a careful analysis of Maimonides’ comments, offers a brilliant response. He explains that the limitation of prophecy as a means of resolving questions of halachah needs to be more fully understood. This limitation excludes prophecy from being used to determine the proper formulation of the law. For example, in order for a person to be punished by the courts for eating a prohibited substance, a minimum quantity must be ingested. Assume a person consumes less than this amount. Certainly, the person cannot be punished by the courts. But is this activity included in the Torah prohibition or is the consumption prohibited by only an injunction of the Sages? This issue is disputed by Rebbe Yochanan and Rebbe Shimon ben Lakish. The dispute revolves around the formulation of the Torah prohibition. Such an issue cannot be resolved through prophecy.

Sometimes a question of halachah develops in a case in which the formulation of the law is clear but the facts of the case are unknown. The questions of lineage to be resolved by Eliyahu are an example of this type of case. The laws governing lineage are not in question. Their formulation is known. However, the application of these laws is hindered by our ignorance of the actual lineage of the individual.

Rav Chayutz suggests that prophecy is not excluded as a means for resolving these factual questions. This explains the mishna in Tractate Edyot. Eliyahu, the prophet, will not resolve issues of lineage through altering the formulation of the law. This would indeed constitute a violation of the principle excluding prophecy from matters of halachah. Eliyahu will deal with factual issues. He will divine the true family history of the individual and determine the true facts in the case. This approach can also explain the comments of RabbaynuYonatan ben Uziel. There is a place in halachah for prophecy and the Choshen. This is the area identified by Rav Chayutz. Questions which are factual and not related to the formulation of the halachah could be referred to the Choshen.

The Function of the Bells that Adorned the Jacket of the Kohen Gadol

And it shall be upon Aharon when he serves. And its sound will be heard when he comes to the sanctuary before Hashem, and when he goes out, he shall not die. (Shemot 28:35)

Our pasuk discusses the jacket worn by the Kohen Gadol. This jacket is of unusual design. A series of gold bells hang from the jacket. What was the purpose of these bells? Most of the commentaries agree that our pasuk is addressing this question. However, they differ on the answer the passage is providing.

Nachmanides comments that the bells announce the Kohen Gadol’s entry and exit from the sanctuary. Why is this notice required? Nachmanides explains that it is inappropriate to enter the presence of the King without announcing oneself. It is also disrespectful to leave the King’s presence without first providing notice. The sanctuary must be treated with the same respect that is accorded a human king. Therefore, his entry and egress from the sanctuary must be announced by the sounding of the bells affixed to the Kohen Gadol’s jacket.[2]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra takes a very different approach to explaining our pasuk. He suggests that the proper translation of the pasuk is that “his – the Kohen Gadol’s – voice will be heard when he comes to the sanctuary before Hashem.” In other words his prayer and petitions will be heard by Hashem. According to Ibn Ezra, the bells, as well as the other garments, are designed to distinguish the Kohen Gadol from the other kohanim. Through wearing his special vestments, the Kohen Gadol distinguishes himself as the leader of the kohanim and the people. Because he represents the entire nation, the prayers Kohen Gadol have special significance. The passage assures that when the Kohen Gadol is adorned in the vestments of his office and is acting as his people’s representative, then his sincere prayers will be heard.[3]

Gershonides offers a unique approach to explaining the bells of the jacket and the meaning of our passage. He explains that the Kohen Gadol’s garments are not merely designed for visual beauty. These vestments also communicate important ideas. These various messages motivate the Kohen Gadol to concentrate exclusively on his spiritual mission. For example, the Choshen – the breastplate – worn by the Kohen Gadol includes a series of stones. Engraved on these stones are the names of the Shevatim – the Tribes of Israel. The Choshen conveys to and reminds the Kohen Gadol that he represents the entire nation. However, these various messages can only be communicated to the Kohen Gadol when he is aware of his special vestments. His attention must be drawn to them. The bells call the Kohen Gadol’s attention to his garments. This, in turn, allows the vestments to convey their messages to him. Based on this interpretation of the bells, Gershonides explains our passage. The Kohen Gadol hears the ringing of bells adorning his vestments. This focuses his attention upon his garments and their special messages. His focus on these messages raises him to an elevated spiritual plane. As a result of his spiritual ascent, Hashem hears his voice and prayers.[4]

It is noteworthy that Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the bells is consistent with his overall perspective on the vestments of the Kohen Gadol. Ibn Ezra maintains that the garments of the kohanim are designed to bestow honor and glory upon them. He interprets the bells as one of the elements of the vestments that distinguish the Kohen Gadol.

Nachmanides contends that the vestments are designed to glorify Hashem. His understanding of the bells is consistent with this perspective. He explains that the bells are required in order to show proper reverence when entering before Hashem and leaving His presence.

Gershonides’ understanding of the bells is somewhat unique. He contends that the vestments are designed to communicate to the Kohen Gadol. The bells facilitate this communication. They focus the Kohen Gadol’s attention of the garments. The bells are not a fundamental element of the vestments. They do not communicate any idea. However, they enhance the performance of the other vestments.

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai HaMikdash 10:11.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 28:35.
3. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Abbreviated Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 28:35.
4. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag/Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 382.