February 18, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1009, Parsha Thought, Tetzaveh


The Kohen Gadol was required to wear eight priestly garments. One of them was the tzitz, a golden plate, placed on the High Priest’s forehead, on which was engraved the words “Holy to G-d.” The Torah commands the High Priest to have it upon his forehead “at all times.” Rashi explains that this means he had to wear it as long as he was involved in the Temple service.

Why then does the Torah use the expression “at all times?” The Talmud (Yoma 7b) explains (and Rashi cites this interpretation in his commentary on the Torah) that it means that the Kohen Gadol should never divert his attention from the tzitz while he is wearing it.

The Talmud also discusses the laws of T’fillin at that point and states, “one is obligated to touch his T’fillin constantly so as not to divert attention from them.” The Talmud bases this law on the parallel requirement for the tzitz, arguing:

If even concerning the tzitz, on which there is only one mention of G-d’s name, the Torah says it shall be on his forehead constantly, which teaches that he should not divert his attention from it, T’fillin, in which there are many mentions [of G-d’s name], how much more so [should a person avoid diverting his attention from them.]

From this Talmudic statement it follows that the T’fillin we wear is even holier than the gold plated tzitz worn by the holiest person, the High Priest!

However, Talmudic commentators questioned the premise that T’fillin are holier than the tzitz. It seems to be contradicted by the statement of the Talmud (Tamid 8b) that the High Priest would not be permitted to raise his hands above his head when giving the priestly blessing (unlike the average Kohen, who did not wear the tzitz, and did raise his hands when he blessed the congregation). Raising one’s hands above the tzitz would not be respectful to the tzitz that contained G-d’s name.

The question then is: why is there no such restriction concerning the T’fillin? The Talmud expressly permits a Kohen (other than the Kohen Gadol) to raise his hands when reciting the priestly blessing even while wearing T’fillin. If T’fillin are holier than the tzitz, why would the rule of not raising one’s hands above the head not apply as it does to the tzitz?

One simple answer would be that although T’fillin contain many references to G-d, they are all inside the T’fillin and are not visible on the outside, whereas the name of G-d etched into the golden plate was visible to any observer. Hence, when it comes to one’s thoughts, which are hidden, T’fillin are considered holier because they contain many hidden references to G-d. However, when dealing with the overt action of raising one’s hands, it would be more disrespectful to raise them above the tzitz in which G-d’s name is visible to all.


One can perhaps offer a deeper answer to this apparent contradiction, based on the premise that diversion of one’s attention is not always a negative.

With respect to the coming of Moshiach, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states that “Moshiach comes when our attention is diverted from it.”

At face value, this statement is rather puzzling. One of the 13 principles of faith is not only to believe in Moshiach but to anticipate his coming. In our daily prayers we recite: “for Your salvation we hope for all day.” The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) states that when one leaves this world one of the first questions posed to the soul is “did you anticipate salvation?” Maimonides codified this requirement in the strongest terms possible: “One who does not believe in him or one who doesn’t anticipate his coming denies the Torah.” How then could the Talmud state that Moshiach comes when we are distracted from his arrival?

The Alter Rebbe (Tanya, Igeres HaKodesh #4) answers that it does not mean that we forget about Moshiach, but rather, the Moshiach and Redemption transcend our knowledge. Moshiach and Redemption will exceed any prior understanding of their nature. We will, in effect, be totally surprised by Moshiach’s coming, notwithstanding the fact that we never lost sight of it and constantly yearned for it. But that which we will experience will be light years ahead of what, with our limited resources, we imagined in the period of exile.

In this context, distraction from something means recognizing there is something higher than our perception of it.

When a person raises his hands above his head it symbolizes the limitation of our minds; there is a higher perception that we cannot fathom.


We can now understand the difference between the law that does not allow the High Priest to raise his hands above the tzitz and the law that allows us to raise our hands above our T’fillin:

T’fillin consist of two parts, the head t’fillin and the hand t’fillin. The head t’fillin are considered holier than the hand t’fillin. Nevertheless, the Torah commands us to don the hand t’fillin first.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the hand t’fillin represent the simple, sincere dedication to G-d’s will exhibited by simple Jews who focus on surrendering their will to G-d. These simple action-oriented Jews are considered superior to the “heady” Jews, whose focus is on their understanding.

From this we can derive the principle that although the head t’fillin are considered more spiritually sophisticated than the hand t’fillin, the hand t’fillin actually transcend the head t’fillin in terms of reaching G-d.

If our relationship with G-d is limited by our understanding, we will discover an unbridgeable chasm between us and G-d, for G-d is infinite and our human minds are finite. There is no greater gap than the distance between the finite and the infinite. The hand t’fillin represents connecting to G-d in ways which transcend our understanding. It is the head t’fillin that cannot tolerate distraction, for the focus of the head t’fillin is knowledge.

There is no issue about raising our hands above our heads when we wear t’fillin because that actually represents the idea that our connection to G-d is not limited to the mind and that t’fillin also signify the idea of transcending knowledge.

T’fillin are thus the synthesis between approaching G-d with intellect and transcending that intellect. On the one hand (no pun intended), we may not be distracted and our minds have to be focused. On the other hand, we are allowed to raise our hands above the head as a way of acknowledging that our intellect is not without its limits.


The tzitz worn by the High Priest, in contrast, does not allow him to raise his hands above his head. The reason is that the tzitz, unlike the head t’fillin, is not about intellectual approaches to G-d.

The Zohar (cited by the Alter Rebbe in Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 23c) states that the forehead represents the Divine will that transcends logic.

This might explain why our Sages teach that the tzitz, which was worn on the forehead, served as an atonement for people who suffered from hubris and chutzpah, which is Biblically related to the forehead. The tzitz thus represents the positive form of chutzpah, which is assertiveness, stubbornness and going beyond the measured steps of the intellect. It is this form that can atone for the negative version of chutzpah which is not rational.

Now, if the tzitz itself represents transcendent logic there is no need for the High Priest to raise his hands above his forehead, for that would suggest that the tzitz itself must be transcended. That would be an affront to the tzitz and its transcendent power.


However, the Talmud records the dissenting view of Rabbi Yehudah, who maintains that the Kohen Gadol would actually raise his hands above his head.

Rabbi Yehudah feels that even in transcending logic there can be many levels. Frequently we may recognize, rationally, that there are situations which demand that we go beyond our understanding. That is the point at which logic surrenders to faith. Rational people will rely on a physician’s recommendation for surgery even if they cannot fathom the logic behind the doctor’s advice. One can use logic to argue the notion that there are certain things above and beyond our logic.

Hence even that is, to some degree, bound by rational thought. There can then be a higher level of transcendence which totally defies rationality; not because it is irrational but because it is connected to an infinite, Supra-rational G-d.

Hence, Rabbi Yehudah feels that just like t’fillin allow us to raise our hands above our heads to highlight the need to transcend, so too, a Kohen Gadol can raise his hands above the tzitz on his forehead to indicate that there is no end to transcendence. One can and must transcend transcendence as well.


As stated above, the Talmud speaks of the Messianic Age coming to pass when our attention is diverted. This was understood to mean that the Messianic revelations of G-dliness will transcend our highest level of understanding. But, according to Rabbi Yehudah, it doesn’t stop there. In the Messianic Age, no matter how high we are able to climb, there will always be another more elusive level to scale.

The word tzitz is etymologically related to the word in Shir HaShirim which describes the way Moshiach peers, meitzitz, through the crevices.

What is the connection between the tzitz which signifies holy chutzpah and trans-rationality to Moshiach looking through the cracks?

The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos volume 38 p. 199) explains that in exile we need to have unwavering trust in and attachment to Moshiach that goes beyond reason. This is consonant with the Rebbe’s historic talk (28th of Nissan 5751) that “ten stiff-necked, unyielding people are needed to bring the Redemption.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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