Not being a fashionista, I am often caught off guard by what trends. Not long ago, the choshen mishpat, the High Priest’s breastpiece of judgment, became a popular motif for jewelry.
You can find pendants, pins, rings, and cufflinks depicting the rectangular breastpiece encrusted with twelve semi-precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel popping up everywhere. You can even get a “midrash manicure” featuring the choshen mishpat ten-fold, one on each nail.
The High Priest wore the choshen mishpat when offering sacrifices in the Wilderness Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Bet ha-Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem). It was called the “breastpiece of judgment” because it served as a reminder that the lives and welfare of the nation, represented by the twelve stones, depend upon justice, and among Torah’s overarching goals is the institution of justice in our lives.
You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, worked into design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28:15– 21)
Upholding high standards of justice is no mean feat. Throughout the ages, people have struggled to institute laws and legal systems based upon, and promoting, justice, and to guard those laws and legal systems against corruption. Justice is often elusive: attractive in theory but difficult to translate into reality.
The impetus to construct and maintain a social system based on justice lies in a firm and immutable commitment to k’vod ha-briot (human dignity). Human dignity is the lynchpin for human rights, the rule of law, and justice. Midrash reminds us “God cares about the dignity of human beings” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim 12) and the philosopher Hermann Cohen held that ideal just society as one which embraced human dignity.
Where do we learn human dignity? First and foremost in the home, beginning the moment a baby’s parents hold and caress their child and respond to their baby’s needs and desires. A child’s laboratory for learning to treat others as creatures with dignity is in the commandment to honor and respect one’s mother and father. That commandment is voiced twice in Torah (Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16).
The choshen mishpat (High Priest’s breastpiece) teaches this connection through a story found in both the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 61b) and Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 5b-7a). We learn in Mishnah Peah 1:1 that honoring one’s parents is rewarded in this world as well as the world-to-come. The Mishnah says:
…These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] whose fruits a person eats in this world, but the principle remains for him in the world-to-come: honoring father and mother, deeds of loving kindness, bringing peace between a two people, and Torah study is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
This teaching inspires a question put to R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus concerning the extent of the obligation to honor one’s parents. R. Eliezer replies by citing the example of the gentile, Dama b. Netina, head of the town council of Ashkelon. Once one of the twelve stones in the High Priest’s choshen mishpat (breastpiece of judgment) was lost. Several rabbis went to the shop of Dama b. Netina to purchase a replacement, having been told that only Dama had a stone of the high quality they sought. The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) continues the story:
[The Rabbis] went to him and agreed with him on a price of one hundred dinarim. He left, intending to bring [the jasper stone] to them, but found his father sleeping. Some say the key to the chest [in which it was stored] was attached to his father’s finger, and others say his father’s feet were resting on the chest. [Whatever the case may be] Dama returned and said to them, “I cannot bring the stone to you.”
Dama is willing to forgo the sale rather than disturb his father’s nap to get the stone. The Rabbis interpret his refusal to sell them the stone as a bid for more money:
They said, “Perhaps he wants more money.” They raised [their offer] to two hundred dinarim. [He declined.] They raised their offer to one thousand dinarim. [He declined.]
When his father awoke from his sleep, [Dama] went down and brought them the gem. They wanted to give him the final offer [i.e., one thousand dinarim]. [Dama b. Netina] would not take it from them. He said, “What, shall I sell you the honor of my forefathers for money? I will not profit from the honor of my forefathers.”
Not only did Dama b. Netina honor his father so highly he was willing to forfeit a profitable sale rather than rouse him from his slumber, but Dama refused the exorbitant sum of money the Rabbis offered because accepting it would have exploited his father’s honor. The Talmud recounts that God rewarded Dama b. Netina. A pure red heifer, a most rare phenomenon and needed for purification rituals, was born to Dama’s cow that very night, and he sold it to the Rabbis for a large sum.
Dama b. Netina’s respect for his father translated into respect toward the Rabbis and just business practices: he sold them the jasper stone at the first agreed-upon price. No wonder the Rabbis offer him as an exemplar and benchmark for honoring one’s father and mother.
But what if you cannot treat your mother and father as Dama b. Netina did his father? What if, through no fault of your own, you don’t enjoy the sort of mutually respectful and loving relationship Dama b. Netina and his father had? Not everyone can boast that blessing. The Rabbis spell out what it means to honor and respect parents in B. Kiddushin 31b. They tell us this includes psychological aspects (e.g., acknowledging their position in the family and status in the community) and practical aspects (e.g., providing for basic physical needs). But they also remind us that there is no one clear-cut formula; each situation is unique; the expression of respect and honor takes a slightly different shape depending upon context. Those of us who are blessed to be parents would also do well to remember that children learn to respect and uphold the dignity of others when they experience respect and consideration.
The first time I saw jewelry modeled on the High Priest’s choshen mishpat I rolled me eyes and thought: Is nothing sacred? But upon second consideration, wearing a reminder of our duty to respect human dignity and promote justice is sacred.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman