You shall make sacred vestments for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor…. These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban, and a sash. They shall make sacred vestments for Aaron your brother and his sons so that they will serve as priests to Me. (Exod. 28:2, 4)
Add to this list a linen undergarment (Exod. 28:42) and a headplate (Exod. 28:36).
What significance do the sacred vestments carry for the service of Aaron and his sons as priests? Both the ephod and the breastpiece bear the names of the twelve tribes who together constitute Israel, so obviously their significance has something to do with representation of the nation before God. But for the other garments there appears to be little importance apart from their ornamental purpose to give those who wear them "glory and splendor." (Exod. 28:3, 40) “Blessed is he who crowns Israel with splendor.” (Berakhot 60b)
Not so fast. In Talmud tractate Zevachim, a rabbi by the name of Inyani bar Sason asks why the topics of vestments and offerings are set side by side in Leviticus chapters 7-8? The answer: just as the offerings atone, so do the vestments! The explanation that follows is fascinating, albeit something of a stretch. Each of the vestments has a particular sin that they atone for, especially as they apply to the priest’s service before God. We may also learn from the text what sins were considered among the most grevious by the sages of the Talmud.
Zevachim 88a (cf. Arachin 16a)
The tunic atones for the shedding of blood, as it says, And they slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. (Gen. 37:31)
Joseph's special tunic becomes the model for the tunic worn by Aaron and his sons. Just as Joseph's brothers used the goat's blood to represent (though falsely) that Joseph had become the victim of bloodshed, so the tunic of a later age would atone for bloodshed.
The undergarment atones for sexual immorality [lit., exposing nakedness], as it says, And you shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. (Exod. 28:42)
Sexual immorality defiles us and corrupts a priest’s service to God. Leviticus chapter 18 defines this sin in more detail.
The turban atones for an arrogant spirit. How? R. Hanina said: Let an article which is high come and atone for haughtiness.
“God is everywhere save in arrogance.” (A.J. Heschel) A priest who is arrogant will find God absent from his worship. “Whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him I will not endure.” (Psalm 101:5b) Perhaps arrogance was behind the “strange fire” for which Nadab and Abihu were put to death. As another passage from the Talmud teaches: “R. Joseph said: Man should always learn from the character of his Creator, because the Holy One, blessed be he, left behind all the mountains and heights and caused his Presence to abide on Mt. Sinai, and he left behind all the beautiful trees and caused his Presence to abide in a bush.” (Sotah 5a)
The sash atones for the thoughts of the heart, because of where it is worn.
The sash was worn over the heart (cf. Josephus, Antiquities III, 7:2). Some sins are done in public, some in private, and some only in the thoughts of our heart. The thoughts of our heart only God knows: “You search all the secret chambers of man’s inner being and examine his feelings and his heart. No matter is hidden from you and nothing is concealed from your sight.” (Afternoon service, Erev Yom Kippur)
The breastpiece atones for ordinances [or, legal decisions], as it is written, And you shall make a breastpiece of decision. (Exod. 28:15)
Even laws require atonement, perhaps because they are interpreted and administered by fallible judges, or simply because they address fallible people and institutions.
The ephod atones for idolatry, as it says, And without ephod or teraphim. (Hosea 3:4, interpreted as, Without ephod there are teraphim, i.e., idols).
This sin is particularly relevant to the priest’s service: what forms and symbols of worship are acceptable to God. Idolatry has a deceptive way of replacing the One who alone is worthy of worship. We replace the infinite, invisible God with a finite image, whether a god of stone or a god of flesh or a god of our imagination (i.e., a mental image). Or we replace the majestic Name with names that are invoked as magic formulas.
The robe atones for slander [lashon hara, evil speech]. How? R. Hanina said: Let an article of sound (cf. Exod. 28:33) come and atone for evil sound.
“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him I will silence…” (Psalm 101:5a) Judging from the wording of the commandment against slander found in Lev. 19:16, this sin was considered almost equivalent to bloodshed: “You shall not go about spreading slander among your people; you shall not stand over the blood of your neighbor, for I am the Lord.”
The headplate atones for a brazen face, for of the headplate it is written, And it shall be on Aaron's forehead (Exod. 28:38), while of a brazen face it is written, Yet you have a harlot's forehead! (Jer. 3:3)
A brazen face describes insolent behavior: doing what is wrong openly and without shame, as Jer. 3:3 continues, “you refused to be ashamed.” Likewise Isa. 3:9, “The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” The headplate was made of pure gold, engraved with the words “Holy to the Lord” and attached to the turban so that it rested on the forehead. What an awesome sign of purity and sanctity to offer in atonement for insolence.
Interesting to note: In Arachin 16a this discussion is preceded by a list of seven sins for which "leprosy" is incurred, and among these seven are slander, bloodshed, sexual immorality, and arrogance. The afternoon service on the eve of Yom Kippur also makes mention of several of these same sins: sexual immorality, thoughts of the heart, slander, haughty eyes, and a brazen face.
So the sacred vestments contribute to atonement alongside the offerings. But that is not all. The passage continues:
R. Joshua b. Levi said: For two things we find no atonement through offerings, but find atonement for them through something else, namely bloodshed and slander: bloodshed by the heifer whose neck is broken (Deut. 21:1-9), and slander by incense. R. Hanina said: How do we know that incense atones? Because it is written, And he presented the incense, and atoned for the people. (Num. 17:12 MT) And the school of R. Ishmael taught: For what does incense atone? For slander: let that which is done in secret (the offering of incense on the altar) come and atone for that which is done in secret (how slander begins).
What then follows is an attempt to reconcile the apparent conflict between the sacred vestments (in making atonement for bloodshed and slander) and these other avenues of atonement. But the main point is that atonement is made in these specific instances without sacrificial offerings of any kind.