In this week’s Torah portion, we read the details of the vestments of the High Priest as well as the common priest. Exodus 28:40 tells us: “And for Aaron’s sons also you shall make tunics, and make sashes for them, and make turbans for them, for dignity and adornment.” The word translated as “turbans” is “מִגְבָּעוֹת” which comes from a root that means “round and raised” like an overturned cup. As a result, the medieval Jewish commentator Fashi – who was also a physician – wrote that it was actually a mask.
How long were they supposed to wear them? In Exodus 29:30, God says, “For seven days, he shall wear them,” which would be enough time for the curve of the Altar to bend. But at the end of seven days, the curve of the Altar had not yet bent. So, the priests continued to wear the masks.
At first, only the priests wore the masks because they were difficult to make and there were not for all of the Israelites. However, once it became apparent that the Children of Israel would be wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Levites ramped up production of the masks so that all Israelites would be able to wear them.
Despite the honor of wearing a mask according God’s design, not all the tribes wanted to wear the masks that were originally intended exclusively for the priests. They were worried that God would be angry and punish them for wearing the vestments initially created to be worn by God’s special servants.
Six of the tribes wore masks and six of the tribes didn’t. Moses told all of the tribes to wash and sanctify themselves for three days – paying special attention to their hands – and to join together at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The six mask-wearing tribes were to the North and the six barefaced tribes were to the South. On the third day, God appeared in a cloud of smoke. The six tribes without masks could not breathe because of the smoke. As a result, they passed out. The six tribes with masks clearly heard God tell them that if they continued to wear masks, they would soon arrive in a “land flowing with citrus and vinegar” – in order to keep things purified.
The six tribes in masks responded, “We will do and we will listen (Exodus 24:7).” And God responded, “I will reside among the Israelites, and I will be their God (Exodus 29:45).”
When the six unmasked tribes regained consciousness in the morning, they found that masks had fallen to the ground like dew. They gathered the masks and put them on for the rest of the journey to the Promised Land.