The Choshes – Breastplates

The Choshen: Breastplates – Terumah תרומה

Exodus 25:1-27:19

by

Howard Adelman

This portion largely focuses on the detailed architecture for the Tabernacle (Mishkan), including the chattels: the Ark, the Table and accessories (not for the tablets, but for the lechem hapanim – showbread – arranged on it in two tiers of six loaves each), the Menorah, the roof coverings, the walls, the two chambers and an outer courtyard. The Mishkan is the place to which the Israelites will bring gifts (Terumah) for God. Terumah is also translated as “uplifting.” The gifts are to be freewill offerings, not dues. The gifts may be of any kind that the heart of an Israeli moved him or her to bring and which, in turn, are intended to raise the spirit of the giver.

The initial listing of materials required includes shosham stones and gemstones for setting in the ephod (אֵפוֹד) and in the breastplate. The ephod, made of linen with gold, blue, purple and red threads, is the priestly garment which has rings sewn into it by which straps attached by golden chains to the breastplate can be tied. The Urim and Thummim, precious stones were inserted into the breastplate. Sometimes the ephod was carried and not worn (I Samuel 2:28) and scholars suggest either it was used as a packet to carry the jewels or as a talisman.

My question is why would a priest wear a breastplate? Why do we adorn our scrolls in our synagogues with breastplates? Are breastplates nt defensive armour used in warfare? Further, what does a gift or freewill offering have to do with a breastplate?

If you watched the Netflix series, Marco Polo, the Empress of Kublai Khan’s Mongol empire is seen before the critical battle to defeat the Chinese Sung empire sewing leather as a lining for the breastplate to better protect the soldiers against the Chinese arrows, especially since the leather extended upwards to protect the neck. Further, the Mongol warriors wore protective silk garments underneath as well. Covered in layers of lacquer, these breastplates were much lighter than the metal ones worn by the Mongol’s enemies and allowed the Mongols to move deftly and with skill to overpower their foes as well as reduce the weight on their horses so they could ride much faster and for longer distances.

What is a military protective breastplate doing in a sanctuary? And why is that breastplate bedecked with jewels?

Armour to protect the chest is almost a constant all over the world. Currently police and tactical units wear kevlar sleeveless jackets or vests. You can buy a Coolmax bullet proof vest currently for only $US210. Body armour is no longer the exclusive property of the upper guardian class to reduce damage caused by impact or limit the penetration of a bullet, spear or arrow. Because of UEDs, kevlar vests now extend to cover the torso. Kublai Khan wore a breastplate. Alexander the Great did so as well.

Soldiers in armies, ancient and modern, all over the world have worn breastplates. Sarmatians advancing westward out of Eastern Iran from the time Athens was becoming a centre of civilization until the 4th century when they joined the German Goths and Vandals advancing from the north to harass the Roman Empire, wore breast plates. When soldiers in armies did not wear breastplates, such as the Khmer soldiers from the Cambodian empire centred at Angkor, they were slaughtered by the Mongols in spite of the protection of their jungles. The absence of personal armour, as well as theory and discipline to fight strategically, doomed the military might of the Angkor Empire.

In contrast, William the Conqueror, the only military leader who ever conquered the British Isles, wore chainmail as a breastplate. But it has been shown that the Mongol glaive, a polearm with a blade at the end, could plunge through chainmail armour cutting not only through the armour and the sternum, but piercing right through to the spine and smashing it as well. However, the Danish axe, if it could get behind the glaive, could cut it off, making it useless. The Norse depended on their aggressive weapons more than on their defensive armour, and even more on the composite crossbow than the axe, for it was the crossbow that killed Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, though this most deadly weapon was useless if it struck a breastplate.

However, the Mongol recurve bow with its faster reload time and greater penetrating power was superior. But this essay is initially about defensive armour and the significance of the breastplate. In the Philippines (The Philippine islands, 1493-1803), volume 36 describes the portrait of a monarch “on the ball at the center of the cupola, a proud and spirited figure of Monarchy – armed gracefully but heavily with breastplate…” The reality was otherwise, for the islands were marked by war and insurrection, volcanoes spewing forth ashes and famine, economic collapse and the terrible earthquake of 1644. The archipelago was not the landscape of William Wordsworth’s ode to daffodils in the British Lake District, where, walking with his sister, he saw “a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

In times of violent conflict, as in the Philippines, breast plates also become religious garments, especially in Catholicism, to protect the breast from the penetrating swords of evil and the arrows of a life that is nasty, brutish and short. “We put on Your righteousness, O Christ, as our breastplate. And the hope of salvation, As a helmet for our head. Father we take up faith, As a shield which is able to put out, All the fiery darts of the enemy.”

We are approaching St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, celebrating the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s most famous prayer is one in celebration of a breastplate. For the breastplate was the protector against seduction and evil enemies who would lure one astray.

Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

In Judaism, the problem is not so much temptations and the snares of demons and that which would undermine your virtues. For Judaism is more a religion of laws than virtues and vices. By this week’s portion, the Israelites had just gone through the battles with the Egyptians. The Egyptians had worn breastplates only to be defeated by a superior defensive strategy of a much weaker foe. Brains had bested brawn and the best armoured troops of the ancient world at the time had been defeated. Those breastplates were, for the military leaders, adorned with jewels, either as a bejeweled brooch atop the breastplate or implanted into the breastplate with thematic statements drawn from Egyptian mythology and culture and serving an iconographic function.

The Israelites won the battle against the Egyptians, not because of superiority in arms, but because, according to text with God’s guidance, superiority in strategy. They now had a decentralized system of administrative justice and a long set of laws and regulations. They had to send out the message that their essential body armor was intended to ward off assaults on its laws – hence the breastplate on the Torah in our day – and deficiencies in following those laws. The Israelites knew that the prime source of failure would come from within and, as they saw it, not by giving into desires, as was the case of the Christians who emerged later, but for failing to uphold the legal system.

Centrally located in the mishkan was the breastplate bedecked with jewels as a symbol of the centerpiece of a religion and a culture which would serve to ward off evil, a very different evil than St. Patrick described, but an evil nevertheless. In the Netflix series I discussed in an earlier blog on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the seventeenth century nun, writer and intellectual so repressed by the Catholic Church, the archbishop, as well as bishops, sisters superiors and other church officials, wore breastplates with pictures of their Lord, Jesus Christ, on them, to communicate a message that they had sworn allegiance to a higher power than the vice-regal governors who ruled over the colonies of the new world. In the power struggles with the authorities in the secular world and their own internally repressed passions, the breastplate was intended to ward of threats both from without and from within.

For the Israelites, the main domestic threats did not come from without or from within, but between, from relationships that descend from differences, disputes, conflicts and wars. The real protection against these threats were laws, so the breastplate became the talisman to signal that it was the Torah, the book of laws, that needed the most protection. For the heart of Judaism is not within but between, in relationships and in institutions that bind together a society in peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Israelites brought to the Mishkan, not just their levies for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, but freewill offerings intended as much if not more so for uplifting the spirit of the giver. Gifts that protect the institutions of law and justice are more important than any other. For Jews are not saved by giving over their life in bondage to their one Lord and God through his only so-called son Jesus, but in celebration of life and freedom from bondage in service to and protected by a set of law-based rules and institutions. These are more important than the politicians that run the state, for they are the a priori principles upon the foundation of which, any peaceful political system must rest.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

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