All the animal sacrifices that their blood is received by... one lacking in [priestly] garments are invalid.
This Mishnah raises the question of why the priests when performing other duties are not required to wear their ceremonial robes. The reason for this discrepancy can be found in the Gemara’s description of the priests’ role in sacrifices, in their blessing of the nation (birkat kohanim) and in the redemption of firstborn sons (pidyon haben).
The Gemara (Chagigah 16a) explains:
Everybody who gazes upon [one of] three things, his eyes are darkened (he is blinded): upon a rainbow, upon the nation’s president and upon the priests... [This speaks of] one who gazed upon the priests when the Temple stood as they stood in their places and blessed the nation with G-d’s explicit name (the Tetragrammaton)
Rashi tells us that when the priests bless the nation, “G-d’s presence resides between their fingers.” From here we see that the priests, when blessing the nation act as vehicles for G-d to bless us.
And G-d spoke to Moses to say [to Israel]: “Sanctify for me every first born, the issue of every womb among the children of Israel among the men and among the beasts is mine... And you shall set aside the first issue of every womb of the livestock which you possess, the males for G-d. And the first issue of every donkey you will redeem with a lamb and if you do not redeem [it] you will axe the back of its neck and the first born of every man from you sons you will redeem.” (Shmot 13: 1-2, 13: 12-13)
To understand the reason for this strange idea, that the first born son should be born with holiness, only to have that immediately stripped away, it is necessary to examine some other p’sukim in the Torah (Bamidbar 3: 11-12):
And G-d spoke to Moses to say [to Israel]: “And behold, I have taken the Levi’im from within the children of Israel in place of every first born son”
As such, it can be seen that the duties temple worship were taken away from the first born sons, and in the redemption of the first born son we transfer that holiness to the priest.
During sacrifices, the priest acts as an intermediary between the person who is giving the sacrifice and G-d, however the mechanism by which he does so is different from that in birkat kohanim. The nature of a sacrifice is to bring someone closer to Hashem. We see this most forcefully in the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva (1: 3):
When [they] bring their sacrifices for their... sin, they do not receive forgiveness... until they repent
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuva, which is derived from the word to return (shuv), as seen from Eicha (5: 21):
Return us, G-d, to and we will repent
As such, we can see that the act of repentance, and by extension, the act of making a sacrifice, is drawing closer to G-d.
It appears therefore that a priest’s robes are necessary only when he acts to bring us closer to G-d. The three rituals described here are the priest’s three ceremonial tasks. In only one of these tasks does he perform the role of bringing us closer to G-d, and as such in only one does he require a special garment.
The Sefer HaChinnuch (Mitzvah 101) tells us:
...a person acts according to his thoughts and feelings and the Shaliach for forgiveness must bend all his thoughts and intentions towards the worship. As such it is suitable to wear unique clothes for it. So that when he gazes on any part of his body the thought of before whom he worships will awaken in his heart and be remembered.
When the continued positive relationship of a person with G-d is at stake, such precautions as completely different attire are necessary to aid a man in maintaining his concentration. Such measures are unnecessary where the stakes are smaller, whether it be that somebody will not receive a particular (optional) blessing, and in the case of pidyon haben, the priest is not acting at all as a Shaliach. Similarly, with the case of the impure leper, the task itself takes only a minute (the leper’s blemishes must simply be inspected) and as such there is no need to ensure lengthy concentration.
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