Hats and Belts
The Torah teaches us about the special garments to be worn by the Kohanim (priests) while performing the ritual duties in the Tabernacle/Holy Temple. The regular Kohen wears four such garments: pants, a belt, a hat, and a tunic. The Kohen Gadol (high priest) wears an additional four articles of clothing: a breastplate, an apron, a robe, and a head-plate (see Mishnah Yoma 7:5). Nonetheless, some explain that the Kohen Gadol’s clothes slightly differ from the regular Kohen’s in that they do not wear the same type of hat and, according to some opinions, they do not wear the same type of belt. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss three words found in the Bible that mean “hat” and three words which mean “belt”.
The Torah calls the hat of a regular Kohen a migbaat, while the hat of the Kohen Gadol is referred to as a mitznefet. However, the common word in the Bible for “hat” is—like in Modern Hebrew—a kova. So what is the difference between these three seemingly synonymous words for “hat”? Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1310) writes that the word migbaat is closely related to the word kova (the former’s root is gimmel-bet-ayin and the latter’s root is kaf-bet-ayin) because the regular Kohen’s hat is indeed a simple hat. On the other hand, he explains that the Kohen Gadol’s hat is known as a mitznefet because it is made from an especially long cloth which the Kohen Gadol wraps (tzonef) around his head. The Vilna Gaon also explains that a migbaat is a pre-sewn hat, while a mitznefet is wrapped by its wearer.
Others explain that both a migbaat and mitznefet are wrapped around the wearer’s head, but the mitznefet also reaches his beard. Abarbanel explains that the word migbaat is related to the Hebrew word givah (hill) because it had two mountain-like humps on top and would be tied with a string underneath the Kohen’s chin. According to Maimonides, the Kohen Gadol’s “hat” simply surrounds the perimeter of his head, but does not cover it, while the regular Kohen’s hat actually covers his head.
Rashi and Nachmanides maintain that migbaat and mitznefet were both the same type of hat and are indeed synonyms. Interestingly, Josephus writes that the regular Kohen wore a “Masnaemphthes” (an Anglicization of mitznefet), which he describes as a cap that does not come to a point (i.e. is not conic), nor does it encircle the entire head. Rather, he explains, this crown-like bonnet covered most of the Kohen‘s head, but not all of it. According to this view, we can argue that even though migbaat and mitznefet refer to the same type of hat, they recall different elements of said hat. The word migbaat denotes the hat-like form of the item, while mitznefet specifically focuses on the honor that wearing such a hat brings (see Tosafot ha-Rosh to Yoma 71b who writes that mitznefet is related to the word tznif which alludes to the “honor” of wearing a royal diadem).
If we analyze all six appearances of the word kova in the Bible (I Samuel 17:5, Isaiah 59:17, Jeremiah 46:4, Ezekiel 27:10; 38:5, and II Chronicles 26:14), we will notice that it is always part of a warrior’s dress and possibly should not be translated as “hat”, but rather “hard hat” or even “helmet”.
Now, we turn our attention to the three words for belt. The Torah refers to the belt used by all Kohanim as an avnet. But there are another two words that also mean “belt”: chagor/chagorah and aizor. Malbim explains that the word avnet refers to a belt used for ritual purposes; therefore, it is fittingly used in references to the belt of the Kohanim. Interestingly, the Mishnah Berurah writes (Orach Chaim 46:8) that the word avnet could refer to pants, not just to belts! The word chagor (in male-gendered form) or chagorah (in female-gendered form) is a general term used to refer to anything which covers the circumference of one’s body whether it encircles his torso, heart, waist, or feet. R. Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) argues that the root of the word chagorah is chug which means circle (and may be related to the word chag, “holiday”, because on festival celebrants dance in a circle). Aizor is specifically a belt which surrounds one’s waist. Such a belt is generally fastened tightly, so the girdling of an aizor is also used metaphorically to refer to the performance of a feat that requires notable strength. Because an aizor is a belt specifically associated with physical strength, it is only found in the Bible as something worn by mighty men, not by women or children. Interestingly, in post-Biblical writings, the word sinar refers to a special belt that Ezra instituted should be worn by women and was something like a chastity belt.
For more fun with synonyms in the Hebrew language, check out my weekly column “What’s in a Word?” which appears on Ohr.edu and in the Jewish Press. My newest book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018) has just been released! Check it out!