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Researching a related question, I came across passages like:

You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.—Exodus 28:42 (NJPS)

and

The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.—Leviticus 6:3 (NJPS) [N.B.: Leviticus 6:10 in many English translations]

The bolded word is miknac <04370> and means (according to Strongs):

1) underwear, drawers, trousers
1a) a priestly undergarment of linen

What exactly were these garments? Were they most similar to breeches (following the NJPS translation) or closer to modern male undergarments (following the ESV)?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Hard to say exactly what they were. Apparently they were worn underneath the robes, and it was important that they breathe well (Ez 44:18). Being worn underneath, any artwork found of the priests would not show them. Worn underneath the tunic, the use of "undergarment" in translations makes sense, but they are not the "drawers" we think of.

As the verses state, these are so that the private parts of the priests are not seen while they do their duties. Sex rites in the neighboring religions were very common, and Israel was not to seem like them at all. Hence, extra coverings for the priests.

Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon says: Never appears in root form. All uses listed in this entry. Appears only in the dual (or plural), has a connection to the obscure root kns. Used in Is 28:20 "...and the blanket is too small to wrap oneself in." Only in the construct when referring to the priestly garments of linen miknasa pishtim in Ez 44:18; miknasa (ha)bad Ex 28:42, 39:28, Lev 6:3, 16:4.

pishtim and bad are both words for linen.

From what I see looking online, the modern term means "trousers".

The Septuagint uses kalupto for it, which means "covering" (Mat 8:24, Lk 8:16, Luk 23:30, Jam 5:20, 1 Pt 4:8, 2Co 4:3). Not much help there.

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Thanks for running those references down. The Lexicon entry is intriguing! And I think your suggestion that the priests needed to be extra sure to avoid the appearance of sex rites is helpful. –  Jon Ericson Mar 9 '12 at 20:13
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