(This blog was first posted on February 23, 2010.)
A gold bell and a pomegranate, a gold bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe, all around. And it must be on Aharon (for him) to wait on (God) , and its sound will be heard when he comes into to the sacred space before God and when he goes out, and then he will not die. (Exodus/Shemot 28:34-35)
pa-amon = a bell, something that strikes.
The high priest’s costume, as prescribed in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You will command”), is elaborate, splendid, and magical, from the golden forehead-piece engraved with the words meaning “Holy for God”, all the way down to the hem of the long blue robe, on which are sewn alternating bells of gold and pomegranates of blue, purple, and red wool. The mere sight of the high priest in this magnificent garb would inspire the community with the proper awe and reverence. And wearing these unique objects would remind the high priest that he is dedicated to continuous service of God, and must act accordingly.
But not just any set of grand clothes and accessories will do. Each item prescribed for the high priest can have other meanings and functions. When I reread the Torah portion this week, I was fascinated by the bells, the only item that is intended to be heard as well as seen.
Why are bells required on Aaron’s hem? The Torah says only that their sound must be heard when he goes in and out of the sacred space. It does not specify who must hear the ringing.
One theory is that the other priests must hear, so they will know when the high priest is in the sanctuary, and they can leave him in privacy until he comes out again. According to Rabbi Elie Munk, the high priest needed to be alone in this area to serve God properly.
According to 19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, the whole community needed to hear the high priest approaching and departing from God’s presence, so they would be heartened and reassured to know he was once again acting on their behalf.
Another theory is that God must hear the bells ring. The verse in the Torah implies that the ringing somehow protects the high priest from death in the presence of God. Devotees of other religions rang bells in order to ward off unfriendly spirits, so the ancient Israelites might have associated bells with magical protection against dangerous gods. If one reads the Torah literally, God comes across as an anthropomorphic character who is easily angered and inflicts deadly plagues on thousands without a second thought. Yet this God is the one who tells Moses how the high priest’s gear must be made, including the detail about the bells around the hem. Maybe the sound of bells is intended to remind God that whatever personal shortcomings the high priest has, his life is nevertheless important to the community.
Rashi said that the high priest would die if he entered the Sanctuary without wearing every one of the holy items specified, including the bells. Serving God is serious business, and the priests had to follow all the rules; any lapse was punishable by death.
But I think the verse does not threaten death for omitting any one of a long list of required items. I think the death threat specifies that the sound of the bells around the high priest’s hem must be heard, or else.
This means that merely wearing a robe with bells sewn around the bottom is not enough. After all, the bells will chime only when the high priest is walking. The word for bell, pa-amon, comes from the same root as the word pa-am, which means knocking, beating, striking, or striding. If the high priest stands still, the bells will not be heard. If he tiptoes carefully in and out of the sanctuary, the sound will be too faint to hear. He has to stride in and out for the ringing to be heard.
Perhaps the instruction about the sound of the bells means that in order to do the highest service to God, one must not be timid. One must enter the sacred space of prayer, or any other spiritual practice, boldly and openly. Let the sound of your practice be heard. Make your service to the divine a part of your regular life, so that you can stride right in. Otherwise, your impulse to reach toward God will fade and die.