Vayakhel-Pekudei: With Bells On!

The pomegranates and bells on the High Priest’s robe.

Much more than decorations, the pomegranates and bells on the High Priest’s robe carried an encoded message…

Table for Five: Vayakhel-Pekudei

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

They also made bells of pure gold, and attached the bells between the pomegranates, all around the hem of the robe, between the pomegranates: a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe for officiating in—as the LORD had commanded Moses.

-Ex. 39:25-6

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

MAKE SOME NOISE! Not just something projected to encourage sports fans to support their teams, this line is defining of another human imperative. We want to fill this life with noise! We want to do things, stand for things, and say things. Cemeteries are very quiet places, while cities filled with people seem to never sleep. Leaders must make noise, they ought to be talking about issues and directing others with their guidance. They need to share with us their leadership somehow –how are they to do that if they stay quiet?

Rabbi Nosson Nota Segel-Landau of Auschwitz in Kmo Hashacher (Podgorze, 1094) suggests that these verses, of the Priest’s garments being fashioned with bells and pomegranates, teach us how leaders are to make themselves heard. The Talmud famously says (Bava Metzia 85b) “A coin in an empty vessel rattles the loudest!” Often, we find noise coming from those who have the least content. The vessel that is packed with coins is simply not as noisy.

So what sort of bells should our leaders ring? What noise should accompany them? The pomegranate is packed with seeds. In rabbinic literature, the seeds that overflow from the pomegranate represent one’s good deeds, one’s mitzvos. To truly influence others, a leader needs to make noise primarily by being filled to the brim with noble deeds, and virtues. We are all leaders. We reach the world when we, like the pomegranate, truly embody the message that our bell rings.

Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-Spiritual Leader, N’vay Shalom

Repeated phrases in Torah alert the reader of something emphatic and important. The message is the necessary balance of bells and pomegranates, one after another, sight and sound, together, impacting whoever was present. Unlike the Sinai experience, flooding and overwhelming the people when God came ablaze in fire and lightning, blasting shofar and thunder, the Priest approached his work with the delicate sound of bells and the beautiful vision of scarlet.

With each step the High Priest communicated with the people, with God, and even with himself. The bells and pomegranates were reminders of the impending connection with the Holy One; of entering into an intimate setting for t’shuvah and healing. The preciousness of gold reflected light and optimism and the passionate color, scarlet, was a reminder of blood and its life-fulfilling properties. The bell created a sense of presence and the pomegranate, filled with hundreds of seeds, some even say 613, one for each mitzvah, represented the future and potential for change and growth.

This was also a reminder for each person, then and now, to think about how we walk through the world. Is it with power and arrogance or humility and subtlety? Like the High Priest, the sound and appearance we reflect has an impact. It can demean others or it can be for Divine purpose, bringing a gentle balance of presence, attention, care, compassion, and even healing. Each one of us is reminded, “You shall be, to Me, a Kingdom of Priests…a holy people.”

Rivkah Slonim, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University

The Ramban challenges Rashi’s interpretation on this verse: If the pomegranates were hollow, as Rashi asserts, what is the imperative to say it was a pomegranate? Why not an apple?

In turn, R’ Elazar Mizrachi asks of the Ramban, why an apple? Indeed. Why the fuss over the precise shape of this decorative accessory? Because, explains the Rebbe, the Jews are compared to both apples and pomegranates. The apple is a metaphor for the Jews as they are righteous and fit. The pomegranate alludes to those not quite as pious. Yet, says the Talmud, even those Jews who are “empty” are as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.

When the High Priest did his service, he did so as a messenger of the Jews. He brought allJews with him into the inner sanctum. And that is why, asserts the Rebbe, Rashi underscores that it was indeed gold pomegranates that hemmed the robe of the high priest. Every single Jew, even those likened to pomegranates, came with the high priest before God, as an integral part of the Jewish people.

“Rebbe,” said a Chassidic rabbi one Sunday on the iconic dollar-line, “I am troubled by the Talmudic teaching that even the sinners among Israel are as filled with good deeds as a pomegranate. How can that be?” “I am bothered by that passage, as well” replied the Rebbe. “How can people so filled with good deeds be called sinners?!”

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

The Ramban sees special significance in the bells attached to the high priest’s garments. He notes that the bells seemingly exist at counter-purposes with the prestige of these garments. Bells are not a typical adornment, and they in fact tend to signal subservience rather than nobility. Only royals and nobles can come and go as they please unheard and unexpected, whereas servants and subjects must be announced and may never intrude suddenly and unexpectedly. The bells announce the high priest so that ‘his sound will be heard when he enters the sanctuary” (Ex. 28:35). The bells on the high priest’s garment serve as a reminder that the loftiest positions in Jewish communal life are fundamentally ones of service, service to the Divine through service to the community.

The Zohar (1:50b) notes that the sound of the high priest’s bells (in Hebrew, their “kol”) evokes other appearances of the word “kol” in scripture, notably the “sound of the shofar” and the “voice of Jacob.” The sound of the shofar is loud and imposing, but the voice of Jacob is soft and meek. Nevertheless, they both give voice to the soul’s silent and inexpressible acknowledgement of the Divine and yearning for It. The high priest too is an expression of Israel’s collective longing to commune with the Divine, and he acts as their intermediary in this regard. Like his garments, he embodies the grandeur that Israel knows to attribute to God, yet also the humility and dedication it takes to serve Him.

Judy Gruen, Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”

The robe of the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, atoned for the sin of lashon harah—damaging speech, such as gossip. Lashon harah takes many forms— from lies and insinuations to accusations, casting aspersions, baseless conjectures, and veiled insults. A moment of casual or careless gossip can have devastating impact, ruining reputations, marriages, businesses, and self-esteem. “Loose lips sink ships” was a famous WWII public service reminder. “Loose lips sink lives” should be a timeless public service reminder now.

Wherever the Kohen Gadol went, the gentle sounds of the tiny bells would announce his arrival. As the public representative of all of Israel, the Kohen Gadol also sought to inspire the people to come closer to God and His mitzvot. How appropriate and beautiful that the sounds that announced him were mellow and calm. The Prophets’ role, in contrast, was often to warn us in stark terms against our wayward behavior. One might imagine a Prophet’s arrival being announced with clashing cymbals or high-pitched violins.

The silent pomegranates interspersed between the bells emphasized that the Kohen Gadol’s arrival need not be ostentatious, loud, or self-important. It’s a wonderful metaphor for our own speech and how careful we must be with its power. Do we use our speech to tear down or build up? Do our words land with a gut-punching thud, or with uplifting grace notes? With every sentence we speak, we make this choice.

With thanks to Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Rivkah Slonim, and Judy Gruen

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

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