Naomi Graetz

Bells on His Toes: Priestly Garments

Some of us may remember the Mother Goose poem “Ride a Cockhorse to Banbury Cross”.

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross, To see a fine lady upon a white horse; Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, She shall have music wherever she goes.

I always wondered about the bells on her toes. Is it to keep tabs on her? Is it the equivalent of the GPS phone tracker that parents use to know where their children are? The interesting expression “with bells on my toes” means to get someplace eagerly, enthusiastically and on time. On the other hand, the well-known allegorical poem, “Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe tells the tale of the silver bells of youth that eventually lead us to church bells that toll death. Many of us may remember that the title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls is taken from John Donne’s sermon, “No Man is An Island”. Poe, Hemingway and Donne allude to a connection between death and bells. Is it possible that they knew their bible well enough to know that wearing bells can ward off death?


In this week’s parsha, we read that Aaron is directed by God to wear all sorts of special garments, including bells of gold on the bottom of his clothing:

The high priest’s robe will have on its hem “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.

The verse is not clear as to what the sound is or why there should be a sound, although the purpose seems to be clear:

“Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before God and when he goes out—that he may not die. (Exodus 28: 31-35)

Perhaps the reason for the sound, is to make sure that no one else is there when Aaron goes in to sacrifice. Or perhaps, the reason is to warn God, that it is Aaron who is approaching the holy of holies and it is like a doorbell, so that the gates of the sanctuary will open to him. Perhaps it is out of respect for God—you don’t just go in to His home without “knocking”. Another possibility is that it is a reminder to Aaron himself—reminding him of his responsibilities as a leader. It may be an annoying sound, but since his leadership is so important, perhaps he needs to be constantly reminded—and that is the function of the bells. Don’t fall asleep on the job! Don’t cheat the people! Remember you were chosen for a purpose! Don’t take the job for granted! And if you don’t keep the bells ringing around you, you might die.

The Jerusalem Talmud asks the question “Why does the High Priest serve in eight vestments? There are several fascinating answers:

Rebbi Ḥanania said, it corresponds to circumcision, which takes place on the eighth day. Another question is Why does he not serve in golden vestments? Because of haughtiness. Rebbi Simon said, because of do not inflate yourself in front of the king. Rebbi Levi said, because an accuser does not become a defense attorney. Yesterday it was written about them, they made golden gods for themselves, and today he would officiate in golden vestments? Later in the passage Rebbi Simon said, just as sacrifices atone, so the garments atone, shirt, trousers, turban, and vest. The trousers were atoning for uncovering nakedness, as you are saying, make for them linen trousers to cover the flesh of nakedness. The turban was atoning for haughtiness, as you are saying, he put the turban on his head. The belt was atoning for [thieves; but some are saying, for] the crooked ones. Rebbi Simon goes on to say in the name of Rebbi Jonathan of Bet-Guvrin: For two things there was no atonement but the Torah established atonement for them. These are those: one who spreads slander, and the involuntary homicide. For him who spreads slander there was no atonement, but the Torah fixed atonement for them, the bells of the coat: it shall be on Aaron in service, and its sound be heard. The sound may come to atone for the sound. For the involuntary manslaughter there was no atonement but the Torah established atonement for them, the death of the High Priest as it is said He shall dwell in the refuge cities until the High Priest’s death (Yoma 7:3).

In another Talmudic passage we are taught

that just as “sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly vestments make atonement.” Rabbi Inini bar Sason continues: The belt atones for thought of the heart. The robe of the High Priest atones for malicious speech. From where is this known? Rabbi Ḥanina says: It is logical that an item that produces sound, i.e., the robe, which has bells, shall come and atone for an evil sound. The discussion ends by making an interesting distinction: Incense effects atonement for malicious speech spoken in private, whereas the robe, on which the bells that produce noise are placed, effects atonement for malicious speech spoken in public (BT Zevachim 88b).

In other words, the robe with the bells on the hem makes a tinkling sound when the priest walks. Slander is a sin of sound, so the robe by making a sound atones for the slanderous speech. Let us imagine “the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells” (shades of Poe) cancelling the speech of the slanderer and postponing his death.

Slanderous speech seems to be the name of the game in these days of trouble. There is a lack of civility. Civil discourse is obsolete. According to our tradition, slander is a sin of immorality, and our leaders should be aware of their susceptibility to sin because of their positions as servants of the people. It is interesting that the list of sins that this Talmudic passage chooses to illustrate are sins that have to do with moral qualities connected with leadership. The outer garments seem to reflect this. There is a well-known maxim: Clothes make the man! What we wear represents us. Perhaps it would be a good idea if our leaders were to wear bells on their clothing as a constant reminder of their responsibilities to all its citizens.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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