“For Whom the Bells Toll” Parashat Tetzaveh 5776

Parashat Tetzaveh concentrates on the clothing of the Kohanim (Priests). The Kohen Gadol wore eight special garments: pants, a tunic (ketonet), a robe (me’il), a belt, an apron (ephod), a breastplate (choshen), a turban, and a golden headband (tzitz). The Torah describes these garments down to the individual threads. The garment that interests us this week is the robe. Hashem commands Moshe to adorn the robe [Shemot 28:33-34]: “On its bottom hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson wool, on its bottom hem all around, and golden bells in their midst all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the bottom hem of the robe, all around.”

These pomegranates and bells were not simply a fashion statement. The pomegranates functioned as the clappers[1] of the bells, so that whenever the Kohen Gadol would walk around the pomegranates would constantly collide with the bells and the bells would tinkle. This was not only a fact – it was the law [Shemot 28:35]: “[The robe] shall be on Aharon when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy [Place] before Hashem and when he leaves, so that he will not die.”

Why would a Kohen be subject to the death penalty if he did not wear his bells? Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma, writes that “From the negative you deduce the positive. If [the Kohen] has [the garments] he will not be liable to death, but if he enters [when he is] lacking one of these garments he is liable to death by the hands of Heaven”. In other words, the verse is not referring exclusively to the bells. Rather, the Kohen Gadol had to wear his entire uniform while he officiated in the Mishkan. If he was missing even one of his garments, he was called “mechusar begadim” and he was subject to the Divine death penalty, meaning that while an earthly court could not put him to death, a heavenly court could.

The Ramban and the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh vehemently disagree with Rashi’s interpretation. Their primary reason is that the robe is the fourth priestly garment discussed in the Parasha. If the Torah is defining the punishment for the Kohen Gadol who is missing an article of clothing[2], then it should define his punishment either at the outset, before any of the priestly garments are described, or after all eight garments have been described. Defining the punishment for “mechusar begadim” after introducing the fourth garment just doesn’t make sense. The Ramban proposes an answer of his own, giving a Kabbalistic interpretation that is a topic for another shiur.

The Rashbam offers a different approach, noting that the Torah [Vayikra 16:17] prohibits anyone to be in the Mishkan together with the Kohen Gadol while he is officiating. According to the Rashbam, the noise of the bells on the robe was meant to warn anyone who happened to be in the Mishkan that the Kohen Gadol was entering and that he should quickly exit the Mishkan lest he be killed for transgressing this prohibition. Luleh mistefina, there are two problems with this interpretation. The first problem is that the prohibition of being in the Mishkan together with the Kohen Gadol is given as part of the description of the Yom Kippur service. When the Kohen Gadol entered the Mishkan on Yom Kippur, he was wearing an entirely different set of clothing (Bigdei lavan) that did not even have bells! The second problem is that nowhere does the Torah say that being in the Mishkan together with the Kohen Gadol is a capital crime, only that it is simply “prohibited”.

This past Shabbat I saw a beautiful explanation by the Ralbag[3]. After the Torah commands Aharon to light the menorah in the Mishkan, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 8:3] “Aharon did so – he lit the lamps toward the face of the menorah, as Hashem had commanded Moshe.” Rashi comments that the Torah is telling us that the words “as Hashem had commanded Moshe” come to teach us that Aharon did precisely as he was commanded, without even the slightest discrepancy. Well of course that’s what he did! Why would one think that Aharon would embellish Hashem’s command? My Rav and my Teacher, Rabbi Silberman, reminded me that Aharon lit the menorah day in and day out for nearly forty years. One would think that eventually the act of lighting the menorah would lose its lustre, and that Aharon’s enthusiasm would wane. Rashi’s message, teaches Rabbi Silberman, is that for forty years Aharon lit the menorah precisely as he did on the first day he was commanded – with the same fervour, with the same enthusiasm, and with the same concentration. The Ralbag explains that the purpose of the bells at the bottom of the robe was to serve as an aural reminder to the Kohen so that he should not lose concentration when he was officiating. Were he to lose his concentration, he would be entering the Mishkan for naught, an offense that did indeed warrant the death penalty.

To borrow a quote from Pharaoh’s butler [Bereishit 41:9], “Today I call to mind my faults”.  I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to maintain concentration in shul day in and day out. A potentially cathartic experience is being relegated to rote. Sometimes I’ll be putting away my tefillin and a thought will go through my mind – “Did I just finish davening?” Humans have a tremendous capability to adapt to change. Scientific research has verified time and time again that the happiness of lottery winners returns to its original pre-winning level only a short time after winning the lottery[4]. Similarly, people who have suffered, heaven forbid, major accidents are typically no less happy other people because their new status has become the new norm, the benchmark from which life is judged. How, then, is it possible to renew our religious fervour, at least for a half an hour or so each morning? The answer lies in the bells of the robe. Sound stirs us, and has the ability to awaken us from our daydreaming. Last night I drove to Beer Sheva in a car that had a Mobileye® system installed. This system uses a camera packaged with sophisticated image processing algorithms that can determine the distance between your car and the one in front of you. If you get closer than 0.8 seconds from the car in front of you, a light blinks red and an alarm is sounded. We were returning home after midnight and I must have lost concentration for a second. The car in front of me slowed down for whatever the reason, and the Mobileye made the most horrific noise, which woke me from my reverie. I hit the brakes, narrowly avoiding an accident. It was not the blinking light that caught my attention – it was the sound of the bells. Every step the Kohen would take in the Mishkan would be accompanied by a cacophony of bells.

Well then, should we make a bell-like noise while we are davening to maintain concentration? The Vilna Gaon was asked this question, and he gave a tongue-in-cheek answer from a verse in Megillat Esther [9:25]: “He said through a book that his evil thoughts return”[5]. If you want to keep your concentration in davening, look at a siddur and say the words. The combination of visual and aural cues will help keep your concentration from lapsing, at least for the thirty minutes it takes to daven.

Now if there were only a way that I could constantly remind myself of the verse in Tehillim [16:8] “I have placed Hashem before me constantly”. It probably has something to do with bells…

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yossef ben Bracha.

[1] For you Israelis, a “clapper” is an “Inbal”. For you Israeli girls named “Inbal” (quite a popular name in these parts), do NOT ever translate your name into English.

[2] A priestly wardrobe malfunction, as it were.

[3] Rav Levi ben Gershon, or Gersonides, was a medieval commentator, who lived about two hundred years after Rashi. The Ralbag has a similar approach to the Torah as the Rambam, which tries to reconcile philosophy and religion.

[4] Worse, one study showed that about 1% of lottery winners go bankrupt every year. That’s roughly twice the average for the general population.

[5] אמר עם הספר ישוב מחשבתו הרעה

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts