For whom the bell tolls
On the bottom hem of the High Priest’s robe there were bells and pomegranates that would make noise as he walked:
“A golden bell and pomegranate, a golden bell and pomegranate on the bottom hem of the robe all around. And Aharon shall wear it when he serves and its sound will be heard (vayishama kolo) when he comes to the sanctuary before God and when he goes out so that he will not die.” (Shmot 28, 34-35)
While these verses may seem simple at first glance, in the original Hebrew it is unclear who or what is making the sound, who is meant to hear it, and what purpose it serves.
Rashbam explains that the bells on the hem of the robes would jingle, and this sound notified the other priests that the High Priest was approaching.
The golden bells would strike one another… and because the Holy One blessed be He commanded that “No man should be in the Tent of Meeting when he comes to atone in the sanctuary until he leaves,” therefore God commanded that “its sound will be heard when he comes” so that those who hear it can distance themselves from there.
According to Rashbam the bells serve a purely functional purpose, they are like the warning bells of motion sensors so the other priests know when to clear the area.
Similarly Ramban explains: “The reason for this is so the angels of God do not obstruct him.” As Ramban explains, the bells are a warning to the angels so they do not deny entrance to the High Priest, like an entry code to open a gate.
These two explanations understand that there is a purpose to the physical sound of the bells, they alert those in the vicinity and are intended to cause a reaction on their part.
The functionality of these bells is not always interpreted in such a literal sense, they have also be understood in more symbolic ways. According to the midrash on Parshat Acharei Mot the sound of the bells is a sign of respect, it is like politely knocking on the door to God’s house. The High Priest has to knock on the door, or more precisely- ring the bells, before he enters the sanctuary:
Rav said: Do not enter a city suddenly and do not enter a house suddenly… When Rabbi Yochanan went to inquire about Rabbi Chanina’s welfare he knocked on the door. And if someone who enters the home of his friend of flesh and blood needs to knock, then all the more so the High Priest needs to knock when he enters the house of the Holy of Holies. Therefore, [it is written that] “its sound will be heard.” (Shmot 28, 35) (Vayikra Rabba, Acharei Mot, 21)
According to this midrash the bells are not so much an alarm or alert, but rather a request. While this is generally the polite thing to do before entering someone else’s space, it is particularly important when entering God’s sanctified space.
The bells are not only interpreted as wordless noises, the midrash on Parshat Tzav compares the jingling of the bells to the sound of human speech. The clapper on the bell is like the tongue in the mouth, and since every article of clothing of the High Priest atones for a specific action, the midash understands that the bells atone for sins of speech.
Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Natan… There is no atonement for evil speech (lashon hara), and the Torah gave an atonement. What atones for it? The bells on the robe… they said, this noise will come and atone for this noise. (Vayikra Rabba, tzav, 10)
According to this midrash the sound of the bells represent speech, the musical composition is part of a ritual of atonement and appeasement.
Ibn Ezra suggests a different approach, one that divides between the different parts of the verse so that bells are not the cause of the sound that is heard.
There are those that say that God will “make His voice heard” when he (the High Priest) finishes his prayer when he is in the Holies. (Ibn Ezra hakatzar, ibid)
In the Hebrew “its sound will be heard,” (vayishama kolo) can also be translated as “His voice will be heard.” Ibn Ezra explains that this phrase is a promise; it tells us that God will answer the prayers of the High Priest in the Sanctuary. These words tell us that God answers even those silent prayers of the High Priest, the sound of his every move and every intention. While these sounds are imperceptible to human ears, the sound of the bells that accompanies this internal voice provides audible sound and gives a voice to the silent prayer and the silent answer.
Another possible explanation is brought by the author of Haktav v’Hakabalah. He compares the bells on the fringe of the High Priest’s robe to tzitzit on the fringes of a person’s clothes. Just as the sight of the tzitzit is supposed to remind a person of his job in this world, so too the ringing bells are supposed to rouse the priest in the service of God so he can fulfill his duty wholeheartedly.
In my opinion the mitzvah of the bells is similar to the mitzvah of tzitzit. There the mitzvah is to remind him of the mitzvot through his sense of sight, as it is written, “And you will see them and you will remember.” And here the mitzvah is to remind him of the mitzvot through the sense of hearing, since the role of the High Priest is greater and he is obligated in many more mitzvot than the rest of the priests and all the People of Israel, therefore he was granted another reminder that uses the sense of hearing in addition to the sense of sight. (Haktav v’Hakabalah Shmot, ibid)
The advantage of a reminder that uses sound is that it is a constant, like the sound of an alarm clock or a phone ring; it demands a level of constant attention and keeps the High priest vigilant in his holy service. It sets the pace of his life, a constant alarm clock to awaken his heart and direct his thoughts.
We have compared the sound of these bells to the buzz of a motion sensor, the beeps of an entrance code, a knock on a door, musical representation of words and atonement, and enhanced tzitzit- like a constant reminder to concentrate on every action. There is one more explanation that cannot be overlooked. We can also understand the words “v’nishma kolo,” “and his voice will be heard” to mean the voice of Aharon, the High Priest. In this case the bells symbolize the power behind his words and actions, which echo and reverberate in the sanctuary and beyond like sound waves.
The different sounds also have different audiences- be it the other priests, the High Priest, the angels, and even God.
It seems that these different explanations have intuitively seized upon the various common ways percussion instruments- bells, drums, and cymbals- are used in different ensembles.
For Ibn Ezra the sound of the bells symbolizes God’s voice and highlights the silent prayer of the High Priest, much like the use of percussion instruments in a symphony orchestra, which are often used to highlight the melody of other instruments, making their soft sounds more powerful. At other times the percussion instruments may be the heart of the piece, while the other instruments are there to back it up, similar to the interpretation in the first midrash. These instruments are also used to mimic the sound of the beating heart, or even make the listener’s heart pump faster, they express pressure or stress, emotional intensity or mental alertness, as we saw in Rashbam and Ramban. Finally, the explanation of the Ktav v’Hakabalah can be compared to modern bands; when there is no conductor the drums set the pace and hold down the rhythm, directing the other musicians how to play.
This chorus of commentaries explores the range of possible uses of the bell. If we listen to the many musicians we can hear a symphony of percussion. The audience is filled with a wide range of listeners, from the simplest priests to the Holy One, blessed be He.
All this harmony is found in one simple step of the High Priest in the Sanctuary of God, giving new meaning to the verse, “In the House of God we will walk with feeling.”