By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D., ’10, Academic Dean, Master of Jewish Studies Program and Rabbinical School
“Listen to the Bells”
Exodus 39 details the making of the High Priest’s sacral vestments (bigdei kodesh), including the breastplate, ephod, robe, tunic, headdress, and sash. Echoing Exodus 28, instructions are given for yarns, linens, cords, shoulder-pieces, mounted stones, braided chains, embroidery, and other ornaments, along with cloth pomegranates and golden bells affixed to the hem of the robe. With the latter adornment, the priest was not only separated in appearance, but also in sound.
Bells (pa’amonim) were a common feature of priestly attire in the ancient world. A statue of a priest found in northwest Syria includes a row of bells near the hem of the robe. Greek philosopher Plutarch compared the bells of the Hebrew High Priest to the Dionysian cult (Quaestiones convivales, 672a). The extra-canonical book of Sirach notes their pleasing tones (45:9), while Josephus called the alteration of fringes and golden bells a “beautiful contrivance” (Ant. iii. 7.4).
Priestly bells were not simply decorative or strictly musical. Their primary purpose was apotropaic: scaring off evil spirits. According to Exodus 28:35, Aaron “shall wear [the bell-lined robe] while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out—that he may not die.”
Evil spirits lurking in thresholds and liminal spaces are staples of mythology. The motif is present with Aaron, who was safe inside the holy place, but needed protection when entering and exiting. More specifically, the bells were thought to summon divine power to frighten off the hovering spirits. Josephus touched on this by linking the golden bells to thunder and the pomegranates to lightning—signs of divine might (Ant. iii. 7.7). Maimonides commented that a High Priest entering the sanctuary without his bell-lined robe was “liable for death at the hand of Heaven” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash 10:4).
These beliefs highlight the perceived magical-mystical power of sound. Unlike a physical or seeable object, sound has no tangible shape or substance. It enters the invisible pathway of hearing and is processed through the mysterious channels of emotion. As such, sound is conceived as a line of communication with the equally invisible supernatural realm.
Some of this associative potency remains with us today. Torah scrolls are customarily dressed in mantles and bell-adorned breastplates and crowns. This “scroll-as-priest” imagery signals the transfer of authority from the sacred person to the sacred text. And, on a spiritual-psychological level, the jingling Torah bells act as a shield against negative energies.
[A longer version of this d’var Torah was published as “The Magical Sound of Priestly Bells,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 46:1 (2018).]