This week’s Torah portion of Tetzave discusses the priestly garments. One of the garments of the Kohen Gadol, (the high priest) was the me’il (the robe), which had pomegranates, tassels, and bells on the bottom. The Torah states, “It must be on Aharon in order to minister. Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem and when he leaves, so that he not die” (Shemos 28:35).
Rabbeinu Bachye brings a few interpretations of what “Its (his) sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary ” refers to. The first is that it refers to the voice of Aharon, for when he came to the Sanctuary wearing the eight garments, with this tactic, his voice would be heard and his prayers accepted. Included in “its sound” is the sound of the robe with the noise from the bells. This is a moral lesson, (mussar haskel) and the Torah is teaching man proper manners, (derech eretz) for one who wants to enter before the king, he must first knock at the entrance of the throne room, so that he won’t just suddenly enter. The kingdoms on earth are like the kingdom in Heaven, for anyone who enters the throne room of the king suddenly deserves to be executed, as a stratagem of the kingdom. We see this written by King Achashveirosh, ‘Who is not summoned, his law is one- to be put to death’ (Esther 4:11).
Another reason is to make known that the Kohen Gadol wanted to enter. Even though everything is revealed and known to the Shechina (Holy Presence), also the angels, holy ministers before Him, nothing is hidden from them. The reason [for the bells] were so that the angels wouldn’t bump into him, which would have happened if he had walked in suddenly. The bells were not to introduce a new matter to the Shechina (Hashem’s Holy Presence), nor to the angels who were there, rather the matter obviously included great purposes, for it was a warning to the Angel’s to leave their positions to make room for the loved one of the King, for the King’s honor, so that he can enter and serve Him alone.
Furthermore, so that the kohen would not get hurt if he entered suddenly. With this sign they (the angels) would get out of his way and give the servant of The King room. When he left [the bells] were also an announcement, as if the kohen called them back to be ministering in front of Him as they were originally doing because his service had ended and now, he is leaving. [The pasuk] then says ‘and he will not die’ to teach that if he would come there without being heard and barge in suddenly then he would die because the ministering angel that were there surrounding the Shechina would bump into him… Therefore, the kohen was commanded to be sure the bells are heard, similar to what it says in Tehillim (55:16)’ That together we would devise counsel; in the house of G-d we would walk with a multitude.’
And this sign of announcement, as well as asking permission, was required throughout the year. The reason why it says ‘its voice shall be heard upon entering the Holy,’ but not when he went into the inner chamber of The Holy of Holies, is because in the Holy of Holies he did not have to be heard, and he did not enter with his golden garments, rather only with his white garments. This was the great level of the Jews, that the Kohen Gadol would enter into the The Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur without needing the sign of announcement or asking for permission. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This gives us a whole new understanding of the Jews being equated to angels on Yom Kippur. To the extent that the Kohen Gadol was able to enter without any announcement, into the holiest place in the world where no one can enter besides him on Yom Kippur, that’s the level a Jew can reach, and it’s a praise for the entire Jewish nation who he represents.
However, throughout the rest of the year, according to the second reason for the bells, if the angels really knew when he was coming in, why didn’t they just move out of his way as soon as he came in? Why were bells needed? The Kohen Gadol was doing the job of serving Hashem just as the angels were; they should have respected it when it was his turn to do the service of Hashem. Why then were the bells needed as a sign and announcement to indicate when he was coming and leaving?
It would seem that it was ceremonial. Just as l’havdil, the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace has a whole procession for the honor of the king, so too the announcement of the bells when the Kohen Gadol was walking in and out of Sanctuary was a “ceremonial changing of the guards” for the honor of Hashem. Without this “ceremony,” the Angel’s would not move from their post because that would be disrespectful to Kavod Shamayim, the honor of Hashem. Therefore if the bells would not have chimed and the Kohen Gadol would suddenly come in, he would die and that is also why the Angel’s would only return to their post upon hearing the bells at the Kohen Gadol’s exit.
Sensitivities towards Hashem’s honor are paramount to basic manners, but we see that it should also be applied to human kings as well, because this is a moral lesson of how a person should always act. Nevertheless, the greatness of Jewish nation is that on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place on earth, Hashem allows his beloved servant to be like “an equal,” a beloved son who does not need a ceremonial announcement to enter.