One of the four ‘added’ garments the Kohain Gadol wears is the me’il. This robe-like garment had a unique addition of dangling bells placed within woven pomegranates at its bottom hem. The Torah gives the reason for this special article of clothing:
“And it [the me’il] will be upon Aharon to serve; and its [singular masculine] voice will be heard when he [Aharon] comes to the Kodesh before God and when he leaves, and he will not die” (28; 35)
The brevity and ambiguous wording (e.g. to whom or what is the ‘it’ referring to when Torah writes: ‘its voice’?) employed within the verse has inspired many a commentator to propose quite differing explanations.
RaMBaN explains that it is not respectful of anyone to suddenly appear before God, the King of Kings, and therefore the ‘voice of the me’il’ would be heard to preclude any ‘surprise’ entrance. The difficulty with this approach is that while it prevents a suddenentrance, what is a ‘sudden’ exit (‘and when he leaves’) that he would have to announce?
RaSHBaM posits that the sound of the me’il’s bells would alert other people to the presence of the Kohain Gadol in the Ohel Moed area, warning them not to enter for fear of death (as it states in Va’Yikra 16:17). While this solves the issue of the inclusion ofAharon’s exit (the difficulty with the aforementioned RaMBaN), this explanation introduces a third subject into the verse – the final ‘he’ referring to someone else, not previously included in the verse’s description – which makes this opinion difficult to accept.
Chizkuni takes a novel approach, stating that ‘its (sing. masc.) voice’ is really referring toAharon’s voice – and the bells are there to assist his prayers (i.e. his ‘voice’) to God when he enters and exits His presence, serving to direct Aharon’s words solely towards God. But, why do bells help in this issue and why would the absence of these prayer-assisting bells cause his death!?
To understand the true function of the me’il which also resolves the issues listed above, we have to look at the other garments the Kohain Gadol wears – the surrounding players.
The ephod: a vest placed over his clothing; made from gold, sky-blue, purple and scarlet wool, and twined linen. Aharon is to use it to ‘carry the names [of Bnei Yisrael] before God as a remembrance’.
The choshen: the breast-plate placed atop and made from the same materials as theephod; used by Aharon to ‘carry the judgment of Bnei Yisrael before God eternally’.
The tzitz: made from gold (and attached by sky-blue wool) and placed on the forehead of Aharon. It was used to ‘carry the sins (specifically concerning sacrifices) of Bnei Yisrael before God.’
The similarities between these three items of clothing are: they all include gold, are all placed very conspicuously upon Aharon’s body and they all ‘carry’ something ‘before God’. And while the me’il is also to be used ‘before God’ and includes gold and sky-blue wool (officially establishing the me’il as one of the four Kohain Gadol garments), that’s where its similarities end. For, the entire me’il was made of only one color – sky blue – worn underneath the other garments and its gold is only used in the bells, at the verybottom, perhaps even hidden within the fabric pomegranates (see RaMBaN, on 28:34, where he questions the understanding that the bells and pomegranates would hang separately. He doesn’t understand what would therefore be the purpose of the presence of these hanging pomegranates. Rather, they were hollow containers for the more important bells and their Divine purpose, as explained above). There is also no mention of Bnei Yisrael in the me’il’s use, only that Aharon is to use it ‘to serve’; it is also the only garment to make a sound; the only one that prevents death; and the only one that mentions his entrance and exit. So how do these glaring differences explain the me’il’s significance?
With no mention of Bnei Yisrael, we can assume that this garment is about Aharonhimself. The fact that it is used ‘to serve’ when he ‘enters and exits’ tells us that theme’il’s function relates to the all-inclusive, nonspecific service of the mishkan. Its almost totally hidden placement upon the body and the use of only one color, in addition to the subtlety of gold as used only for the enwrapped bells at the bottom hem, conveys an exaggerated non-focus on the character of the clothing itself (as opposed to the ‘opulent’ display of the other three garments). The other times the punishment of death is mentioned concerning the mishkan and the kohain service aside from the me’il is if someone enters when Aharon is performing his duty (as mentioned above), if a kohain enters the mishkan drunk or if he enters unwashed by the kiyor’swater. All of these cases address the fatal mistake of entering and serving ‘inappropriately’ before God.
Through the me’il God is teaching an important lesson to Aharon and the rest of the nation. For while the other three garments perform their lofty functions through their intricate symbolism, magnificent material and visible placement, the overly ‘subtle’me’il has a very different purpose. It serves to focus on the wearer and not what’s worn; it directs the spotlight onto the performer and not the performance. God is stating that just as important as the kohain’s proper uniform is his correct intention. Even if he dons the approved garments and performs the activities meticulously, if his intentions or focus is less than perfect and therefore his ‘service’ is faulty, duringwhichever stage of the avodah (‘entering’ and ‘exiting’), then it will nonetheless lead to his death like any other who has served inappropriately. The subtle tinkling of the hidden bells plays the Kohain Gadol an ever-so-soft reminder of his serious personal responsibility and the heightened level of focus he is required to achieve.
No matter how fancy our suits or how expensive our etrog, no matter how early we come to shul or how consistently we attend daf yomi, if our intentions are flawed our Divine mission has failed.
Rav Jonathan Bailey