Photo Credit:

Ideally speaking, the high priest of the Children of Israel must be a unique and exceptional person. We choose not only the wisest and most pious of the sons of Aharon but also the healthiest, best looking, and wealthiest. We note, as a matter of Jewish law, that it was not always possible to find someone who had all of these remarkable qualities but the search began with looking for the ideal.

Then, when such a one was identified, he was separated from his peers, given the priestly clothing, and set along the path of the kohen gadol. Of course, his clothing set him apart, covered as he was in blues and reds and gold and jewels. He was to be accompanied everywhere by the segan, his second in command, he was entrusted with several assistants and officers, and was required to comport himself with regal dignity at all times.


For the most part, the kohen gadol would not depart from the Temple, instead either worshiping or secluding himself in his special Temple apartment. He would leave the Temple for no more than an hour or two a day, and would be sure not to leave Jerusalem unless something pressing and out of the ordinary needed doing. He would not attend public events, even those held in celebration of a mitzva that had been accomplished. To see him at a wedding, along with his assistants and officers, was a rare and exciting sight. He could most likely be seen in public only in houses of mourning, where he would go to comfort mourners. Even then, however, he would be surrounded by priests, and thus difficult to glimpse or reach. The mourners would see him and honor him appropriately, and then he would leave. The kohen gadol, then, cuts a striking and enigmatic figure. He was representative of the people to G-d but his role, for the most part, took him away from his people. (See the Rambam’s Klei HaMikdash, chap. 5).

Before he entered a room, his entourage of priests and assistants could be spied, and the bells on the bottom hem of his me’il, his special blue coat, could be heard. The medieval commentators argue over whether or not the hem was lined with bells in between woolen pomegranates or whether or not a golden bell was inserted inside each of the woolen enclosures. Either way, a quiet chiming went where he went, a tintinnabulation that accompanied his group as he walked slowly throughout the Temple grounds.

It has famously been suggested that the ringing of the bells was included in order to make the kohen gadol presence known before he entered a space. Thus, all could take a moment in private to prepare themselves before he would enter. While we do value the lesson of respecting the privacy of others, still the ringing was not loud and could not have arrived much before his large entourage entered a space, if it could be heard at all beyond them. Indeed, the Ralbag (Ex. 28:33) suggests that the bells were not made to be heard by others but that they were for the ears of the kohen gadol alone:

“Behold, the me’il was surrounded by bells of gold and pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet with woven linen. And the purpose of this was so that the sound of Aharon could be heard when he entered the sanctuary, and the sound would rouse him to the fact that he was in the sanctuary, that he was wearing the holy clothing for a certain purpose. In this manner, the divine will was met in these matters.”

The Ralbag draws our attention to a fundamental problem in the mannerisms of the kohen gadol. His clothing, entourage, looks, seclusion, and regal air all served to remind others that G-d was in their midst, that we are a people in a covenant with G-d, represented to Him, worshiping Him, living, in so many ways, with Him. But what of the kohen gadol himself? He did not see his clothing, he did not necessarily have special appreciation for his wisdom, wealth, and looks, and his entourage was made up purely of his various subordinates. To others, they were special; to him, they were assistants, meeting his needs, carrying the message that he was coming ahead to others, lending him an air of stateliness and nobility.

But there was one thing he wore, just for himself: the ringing bells, jangling on a reminder that he had a job to do, that he could not take his position or responsibilities for granted, that he was a servant and not truly the served. Perhaps no one outside a few feet of him heard this sound over the din of worshipers and prayer in the Temple. The kohen gadol himself was the intended audience of the special sound.

When we consider the bells of the kohen gadol, we come to know, once again, that it is hard to remember our purpose all of the time. We easily lose sight of just how precious the people who depend on us are, how fragile each moment, how sweet the joys, how worthy and worthwhile our accomplishments. We forget for hours and days and even things that were once hard to come by lose their sheen and we forget what they mean. Marriages, children, and professional success are not easily won. But we forget that. Our accomplishments and accouterments become part of the background noise, part of the next forgotten context in our oftentimes ambling story.

Did the bells always awaken the kohen gadol to his great purpose? We can only worry that he sometimes forgot to notice them, that even the representative of our people forgot what he was doing, wore his responsibilities lightly, and thought of us little. Indeed, counted among the high priests were not only the righteous, but also the wicked and those who became wicked while they occupied that great office.

And what of ourselves? Have we remembered how rare and invaluable our own time on this earth is? Have we let ourselves forget the things that really matter? Have we slipped, become less, made our accomplishments less significant?

We each need, like the kohen gadol, something to remind us what we are doing here in this world. Perhaps we require a daily study session, delving into words that remind us overtly of all we must do; perhaps we need a friend to call us every once in a while just to remind us that our purpose yet lies ahead; perhaps we need to visit someone in hospice so that we remember how quickly it all goes. Whether it means writing down the things that matter the most and putting that piece of paper in our wallets, setting a daily reminder on our phone, or a few words inside of our siddurim, we must find a way to jolt ourselves periodically from the everyday humdrum of going about our business in a thoughtless and indifferent manner.

We all know that there is so much that needs doing. If we do not do it, what will become of our loved ones? What will become of the world that they will occupy when we are gone? What will become of it while we are here, forgetting, just forgetting that each day actually counts for something?

These few minutes might change our path. A few moments of finding something to remind of us our potential, purpose, and greatness might make all of the difference in our coming years, transforming them into days and months of accomplishment, joy, and love. We all need – and stand to benefit from – the small, jangling, awakening bells of the kohen gadol.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleArab Israeli Granted Asylum in Britain, Claiming ‘Hostile Attention’ If He Returns Home
Next articleIsraeli Official: Biden Seeking to Oust Netanyahu
Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.