The Sound of a Guest

Tetzavveh By :  Melissa Crespy JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Mar 6, 2004 / 5764

I am continually amazed at how the Rabbis of ancient times were able to make even seemingly obscure passages in the Torah relevant to their times – and ours. Our parashah this week is full of details, details about the clothing and ornaments of the priests and of their ordination. And while the Rabbis of ancient times may have longed for a rebuilding of the Temple – with all its consequent religious, national and political significance – in their day it was no longer standing, and its priests were no longer functioning. What then, to make of the sections of the Torah dealing with the priests’ garments?

Vayikra Rabbah, a midrash on the book of Leviticus and other parts of the Torah, has interesting comments to make on the section of our parashah which deals with Aaron’s robe. According to the Torah, on the hem of the robe are to be golden bells and pomegranates of yarn – one after the other – all around the hem. Exodus 28:35 tells us: Aaron shall wear it 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.

Now, J. G. Frazer tells us that bells of this type were widely used in Europe, Asia and Africa, mostly to ward off evil spirits. (see Theodor Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 263-278). That is an interesting fact to know, but it doesn’t teach us much about how to live our lives. That is what we find in Vayikra Rabbah (21:8). Playing with the words “so that the sound of it is heard” – which in Hebrew is v’nishma kolo – the midrash takes kolo to mean not “the sound of it” but “the sound/voice of him” – which is a legitimate reading of these words. In other words, Aaron’spresence should be heard as he enters and leaves the sanctuary – not necessarily the bells. Taking off on this interpretation of kolo the midrash tells us:

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai said: The man who enters his own house or, needless to say, the house of his fellow man unexpectedly, the Holy One hates, and I do not exactly love him. Rav said: Do not enter your city nor even your own home unexpectedly [without informing your kin of your coming.] When Rabbi Yohanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of Rabbi Hanina, he would first clear his throat, in keeping with “and his voice [kolo] shall be heard when he goes in . . .”(Exodus 28:35).

From this reading of one word in our text, the Rabbis teach us an important lesson: don’t arrive unannounced in the home of someone else, or even in your own home. Give some sign of your impending arrival so that those inside are not embarrassed or displeased by your arrival. We can imagine all kinds of scenarios in which this might be true: if someone is in ill health, they may be in a disheveled state when you arrive; give them the courtesy to prepare for your arrival, or to refuse your visit if they are not up to it. When you are visiting someone’s home, if you arrive unexpectedly, you may embarrass them by finding their home a mess – especially if they have young children and lots of toys! Give them the courtesy of preparing their home so that you and they can feel at ease.

Is this a “rule” that should always apply? Probably not in the case of people with whom you are very close, and who love you and care about you however you appear. However, in many cases, even within families, this courtesy learned from the “sound” of the entry of the high priest, is one to be taken seriously, and may save the visitor and those visited potentially damaging embarrassment.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.