What do you call someone who acts contrary to his nature?
A hypocrite? A beginner? A beautiful person? The significance
of Aaron’s noisy robe
INSIGHTS: Smoldering Tales
Evening has fallen, and the fire which has been blazing all
day long is growing weary. But the kindly stoker has one more
trick up his sleeve
A TELLING STORY: The Deal
When the advantage is yours, drive a hard bargain—especially
when you’re dealing with G-d
And you shall make the [priestly] robe completely
of blue wool... And make upon its hem pomegranates of blue,
purple and scarlet wool, and bells of gold between [or: within]
them all around... And it shall be upon Aaron when he serves.
And its sound shall be heard when he enters into the holy
before G-d... lest he die.
A great strong wind rent the mountains and shattered
the rocks... but G-d was not in the wind. And after the wind
came a storm, but G-d was not in the storm. And after the
storm came fire, but G-d was not in the fire. And after the
fire came a still, small voice.
I Kings 19:11-12
A rich man once invited a beggar to share his
meal. The host settled quietly into his seat and tucked his
linen napkin under his chin. The guest, finding his body supported
by silken luxury instead of the usual hard bench, let go a
sigh of surprised pleasure; with much creaking and squeaking
he burrowed into the chair, determined to do justice to its
The soup arrived and proceeded to make its casual
way down the rich man’s gullet. Across the table, a full frontal
attack was being launched against the delicate china bowl;
the heavy silver spoon clanged and swooped, carrying every
precious drop of steaming gold to an audibly eager mouth.
The subsequent assault on the steak platter was no less enthused.
As the wealthy man silently ingested bite-sized pieces of
meat, his dinner partner, a maelstrom of clattering knives
and chomping jaws, ooh’ed and ah’ed his admiring way through
In the kitchen, the chef remarked to the butler:
‘‘At last, a man who appreciates fine cuisine!
The master may be indifferent to the
fine things in life, but his guest! What passion!
How involved he is, how worshipful of quality. Now, this is
a man with a sense of the sublime...”
‘‘You are mistaken,’’ said the butler. ‘‘Indeed,
the very opposite is true. The rich man’s tranquility indicates
the depth of his involvement with his dinner, while the pauper’s
noisy excitement only underscores how alien all this is to
him. To the rich man, luxury is the very essence of life;
so he no more exclaims over it than you jump for joy upon
finding yourself alive in the morning. But for the poor man,
this is an other-worldly experience —for him, life is a boiled
potato. All that noise you hear is the friction between his
habitual self and the pampered, steak-eating self he is attempting
Noise is the sound of resistance. Consider the
sounds emitted by a log fire, a pile of burning straw and
an oil lamp. In each case, matter is succumbing to the energy
locked within it. The log offers the most resistance, voicing
its reluctance to part with its outer form with a noisy crackle
and sudden explosions. The straw, not quite as physical as
the brute log, protests with a whispering sizzle. And the
oil in the lamp, the finest substance of the three, burns
silently, freely yielding to the essence within.
Thus, Elijah the Prophet experienced G-d’s immanence
as ‘‘a still, small voice.’’ In his refined self, the material
of the body did not resist the spirituality of the soul; so
Divine reality was not perceived in a norm-shattering
storm, but in the same tranquil manner in which a person is
aware of the life within him.
And yet, Aaron is commanded to wear a robe with
bells sewn onto its hem, so that ‘‘its sound shall be heard
when he enters into the holy before G-d.’’ For the Kohen
Gadol (High Priest) represents the entirety of Israel
in his service of the Almighty, including those for whom connection
to G-d is still a noisy struggle—the struggle to transcend
their external, earth-bound selves and bring to light their
true, inner identity.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov was once asked: Why
do certain disciples of yours make such a ruckus while praying?
They shout, they wave their arms, they virtually throw themselves
about the room. Is this the appropriate way to commune with
The founder of chassidism replied: Have you
ever seen a drowning man? He shouts, he thrashes his arms,
he struggles with the waves that threaten to claim him as
their own. Throughout the day, a person is swamped by the
demands of his material existence; prayer is the attempt to
break free of the engulfing waters that threaten to extinguish
one’s spiritual life.
True, a noisy service of G-d is an indication
that the person is ‘‘not yet there.’’ Had he succeeded in
transcending the mundane, his endeavor to draw close to the
Almighty would be a tranquil one—his soul would strive upwards
with a silent, frictionless flame. His noisy struggle reflects
the fact that his spiritual self and priorities have not yet
become the seat of his identity, that his ‘‘natural’’ self
still lies with the material externalities of life. Nevertheless,
this is a healthy sign: he has not succumbed. He is straining
to free himself of the coarse envelope of his material being,
straining to rise above his presently defined self.
So the bells on the Kohen Gadol’s robe
are an indispensable part of his Divine service. ‘‘Its sound
shall be heard when he enters into the holy before G-d,’’
commands the Torah, ‘‘lest he die.’’ Were he to disclaim the
lowly ‘‘hem’’ of the nation he represents, he would be violating
the very essence of his mission. Were his service of the Almighty
not to embody also the struggles of his imperfect brethren,
it would have no place in
G-d’s inner sanctum.
Apples and Pomegranates
In light of the above, we can understand
the deeper significance of a debate between two of our sages
regarding the bells and pomegranates on the Kohen Gadol’s
The debate revolves around the question as to
how to interpret the word b’tocham, which translates
either as ‘‘between them’’ or, in a more literal rendering
of the word, ‘‘within them.’’ Does the Torah command to ‘‘make
upon its hem pomegranates... and bells of gold between
them’’ or to fix the ‘‘bells of gold within them’’?
Rashi,  in his commentary on the verse, writes that
the bells were ‘‘between them... between each two pomegranates
a bell was attached and hanging on the hem of the robe.’’
Nachmanides  disagrees. ‘‘I don’t know why the master [Rashi] made the bells
separate, a bell between two pomegranates,’’ he writes. ‘‘According
to this, the pomegranates served no function. And if they
were there for beauty, then why were they made as hollow pomegranates?
They should have been made as golden apples... Rather, [the
bells] were literally within them, for the pomegranates were
hollow–like small, unopened pomegranates–and the bells were
contained within them...’’
‘‘Why does he favor apples more than pomegranates?’’
wonders the Mizrachi.  As other commentaries explain, Nachmanides’ difficulty with
Rashi’s interpretation is that the hollow form of the pomegranate
(Rashi himself also says that they were ‘‘round and hollow’’)
indicates that they served a functional rather than decorative
purpose; but what does Nachmanides mean when he says that
‘‘if they were there for beauty... they should have been made
as golden apples’’?
Indeed, the menorah was decorated with
spheres resembling apples, whose sole purpose was for beauty.
 Perhaps Nachmanides derives from this that in the
making of the Sanctuary and its vessels and the priestly garments,
the decorative fruit of choice was the apple. But this itself
requires explanation. Why apples? And why, according to Rashi,
is the menorah beautified with apples and the Kohen
Gadol’s robe with pomegranates?
Both the apple and the pomegranate are representative
of the Jewish people. The Torah likens Israel to an ‘‘apple’’
(‘‘Like an apple among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved’’  ) as well as to a ‘‘pomegranate’’
(‘‘Your lips are like a thread of scarlet, and your mouth
is comely; your temple is like a piece of pomegranate within
your locks’’ 
). But while the apple describes Israel in a virtuous
the pomegranate allegory refers to the ‘‘hollow’’ or ‘‘empty
ones amongst you.’’ As the Talmud interprets it, the verse
‘‘your temple is like a piece of pomegranate’’ comes to say
that ‘‘Even the empty ones amongst you are full of good deeds
as a pomegranate [is full of seeds].’’  (Raka, the Hebrew word
used by the verse for ‘‘temple’’ is related to the word reik,
‘‘empty.’’ Thus ‘‘your temple’’ is homiletically rendered
‘‘the empty ones amongst you.’’)
The pomegranate is more than a model of something
that contains many particulars. On a deeper level, this metaphor
also addresses the paradox as to how an individual may be
‘‘empty’’ and, at the same time, be ‘‘full of good deeds as
The pomegranate is a highly compartmentalized
fruit. Each of its hundreds of seeds is wrapped in its individual
envelope of flesh, and separated from its fellows by a tough
membrane. In the same way, it is possible for a person to
do good deeds –many good deeds–and yet, they remain isolated
acts, with little or no effect on his nature and character.
So unlike the ‘‘apple,’’ who is delicious from core to skin,
the ‘‘pomegranate’’ contains many virtues, but they
do not become him. He is full of good deeds, yet remains morally
and spiritually hollow.
This explains the connection between the pomegranates
and the bells on the hem of the priestly robe. As explained
above, the noisy bells represent the imperfect individual
who is striving to overreach himself. Although he is still
a spiritual pauper he refuses to act like one—hence the noisy
friction that characterizes his life.
To become an apple one must first be a pomegranate.
One must act unlike himself, like a poor man feasting at a
rich man’s table; a clumsy spectacle, perhaps, but an indispensable
one, if he is to transcend the selfish and animalistic ‘‘self’’
into which he was born. The first step to become perfect is
to act perfect. Indeed, before Elijah experienced G-d in a
‘‘still, small voice,’’ he first beheld the wind, the storm
and the fire.
Thus, Nachmanides sees the pomegranate-encased
bells on Aaron’s hem as a preliminary phase of one’s Divine
service, rather than as the service itself.  Beauty, however, is to be found in the apple-perfection of
the menorah—seven lamps of pure olive oil, representing
the soul’s silent, tranquil flame. Were the pomegranates on
the priestly robe for beauty, argues Nachmanides, they would
not be pomegranates, but apples. These hollow fruits are purely
functional, a preparatory stage in the soul’s quest for perfection
and union with her Divine source.
Rashi, however, expresses a perspective from
which the beauty of Israel also lies in its pomegranates.
In fact, in a certain sense, the struggle of the imperfect
soul is even more beautiful than the serene perfection of
her more virtuous fellow. For the perfectly righteous individual
serves G-d by being what he is, while every positive deed
of the ‘‘empty ones amongst you’’ is an act of sacrifice and
self-transcendence. So even before a person attains perfection–even
if his entire life is spent in the quest for perfection–the
clamor of his efforts is music to G-d’s ear.
A Contemporary Application
There are those who claim that the Torah and
its mitzvos are a private matter between the Jew and his G-d,
not something to be paraded on the streets. Tefillin,
Shabbos, the sanctity of family life, ‘‘esoteric’’ concepts
such as ‘‘Divine Reality’’ or ‘‘Moshiach,’’ are not to be
hawked on a downtown sidewalk or catch-phrased on a slick
billboard. Never has anything like this been done in our history
as a nation, they say. You are vulgarizing the soul of Judaism.
But this is the hem of history, the lowliest
and most superficial generation yet. To this generation, the
small still voice of G-d sounds like alien noise. Should this
voice be hushed, to be whispered only among the apples? Or
should its call be sounded, noisy be it, until it is heard
above the din?
Speaking to this generation in its own language–the
language of the sound-bite, of incessant compartmentalization
and hollow packaging–ever further raises the noise level.
But fighting fire with fire is not only effective—it also
brings to light facets of one’s own potential that would otherwise
The bells and pomegranates that broadcast the
Divine truth are more than the means toward a tranquil end—they
are themselves things of beauty.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Adar 11
5735 (February 22, 1975)
Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch:
When I was a child attending cheder,
our teacher, Rabbi Nissan Skoblo, would conclude each day
of study with a story.
In our little village, where matches were a luxury, the custom
was to bury a smoldering coal from the day’s fire in ashes
before retiring to bed in the evening. In the morning, one
would blow on this coal and bring forth a spark with which
to start the new day’s fire.
Such was the effect of our teacher’s story at
the end of the school day. Every evening, he would bury a
silent ember in our hearts, from which he would draw a renewed
desire for study on the following morning.
All that day, the holiest of the year, they
had stood in the synagogue, fasting, repenting, beseeching
the Almighty to grant them a year of life, health and happiness.
Now, the ‘‘gate closing’’ prayers had concluded, the shofar
had been sounded, and the townspeople of Berditchev were
breaking their fast with the festive post-Yom Kippur meal.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev turned to
his disciples and said: ‘‘Let me tell you of a deal that
was struck today with the Almighty in the women’s section
of the synagogue.
‘‘Sarah Leah, a widow with a houseful of hungry
tots, lifted her eyes heavenward and said: ‘Father in Heaven!
I know that I’ve sinned. I’ve gossiped, I’ve neglected my
prayers, I’ve gotten angry. But You, G-d, did not do that
great, either. Look how You’ve treated a poor woman and
her five little orphans: our goat stopped giving milk, the
roof of our humble hut caved in, and the baby was ill all
winter. But I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a deal—I’ll forgive
You, You’ll forgive me, and from now on we’ll both do only
good to each other...’
‘‘Foolish woman,’’ concluded Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
‘‘Why did she let Him off so easily? She could have brought
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe
by Yanki Tauber
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105.
 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270.
 Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, 1448-1526, wrote a commentary on Rashi’s
 Rashi’s commentary, Exodus 25:31.
 Song of Songs 2:2; see Midrash Rabba on verse, Talmud, Shabbos
88a and Zohar II, 120b.
 Likkutei Torah, Bechukotai 49d; Ohr HaTorah, Noach
 See Nachmanides’ commentary on Exodus 28:43, where he compares
the ringing of the robe’s bells to the requesting of permission
before entering into the presence of a king.