We read in Parashat Tetzaveh of the me’il, the special robe worn by the kohen gadol, which was lined on the bottom by bells and decorations shaped as pomegranates. Rashi (28:33-34) explains that the bells and pomegranates were affixed along the bottom of the me’il in alternating fashion, with a bell in between every pair of pomegranates. When the Torah speaks of bells being positioned “in the midst” of the pomegranates (“be-tokham” – 28:33), it means, according to Rashi, that each bell was positioned in between each pair of pomegranates.
The Ramban (28:31) disagrees, claiming that the bells were placed inside the pomegranates. In his view, the Torah required placing the bells “within” the pomegranates in the literal sense, as the pomegranates were decorative coverings around the bells.
Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in Ha-ketav Ve’ha’kabbala, noted that this debate has significant implications with regard to the volume of the sound produced by the bells as the kohen gadol walked. According to the Ramban, this sound was muffled, and therefore not very loud, whereas according to Rashi, the bells produced a loud noise that could be heard from a distance.
Rav Mecklenberg draws upon the Ramban’s view in advancing his theory concerning the function of the bells of the me’il. The conventional understanding is that the bells were needed to symbolically announce the kohen gadol’s entry into the Mishkan. It would be disrespectful for the kohen gadol to enter God’s private chamber, as it were, without “knocking” and announcing his arrival in advance, and thus the bells served to symbolically announce that he was entering. Rav Mecklenberg, however, explained the function of the bells differently, claiming that the sound was for the kohen gadol himself. While other members of the nation wear tzitzit as a constant reminder of their obligations to God, Rav Mecklenberg writes, the kohen gadol required not only this visual reminder, but also the auditory reminder of the bells. As he represented the spiritual ideal to which we should all strive, the kohen gadol serving in the Mikdash had to conduct himself with an especially intense level of spiritual awareness. As such, while the rest of us just wear tzitzit, the kohen gadol also wore bells to remind him of his obligations to the Almighty. Therefore, Rav Mecklenberg writes, the bells were covered by material – the decorative pomegranates – that muffled its sound, as the sound needed to be heard only by the kohen gadol himself, and not by others.