One of the special garments worn by the kohen gadol was the me’il (robe), which featured along its bottom hem a series of bells and decorations in the form of pomegranates. The commentators disagree in explaining how precisely the bells and pomegranates were arranged. Rashi, commenting to Parashat Tetzaveh (28:33-34), explains that they were arranged in alternating fashion, such that every bell was positioned in between two pomegranates, and every pomegranate was situated in between two bells. The Ramban (28:31), however, disputes Rashi’s explanation and maintains that the bells were embedded within the hollow pomegranates. In other words, the pomegranates served as the casing around the bells.
Chatam Sofer, commenting to Parashat Pekudei (39:25), notes that two adjacent verses appear to support both opinions. The Torah (there in Parashat Pekudei) describes how the artisans “placed the bells inside the pomegranates” (“Va-yitenu et ha-pa’amonim be-tokh ha-rimonim”), clearly indicating that the bells were embedded within the pomegranates. The next verse, however, states, “A bell and a pomegranate; a bell and a pomegranate” – suggesting that they were arranged alongside one another, in alternating fashion, as Rashi explained. In light of these conflicting implications, Chatam Sofer proposes (albeit with some reluctance, writing, “Lulei de-mistafina hayiti omer”) a creative theory, suggesting that both interpretations are correct: the me’il was lined with two sets of bells – bells embedded within pomegranate-shaped decorations, and bells that hung from the me’il on their own, without any casing around them. They were arranged alongside one another in alternating fashion, with every bell surrounded by two pomegranates that had bells inside them.
To explain the significance of these two sets of bells, Chatam Sofer cites the Gemara’s well-known comment in Masekhet Arakhin (16a) that the me’il served to atone for the particular transgression of lashon ha-ra – speaking negatively about other people. Chatam Sofer suggests that this prohibition includes not only negative speech about other people, but also inappropriate self-praise. Speaking of one’s own positive qualities, Chatam Sofer posits, is forbidden just like speaking of other people’s negative qualities, and these two forms of lashon ha-ra are symbolized by the two sets of bells lining the bottom of the me’il. The bells that were open and exposed correspond to the familiar form of lashon ha-ra – spreading negative information about other people – whereas the bells encased by pomegranates allude to the sin of self-adulation. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 37a) famously points to the pomegranate as a symbol of the fact that people are “filled with mitzvot.” Just as the pomegranate contains a large number of sweet-tasting seeds, so are all Am Yisrael filled with beautiful qualities and great achievements. The image of a pomegranate with a bell inside it, Chatam Sofer suggests, thus symbolizes those who broadcast their good deeds, who find it necessary to make their achievements public through boasting. Such conduct falls under the prohibition of lashon ha-ra, and thus the me’il was lined with two different sets of bells to atone for the two different, but equally grave, forms of this prohibition.