Warning Bells – "וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ... וְלֹא יָמוּת"



Divine Danger

Shemot 28 issues the instructions for the making of the priestly garments, beginning with the three articles of clothing worn exclusively by the High Priest, the vest or apron ("אֵפֹד"), breastplate ("חֹשֶׁן"), and robe ("מְעִיל")‎.1 Upon the completion of the command regarding the weaving of the robe and the placement of the golden bells and pomegranates on its fringes, an enigmatic summation verse (Shemot 28:35) appears:


וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה' וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת.

And it shall be on Aharon to serve, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the sanctuary in front of Hashem and when he comes out and he won't die.

The verse speaks of preventing a fatality ("וְלֹא יָמוּת"), but many of the details are unclear:

  • Who might have potentially died?  Is Hashem worried about Aharon who is the subject of the verse, or about a bystander who might be somehow affected by Aharon's conduct?
  • Why would this person have died? Is this death a potential punishment, or is the verse trying to prevent a fatal accident? What crime or accident is the verse alluding to?
  • What action serves to avert the danger and how? Is it Aharon's wearing of the robe or the ringing of its bells which might help; how and why might either of these serve to prevent a fatality?

"הַקֹּדֶשׁ" – Holy or Holy of Holies?

The above cited verse contains yet another significant ambiguity, the word "הַקֹּדֶשׁ", into which Aharon is commanded to enter wearing his robe and other special garments of the High Priest. A priori, there are two possible locations to which this term could refer – the innermost sanctum of the Holy of Holies ("קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים"), or the outer chamber of the Tabernacle ("אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד" or היכל). Each option, though, poses certain difficulties. If "הַקֹּדֶשׁ" refers to the outer chamber,2 why would the command apply only to the High Priest Aharon; did not the common priests also perform the service in the outer chamber? On the other hand, if the word refers to the Holy of Holies,3, is not Aharon instructed to enter the inner sanctum wearing only pure white vestments4 while foregoing his robe and other golden garments?

On Pain of Death

Our verse is only one of many in the Torah which warn of the potential dangers inherent in the Tabernacle, and these parallel verses may illuminate ours. The final verses of Shemot 28 caution the priests to be properly dressed while performing their service and speak of the fatal consequences of not adhering to these rules:


(מב) וַעֲשֵׂה לָהֶם מִכְנְסֵי בָד לְכַסּוֹת בְּשַׂר עֶרְוָה מִמָּתְנַיִם וְעַד יְרֵכַיִם יִהְיוּ. (מג) וְהָיוּ עַל אַהֲרֹן וְעַל בָּנָיו בְּבֹאָם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אוֹ בְגִשְׁתָּם אֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ וְלֹא יִשְׂאוּ עָוֹן וָמֵתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו.

(42) And you shall make them linen pants to cover their nakedness, from the waists to the thighs they should be. (43) And they shall be upon Aharon and his sons when they go into the Mishkan or when they come near the altar to serve in the holy place, and they won't bear a sin and die; it shall be a law forever for him and his descendants after him.

The similar terminology employed in the two verses is quite striking and is highlighted in the following table:

(ל"ה) וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְלֹא יָמוּת
(מ"ג) וְהָיוּ עַל אַהֲרֹן וְעַל בָּנָיו בְּבֹאָם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְשָׁרֵת וְלֹא יִשְׂאוּ עָוֹן וָמֵתוּ
(35) And it shall be on Aharon to serve when he goes into the sanctuary and he won't die
(43) And they shall be on Aharon and his sons when they go into the Tent of Meeting to serve and they will not bear iniquity and die

Additionally, Vayikra 16:17 warns against the presence in the sanctuary of anybody else besides the High Priest while the purification rites are being performed (this verse, like ours, speaks of "בְּבֹאוֹ" and "צֵאתוֹ"):


וְכָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ עַד צֵאתוֹ וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ וּבְעַד כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And no man shall be in the Mishkan when he goes to make an atonement in the holy place until he comes out, and he shall make atonement for himself, his house, and the whole congregation of Israel.

In Approaches, we will examine how various commentators used these supplementary verses to inform their interpretations of our main verse above.