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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

by Rabbi David Zauderer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week’s Torah portion we find a detailed description of the priestly garments that the High Priest wore as he performed the daily service in the Tabernacle. The Talmud (Tractate Erchin 16) explains that each of these garments atoned for different sins.

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In this week’s Torah portion we find a detailed description of the priestly garments that the High Priest wore as he performed the daily service in the Tabernacle. The Talmud (Tractate Erchin 16) explains that each of these garments atoned for different sins.

One of the outer garments that the High Priest wore was the me’il, or robe. The me’il was made entirely of turquoise wool, and was worn over the head like a poncho. Hanging all around the me’il’s hem were pomegranate-shaped tassels of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and among the tassels were golden bells, each with a ringer. (Sounds like the kind of thing you would wear on the commune back in the Sixties!)

The Talmud states that the noise made by the bells of the me’il atoned for the sin of the “noise” made by one who speaks lashon harah, evil speech or gossip. What is the exact connection between the bells on the robe and the sin of gossip, and what was the purpose and symbolism of the pomegranate-shaped tassels that surrounded the bells?

During the daily prayer service, right before we begin the silent Shemoneh Esrei prayer, we recite the line, “Lord, open up my lips, and let my mouth tell your praises”. Why are we asking G-d to open up our lips? Were they surgically closed so that we have to ask G-d to help us open them? The commentaries explain that the tongue is that part of the mouth that is used for talking. The purpose of the lips, however, is to serve as a guard for the tongue, so as to keep our mouths shut and not to engage in all types of evil chatter and gossip throughout the day. This way, when we approach G-d in prayer, we can proclaim to Him, “Lord, I have kept my lips shut till now, so now allow me to open them so that my mouth can utter your praises.”
  Mute 101
I am more than willing to be your "personal mute trainer" and, in that spirit, am offering a regimen of mute training exercises and source material which I call Mute 101. There is a wonderful book which covers all the laws of lashon harah and slander titled, "Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day" published by Artscroll Mesorah Publications. It discusses, among other things, issues such as when lashon harah is permitted or even required, i.e., when warning a person about potential harm. For example, a potential business or marriage partner. This book is required reading for anyone who wants to grow in this very difficult area of guarding the tongue. In addition, there is a Web site, www.chofetzchaim.com, which deals with the laws of lashon harah. Through this Web site, you can receive a lesson a day on the laws of lashon harah via e-mail. -RDZ

 

This idea of guarding our speech by keeping our lips tightly closed and only talking when we have something important to say, is symbolized by the bells and pomegranates of the me’il. The bells with the ringers inside them resemble an open mouth with a tongue wagging inside it. The pomegranates resemble a mouth tightly shut. Each golden bell was surrounded by a pomegranate to remind all of us of our responsibility to think twice before we speak. In this way, we atone for the horrible sin of lashon harah.

After describing the me’il, the Torah adds, “It must be on Aaron in order to minister. Its sound shall be heard when he enters the sanctuary before G-d” (Exodus 28:35).

The commentaries homiletically explain that the “sound” that the Torah refers to is the sound of our prayers. If we are careful to guard our tongues throughout the day, and not to defile them through all types of forbidden speech such as lashon harah, then the prayers that we mouth to G-d will be heard when we enter the sanctuary. But if, G-d forbid, we are not careful about what comes out of our mouths, then when we choose to use that mouth for our prayers, they just might be ignored.

Guarding our tongues from speaking gossip and slander is not just a “nice thing to do,” it is one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. G-d demands from us that we think before we speak. We can’t afford not to because the stakes are too high, as it states in Proverbs, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” We can literally destroy a person’s life with a few words carelessly mentioned among a group of people. Therefore, it’s a tremendous responsibility we have to choose our words carefully, and to keep our mouths closed when we have nothing to say.

Now this it is not an easy job. The Talmud (Tractate Chullin 89) states that man’s profession in this world is “to make himself a mute.” The Chofetz Chaim, the great pre-war Torah sage who wrote a book on the laws of lashon harah, explained this strange Talmudic passage as follows: A person who aspires to construct a certain machine, even if he has very clear ideas in his head exactly how he is going to build it, will still find the job very difficult in practice because he lacks the professional training.

The same holds true with the art of being silent when we have nothing good to say. Even though we have a clear idea in our minds just how bad it is to speak negatively about another person, when it comes to real life, it is extremely difficult to refrain from lashon harah. We need to undergo “professional mute training” to get ourselves accustomed to keeping silent when the opportunity to gossip presents itself.

Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

You are invited to read more Parshat Tetzaveh articles.

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