Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Pekudei 5779

Parashat Pekudei 5779

March 7, 2019

A Bell and a Pomegranate 
A D’var Torah for Parashat Pekudei
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Rubin Museum of Art in southern Manhattan, which displays items from the cultures of the Himalayas, India, and neighboring regions, with a particular emphasis on Tibetan art. Much of this art is spiritual, and related to Buddhist or Hindu practices. One ritual item I saw in multiple forms was the bell, one of the most important tools of Tibetan Buddhism. The bell, in that tradition, represents emptiness, wisdom, and truth. Another item, the vajra or scepter, represents bliss, action, and compassion, and is considered the complement to the bell—together they represent the union of all dualities, including the feminine and masculine. This got me thinking about bells and their companions a little closer to home: the bells and pomegranates on the bottom of the robe of the high priest in Parashat Pekudei.

The text tells us: “They made bells of pure gold, and attached the bells between the pomegranates, all around the hem of the robe between the pomegranates. A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate, all around on the hem of the robe, to serve as God commanded Moses.” (Exodus 39:25-26). Some commentators, like Rashi, believe the bells and pomegranates must alternate, and some, like the Ramban, believe the bells must be inside (betokh) the pomegranate. Either way, there is a powerful message encoded within this ritual garment.

I’ve often thought of the bell and pomegranate as appropriate images for Jewish contemplative practice. The bell is empty. It suggests vacating one’s own concerns, setting aside one’s ego, to become a space for God’s presence. The pomegranate is nearly exploding with seeds and juice. It suggests an embodied creation full of energy and purpose: fullness rather than emptiness. These are two ways we might see the created world: as a divine oneness (or, as the kabbalists would have it, a nothingness) that only appears to manifest as a world of separate entities, or as a diverse universe of real entities that are even more sacred because they are infused with God’s presence. In my vision of the bells and pomegranates on the high priest’s robe, they announce that one who approaches the divine must be simultaneously in two states of mind: one must acknowledge that everything is empty—that there is nothing but the Divine and all else is an illusion—and that everything is full—the substance of a very real everything is infused with divinity. The high priest, who must enter the secrecy of God’s innermost shrine, has to hang on to both of these truths simultaneously. So the robe with its ringing, and its weight, constantly reminds the one who enters the Holy of Holies of this paradox.

In many cultures, the ringing of a bell indicates divine presence. The Talmud knows this, saying of Samson that “divine presence rang before him like a bell” and references our text “a bell and a pomegranate” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b). The pomegranate seems to have more to do with human presence. Indeed, one Talmudic passage says that the Jewish people is “as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 57a). In the Song of Songs, the pomegranate is often depicted as an embodiment of the beloved’s beauty. So we can also see the entwining of bell and pomegranate as the meeting of human and divine: precisely the meeting the high priest is there to facilitate.

The Or haHaim commentary (written by Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743, Morocco) says an interesting thing. This commentary delves into the language of Parashat Pekudei and opines that there had to be more pomegranates than bells (i.e. each bell had to be flanked by two pomegranates). If so, this might suggest that we have to have a little more fullness than emptiness—that is, we have to engage in the world more than we withdraw from it. In other words, we are both nothing and something, but we are more something than we are nothing.

One of the common decorative motifs on Torah ornaments are pomegranates and bells. In fact, the kind of Torah decorations called “finials” that come in a pair and fit over each etz of the Torah scroll are called in Hebrew rimonim or pomegranates. While we may think of these decorations simply as beautiful, we might also use them as teaching and ritual tools, calls to careful attention and presence – just as these items once honed the attention of the high priest. What would it mean to ask our communities to listen to the bells of the Torah decorations and use them to remind ourselves of our fullness, and our nothingness? What if, maybe once a year, we fell silent during the Torah procession, and just listened to those bells? What insights might we discover?

Further, for those of us who practice Jewish meditation or contemplation of some kind, we might consider using the bell and pomegranate – either in their physical form, or as a mental image – as a meditative focus. Both items are rich with Jewish tradition. For those used to forms of meditation where one is called to mindfulness with the sound of a bell, it might be interesting to summon oneself to meditation using a bell and pomegranate.

I was just at an exhibit called “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and saw priestess jewelry three thousand years old that contained bells to summon the deity. It’s exciting for me to see this theme in our parashah, as the high priest jangles into the Holy of Holies wearing a garment hemmed with tiny bells. May we learn to embody the teaching of the bells and pomegranates—finding the right balance of emptiness and fullness.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.