Terumah and Tetzaveh offer a visual landscape of the mishkan, its structure, its furnishings and the dress of those who served in it. We also get a sense of the soundscape, or lack thereof. In one scholarly description, this was a “sanctuary of silence.”1 The Torah doesn’t indicate that any words were recited in the mishkan, in prayer or in song.2 In fact, if we picture the mishkan based on this week’s parashah, the only sound was from the jingling bells on the bottom of the robe worn by the Kohen Gadol. As we will see, the resonant sound of these bells evokes the steady rhythm of the high priest in worship, but also carries painful overtones of what is most haunting and unresolved as we try to approach the Divine.

In an otherwise fairly mundane and detailed description of materials and design, we are suddenly shaken with the message that this clothing design is high stakes:

שמות כח:לה-לו

פַּעֲמֹ֤ן זָהָב֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן פַּֽעֲמֹ֥ן זָהָ֖ב וְרִמּ֑וֹן עַל־שׁוּלֵ֥י הַמְּעִ֖יל סָבִֽיב׃ וְהָיָ֥ה עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לְשָׁרֵ֑ת וְנִשְׁמַ֣ע ק֠וֹל֠וֹ בְּבֹא֨וֹ

אֶל־הַקֹּ֜דֶשׁ לִפְנֵ֧י יְקוָ֛ק וּבְצֵאת֖וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָמֽוּת׃


Exodus 28:35-36

… a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aharon shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before God and when he goes out—that he may not die.


Close your eyes and imagine being inside the mishkan. There is no sound except the bells that jingle everytime the Kohen Gadol takes a step, as he moves towards and away from an encounter with God. Like the word for bell (פעמון), the word פעם also means footsteps in Tanakh.3 The sound of the mikdash is the steady rhythm of footsteps doing their work to serve God.

The sound of these footsteps in the mishkan carries a message for our own prayer and relationship when we turn to an intertext in Psalms.4 We make a plea that our footsteps be firmly anchored and that we not misstep:

תהלים קיט:קלג

פְּ֭עָמַי הָכֵ֣ן בְּאִמְרָתֶ֑ךָ וְֽאַל־תַּשְׁלֶט־בִּ֥י כָל־אָֽוֶן:


Psalm 119:133

Make my footsteps firm through Your promise; do not let iniquity dominate me.


The Kohen Gadol walking through the kodesh, doing his service, is a visual representation of exactly this prayer. Imagining the sound of the bell-laiden footsteps in the mishkan, we can envision our own footsteps as steady and true, undeterred in our path. This is the nature of “prayer” in the mishkan: it is pre-verbal. Instead of articulating words, we act out presence, putting one foot in front of the other each day, perhaps a kind of “praying with my feet.”5

In modern Hebrew a similar word, פעימות, refers to the beats of a heart. A poem of Yehudah Amichai weaves together themes of footsteps, heartbeat, and an anchoring space. Amichai writes not about the mishkan but about his mother’s house. Rather than the footsteps of the Kohen Gadol, he speaks of his mother’s footsteps:

יהודה עמיחי, מ"בית אמי"

…צעדיך במדרגות תמיד


לא מתקרבים ולא מתרחקים, כמו

פעימות לב…


Yehudah Amichai, from My Mother’s House

…Your footsteps on the stairs are always inside


Not approaching and not going away, like a



Amichai’s heartbeat is intertwined with the sound of his mother’s footsteps on the stairs. The sound of her footsteps is constantly reverberating in his memory. Unlike the bells on the Kohen Gadol, these footsteps don’t clearly delineate whether she is “coming” or “going”. Instead, the memory of footsteps becomes a kind of constant rhythm indicative of presence, like a heartbeat. It is as though the sound-memory of these footsteps keeps him alive. The sound of the bells in the mishkan, in light of this poem, conjures the comforting sound of footsteps of people who anchor us, and maybe set the rhythm of our own footsteps.

Yet, there is a different, haunting reading of the sound of the bells in the mishkan. It is not just a pleasant musical accompaniment to the Avodah. As we see in the verse, their sound does nothing less than prevent Aharon from dying as he approaches God. This is a rude awakening to the terror of the mishkan and the risk involved in trying to be in close relationship with God. Whenever we take the risk of entering into close relationship, we expose ourselves.

The sound of the bells (קול) reverberates with the sound of one of the earliest human failures. The Torah Temimah links the sound of the bells to manslaughter:

תורה תמימה שמות כח:לה

…והיה על אהרן לשרת ונשמע קולו בבואו אל הקודש, יבא קול ויכפר על קול ההורג נפש [בשגגה]:


Torah Temimah Shemot 28:35

…“It will be on Aaron to serve and its sound will be heard when he enters the kodesh.” Let this sound come and atone for the sound of one who kills another [by accident].


The sound (קול) of the bells reminds us of a different sound that has been resounding loudly since the beginning of humanity and never found resolution: when Kayin killed Hevel.6 “The sound (קול) of your brother’s blood is screaming to Me from the earth” (Genesis 4:8). This commentary focuses on resolution; the service of the mishkan brings atonement for that unresolved sin.7 Yet, by making this intertextual leap, it actually dredges up a part of our story we might have wanted to forget. The sound of these bells in the sanctuary of silence makes us aware of the loud screaming of all that feels unresolved in our world. There are no words of prayer to hide behind. This is the only prayer in the house of God: the silence that echoes loudly and uncomfortably with what we might rather ignore in our persisting human failures. When we try to approach God with honesty and integrity, that is the sound we will inevitably hear.

As we go about paving a path for our own footsteps to bring us closer toward God and our deepest hopes for the world, these two aspects of the sound of bells in the mishkan can guide our way. We need the comfort of steadiness and assuredness, perhaps from internalizing the “footsteps” of others who inspire us, creating our own constant heartbeat as a source of energy in our lives and work. And, we need to be ready to be shaken by the haunting sound of lingering faults and failures—that of ourselves or others—that clash with the vision we want to achieve. If we are ready to listen to both of these sounds, perhaps our own footsteps will bring us all a bit closer to what is truly sacred.

1 This is the title of Bible scholar Israel Knohl’s book (The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School [Eisenbrauns, 2007]), which builds off of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s essential work in The Religion of Israel (Chicago, 1960).

2 This is in contrast to later biblical books where we see indication of instruments and text of prayers. E.g. 1 Chronicles 16 attributes to King David the introduction of levitical music in the Temple service by the descendants of Asaf (also see chapter 25), and also includes the prayer they said when the ark arrived at the City of David. Many psalms are also thought to have been composed to be played and sung in the Temple service, e.g. Psalm 30 with the superscription: “Mizmor: a song for the dedication of the altar.”

E.g. Judges 5:28: בְּעַד֩ הַחַלּ֨וֹן נִשְׁקְפָ֧ה וַתְּיַבֵּ֛ב אֵ֥ם סִֽיסְרָ֖א בְּעַ֣ד הָֽאֶשְׁנָ֑ב מַדּ֗וּעַ בֹּשֵׁ֤שׁ רִכְבּוֹ֙ לָב֔וֹא מַדּ֣וּעַ אֶֽחֱר֔וּ פַּעֲמֵ֖י מַרְכְּבוֹתָֽיו, and Isaiah 26:6: תִּרְמְסֶ֖נָּה רָ֑גֶל רַגְלֵ֥י עָנִ֖י פַּעֲמֵ֥י דַלִּֽים.

4 See also Psalm 17:5: תָּמֹ֣ךְ אֲ֭שֻׁרַי בְּמַעְגְּלוֹתֶ֑יךָ בַּל־נָמ֥וֹטּוּ פְעָמָֽי.

These are the words of Frederik Douglas, echoed by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel after his march with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma.

6 In some midrashic readings, this was indeed an accidental murder, in part because the punishment Kayin received was exile (Genesis 4:11-12), also the punishment for the manslayer in Numbers 35. This connection is not explicit in the Torah Temimah, but the verse referring to קול in the Kayin and Hevel story seems to be in the background.

R. Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah, referenced in the passage above a sugya in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 7:3). The Yerushalmi itself seems to tie atonement for lashon hara to the bells, while tying the atonement for manslaughter to the death of the Kohen Gadol (based on Numbers 35:25):

ר' סימון בשם ר' יונתן דבית גוברין: שני דברים לא היתה בהן כפרה וקבעה להן התורה כפרה ואלו הן - האומר לשון הרע
וההורג נפש בשגגה, האומר לשון הרע לא היתה לו כפרה וקבעה לו התורה כפרה זוגי המעיל (שמות כח לה) "והיה על אהרןלשרת ונשמע קולו" יבא קול ויכפר על קול. ההורג נפש לא היתה לו כפרה וקבעה לו התורה כפרה - מיתת כהן גדול.