April 11, 2024
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April 11, 2024
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Knock Knock, Who’s Not There?

The me’il (robe) was one of the eight vestments that the kohen gadol wore. This robe wasn’t a simple trench coat or “frock,” but rather the Torah tells us that the hem of this particular robe was to be designed with “pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson wool, on its bottom hem all around, and golden bells in their midst all around” (Shemot 28:33). Essentially, when the kohen gadol would walk around, his presence would be heard. The Torah explains that this was necessary when the kohen gadol would enter to perform the avodah: “…and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem and when he leaves…” (ibid 28:35). What’s the significance of having the kohen gadol’s presence be heard before he enters to do the avodah?

The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 21:8) quotes a behavior of Rebbi Yochanan, who, when he would visit the house of Rebbi Chanina, would emit a sound [in order to indicate his arrival]. The midrash explains that Rebbi Yochanan learned this behavior from our pasuk quoted above, that the kohen gadol would make noise [from the bells] before entering the sanctuary. The midrash seems to provide an understanding for why it was necessary for the kohen gadol’s presence to be heard: namely, to teach us the idea of “knocking” before entering someone else’s home—to make your presence known before coming into someone else’s boundaries. The kohen gadol was entering Hashem’s “house,” and by making noise before entering, by “knocking, ” so to speak, this was demonstrating the proper way to act before entering the space of another.

There is another incredible midrash that amplifies this idea. In Parshat Bereishit, Adam sins in Gan Eden, and the pasuk says that in the aftermath of the sin, Hashem called out to Adam asking “where are you?” It sounds a little odd that Hashem would ask Adam where he is, but the midrash explains the deeper meaning. Hashem was teaching us derech eretz, that a person should never suddenly enter his friend’s house, just like Hashem stood at the entrance of Gan Eden and called out to Adam (meaning, the same way Hashem did not barge into Adam’s life and space [Gan Eden], but rather first alerted him by asking “where are you”). Even though Adam sinned in what seemed to be a place that Hashem allowed him to stay, and even though Adam sinned against Hashem Himself, Hashem nevertheless shows us the extent of derech eretz in the area of being sensitive to another person’s boundaries.

This lesson of respecting another person’s space almost seems obvious, perhaps more with those who we are unfamiliar with. Everyone knows it’s basic protocol to knock before coming into someone’s home. However, usually it’s with the people who are closer to us that we may lack sensitivity toward their space and privacy. It seems that Rebbi Yochanan was quite familiar with Rebbi Chanina, and yet he was meticulous in this sensitivity. Moreover, Hashem was more than just familiar with Adam, and yet as well expressed this behavior.

Another interesting thought that I had was that the pasuk of the kohen gadol where we learn this derech eretz indicates that the “bell lesson” was not just to announce his arrival, but that it was also to announce his departure: “…its sound shall be heard when he enters…and when he leaves.” It’s curious why the sound needs to be heard also when he leaves. We can understand the idea of derech eretz upon him entering, but why does he need to also “knock” before leaving? I thought that perhaps we learn from here another idea of derech eretz that is not so obvious. Sometimes when we go to people’s houses, especially by bigger events, we almost think to ourselves that we don’t necessarily need to say good-bye. One may say, “After all, what difference does it make if I announce that I’m leaving?” Yet, perhaps this is also a lesson in derech eretz: the same way people appreciate your knock to enter, they also appreciate your knock to leave. We can imagine that it’s somewhat impolite to leave without notice, the same way we can imagine this being an indecency for the kohen gadol to suddenly turn and leave upon completion of the avodah. (Even when in prayer we take three steps back and don’t just turn away and depart.) A person’s space is precious to him, and it’s important that we let them know when we come, and also when we leave.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Brooklyn and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at
[email protected].

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