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“Bite Your Tongue” The Mouth of the High Priest’s Robe, part 2 Exodus 28:32 by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: Jan 4

Bite Your Tongue

“Bite your tongue” may be an American saying. I do not know. It is more than just resisting giving someone a “piece of your mind” when you are angry or frustrated with that person. As a wise man once said, “If you can not say anything good, say nothing at all.”

 

Aaron the High Priest has walked the desert with his people. This wandering nation experienced deliverance from Egypt. They saw the Red Sea split and the defeat of Pharaoh. At Mount Sinai, the Lord made a covenant with this young nation.


Aaron encountered the best and worst of his people. The people observed Aaron’s worst moment (golden calf) and stood with him when he was anointed as High Priest. As the mediator, Aaron was called to lead and represent the people spiritually. Not an easy task with so many different agendas and personalities.

 

I saw something new in Exodus 28:32. I am sure I read this passage a hundred times if not more. But there it was right there on the page, three times in one verse. I was not sure if it was just the English translation, so I checked the Hebrew. The Hebrew repeated it three times. “This has to be significant for this repetition.

 

The Mysterious Mouth

The High Priest's mysterious blue robe (Me’il) carried an object lesson within the mouth or opening for the head. Verse thirty-two states, “And it shall have a hole for the head in the midst thereof; it shall have a binding of woven work round about the hole of it, as it were the hole of a coat of mail that it be not rent” Exodus 28:31-32 (JPS 1917). There it is three times! But why?


The Word Play

The revealing wordplay is about the hole for the head of the High Priest’s blue robe. Three times in verse thirty-two there is a variation of the Hebrew word peh ִ פֶה.


The Rabbis say there is a hidden message revealed within the drawn pattern of peh as well as the weaving of the hole for the blue robe. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin provides enlightening thoughts on this "threepeat" play on words.

 

“According to Chazal, the robe atoned for lashon hara (evil gossip) (Arachin 16), and the repeated mention of ‘mouth’ is a hint to this function . . . and literally means ‘one’s mouth should stay within him’ one should speak of the things that concern oneself, not one’s neighbor. Furthermore, since it is practically impossible to guard oneself from lashon hara, His opening shall have a border. As Chazal explain, God surrounded the tongue with two walls [i.e., the lips] (Arachin 15), ‘like the opening of a coat of mail’ [i.e., as if wearing armor]." (1)

 

The Plain Sense Meaning

In the plain sense, Peh means “mouth,” or “opening,” and describes the entrance to a cave or a ravine. Peh also communicates what comes out of the mouth such as a “consuming” or “devouring fire” (2 Samuel 22:9). Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin draws out more meaning from the Hebrew letter and word for mouth.

  

The Meaning of the Letter Peh

When written, “the design of the pei is a mouth with a tooth emerging from its upper jaw . . . A mouth is something we use to speak, and the entire purpose of speaking is to communicate with another individual . . . Speech has tremendous power. A king rules with his words. An ordinary person also has great power in his mouth. With words of praise, he can raise a person to great heights, and with a bit of gossip he can destroy a person’s reputation.” (2)

 

Our words can inflict pain like a jagged front tooth and bring judgment to our doorstep (Matthew 5:21-22). Below is a helpful illustration of the design of the Hebrew letter peh. Notice the portion that resembles a front tooth and the top and bottom lips. (3)

Illustration: Pharaoh the “Bad Mouth”

Remember the story of Pharaoh. We see the Hebrew letter and word peh used in another wordplay about mouths and speech. Rabbi Josh Franklin provides a wonderful insight into the title of Pharoah.

 

“Pesach” literally means peh-sach, “the mouth (פה peh) talks (שח sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of God. Pesach represents the antithesis of Pharaoh, who, as the Megaleh Amukos explains, signifies פה רע peh-ra, a “bad mouth.” Pharaoh was someone who denied God’s providence in every act of nature. Our mouths are not to us to slander or denigrate others, but to speak of God’s greatness and wonders.” (4)

 

The Atoning Mouth of the Blue Robe

The Jewish sages taught that the eight golden garments worn by the High Priest during the Temple service, served to atone for the sins of Israel. Just as the sacrifices facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments (Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 88: b). In the case of the High Priest’s blue robe, evil speech and slander were “covered.”

 

“The Talmud says that the cloak atoned for evil gossip, which is why its collar was double-stitched, hinting of the two barriers that protect the tongue (teeth and lips). Also, the bells made noise, hinting to the atonement of sins done by speech.” (5) 


“The Bells and Pomegranates of the Meil” photo by Terry Harman, © 2000

Conclusion

Gossip, slander, negative talk, and “bad mouthing” are a snare for all of us, in particular, even more so for those who are Bible teachers or clergy. Like Aaron the High Priest, we may have to bite our tongue as we encounter difficult moments and people.


Those who represent the Lord, and his kingdom are in a sacred position. We serve the people, but we represent the Lord in what we say and do. We may know the best and the worst about people.

 

When we are maligned or hurt by those whom we serve, the instinct is to verbally lash out. Our words can bite and injure like the sharp tooth of the letter Peh.


If we “bite our tongue” for the moment, that does not mean our attitude about the person quickly changes. We are tempted to complain to the Lord and tell him just how bad the person is. But he already knows.

 

Is it possible that the imagery of the clanging of the bells at the hem of the blue robe was an auditory reminder for Paul’s readers not to be a “clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1) when he ministered in the Holy Place? I believe the J.B. Phillips translation of James 3:8 sums it up best.

 

"The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of! A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is as dangerous as any fire, with vast potentialities for evil. It can poison the whole body, it can make the whole of life a blazing hell."

 

Lord help all of us in our weak moments to bless and not to curse. To lift up and not to tear down. Lord help us to be worthy of the calling that is upon us. Amen.


Resources

(1)   Sorotzkin, Zalman. Insights in the Torah. Vol. 2, Shemos, The Chumash with Translation and

the Complete Classic Commentary of the Master Rav and Maggid, edited by Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz. Mesorah Publications, Ltd, Brooklyn, New York, 1993, p. 330.

(2)   Raskin, Aaron L. Pey (Fey) - The seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet - Chabad.org accessed December 22, 2023.

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JP
JP
Jan 13
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Amein

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JP
JP
Jan 13
Replying to

eheyeh ’asher ’eheyeh


Looking forward to it.. One of my favorites.


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David Jones
David Jones
Dec 24, 2023

I was just talking to someone about this, great article


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Dr. Terry Harman
Dr. Terry Harman
Dec 24, 2023
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I am amazed at how the Bible reveals new things daily. Glad to hear from you again. Shalom.

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