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Class Notes - Class #19

Class Notes – Class #19


In mitzvah #95, the author considers the shoresh of the mitzvah to build the Temple, and of the various rituals that took place there.  The next series of mitzvot will fill in some of the details of the Temple ritual.  We will see many other mitzvot related to sacrifices and other Temple-related topics as we go along.  To create some context for all of that, we will take a bit of time to learn something about the layout of the Temple. Much of the information on this topic is from the Encyclopedia Judaica and from L. Reznick, The Holy Temple Revisited, Jason Aronson Inc., 1993.

            This discussion will perforce involve concepts and rituals we have not yet explained.  I will try to identify the terms we use in this tour, but I will keep the explanations very brief.  We will come back to more detail on these various concepts as we continue our study.

            When the Jews were in the Sinai desert, they built a temporary portable sanctuary, the “mishkan.”  That was the model for later, more permanent buildings.  The “First Temple” was built by Solomon, and survived until 586 B.C.E., when Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies destroyed it.  Seventy years later, the Persian king Darius allowed the Jews to return to Israel.  Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the “Second Temple” was built.  Two hundred years later, the Syrian Greeks, led by Antiochus IV, installed idols in the Temple.  The priestly Maccabee family recaptured the Temple and restored the traditional ritual.  In the Roman period, Herod was installed as king by Rome, and around the year 15 B.C.E. he decided to expand and rebuild the Temple.  We have information about Herod’s Temple from tana’itic sources, from Josephus, and from archaeology, although there remains dispute about the exact locations of various things.  We will examine the layout of Herod’s Temple, starting from the outside and working our way in.

What we now know as the “kotel,” or Wailing Wall, is a section of the western wall of a large plaza Herod built around the Temple itself.  This plaza was open to all, Jews and non-Jews, tahor and tamei.  Within this plaza was the Temple itself. A fence called the “soreg” surrounded the Temple.  A piece of the soreg survives, with an inscription in Greek warning non-Jews away from the inner area. Various gates through the soreg led to an area called the “heil,” which consisted of a sidewalk and then steps that surrounded the “azarah” and led up to the wall of the azarah.  (My sources disagree about whether there were 12 or fourteen steps.) 

Most people entered the azarah through the gate on the east wall.  (There were many other gates and you can find them on the diagram.  They were decorated with gold and silver and had colorful embroidered curtains.)  The eastern gate was the largest gate, overlaid with plates of gold and silver.  It led into the “ezrat nashim,” the Women’s Court.  This area was open to Jewish men and women who were tahor.  It was square, 135 cubits on each side, without a roof.  A balcony surrounded the ezrat nashim, from which women could watch the activities further inside the azharah, especially the water ceremonies that took place on the nights of Succot.  The rishonim disagree about whether this was as far into the Temple complex as women were allowed to go, or whether women who were bringing sacrifices entered into the sacrificial area, just as men did.

There was an unroofed square chamber in each corner of the ezrat nashim.  One was the chamber of the nazirim, people who vowed to refrain for a period of time from eating grape products, from cutting their hair and from becoming tamei. The korban shlamim required of nazirim was cooked there.  The nazirim also had their hair cut and burned in that chamber.  A second chamber was the wood chamber, where the wood for burning on the altar was sorted.  The third chamber had a special mikveh for m’tzoraim to use when their tsora’as was healed.  (The term “tsora’as” is typically translated as leprosy.  That is clearly an error.  Let’s hold off on trying to figure this out until we get to the relevant mitzvot.)  The fourth chamber was the chamber of oils, where the oil, wine and flour needed for the sacrifices was stored.

The western gate of the ezrat nashim led further into the azarah.  It was called Nicanor’s Gate, decorated with intricately carved brass plating. There were also two smaller doors on either side of the gate.  Fifteen semi-circular steps led up to the gate.  These are the steps that correspond to the psalms that begin “shir hama’alot,” “song of ascents.”  In the ezrat nashim, at the base of the steps, were two doors that led to an underground chamber.  This was the chamber of instruments, where the musical instruments played by the levi’im were stored and where the levi’im singers rehearsed.

Nicanor’s Gate led from the ezrat nashim into the “ezrat yisrael.”  The ezrat yisrael was open to male Jews who were tahor.  The ezrat yisrael was narrow, only 11 cubits wide, but it ran the full width of the azarah.  Within the ezrat yisrael was a throne for the king to use when he visited the Temple. (The king was the only person permitted to sit down in the Temple.)  There were two chambers adjoining the gates.  North of the gates was the chamber of Pinchas the clothier, where the uniforms of the cohanim were made and fitted.  South of the gates was the chamber where the daily meal offerings of the cohen gadol were made. 

There were four steps, called the “duchan,” that ran the full length of the ezrat yisrael. The levi’im would sing and play music from the duchan.  Although in general the cohanim would bless the people from steps of the main building further inside the Temple, the duchan steps were used if there were too many cohanim to fit on the steps further in.  The area above the steps was called the “ezrat cohanim,” and cohanim were permitted to go there.  Men, and possibly women, who were bringing individual sacrifices, were also permitted to enter to lay hands on the sacrifice before the animal was killed.  We can think of the ezrat cohanim as three areas:  the gates and chambers along the walls, the open area just above the duchan, and the “heichal,” the large building at the back of the ezrat cohanim.  We will explore them one at a time.

There were various gates and offices around the perimeter of the ezrat cohanim.   (Not all of the offices and chambers are specifically identified on the diagram we are working with.)  In the southeast corner (probably) was a building that housed the “lishkas hagazis,” the chamber of hewn stone, where the Sanhedrin met.  It was half in the heil and half in the azarah, so the judges had somewhere they were allowed to sit during cases. (According to some opinions, creating space at the edge of the azharah where it was permitted to sit depended on whether the room opened on the azharah or on the heil, rather than on whether the footprint of the room was located in the azharah or the heil.)  

The first gate further west was the water gate, which was named for a stream that flowed under the Temple and out through this gate.  Above the gate was the Avitnus chamber, where the incense was compounded.  It was named for the family that made the incense, and who refused to give up the secret of making it to anyone else.  Next to that chamber was a mikveh that was used only once a year, by the cohen gadol on yom kippur.  Following around the perimeter next came the firstborn gate, then the firewood gate, which was large enough to accommodate the wood that had to be brought in to burn on the alter, and last was the upper gate, the highest point in the complex. 

In the southwest corner were the well chamber and the chamber of the cohen gadol.  There are various opinions about the function of this chamber. One possibility is that this was where the cohen gadol lived in the week before yom kippur while he was preparing for the day.  If so, since the cohen gadol lived there for a week, part of the room must have been into the heil and outside the azarah.  It was also the only room in the Temple complex that had a mezuzah.  It may have been a wooden structure that was rebuilt every year. There were two gates on the western wall. 

In the northwest was the salt chamber.  Salt was sprinkled on each sacrifice, and the salt chamber was where that salt was stored.  The “parveh” chamber was probably used for processing the skins from the sacrificed animals.  (“Parveh” may have been someone’s name.)  The rinser’s chamber was where the internal organs of the sacrifices were soaked and rinsed before they were burned.  Above all that was a mikveh that was used by the cohen gadol four times on yom kippur.

Turning on to the northern wall was the sparks gate; next to that gate was a small courtyard where a pile of burning coals was kept so that there was a source of fire whenever one was needed. The courtyard supported a balcony on which the guard detail took their places.  The next gate was the sacrifice gate, through which sacrifices that had to be slaughtered north of the altar were led in.  The women’s gate, next along the wall, was where women could come while their sacrifices were being brought. 

The final gate, close to the northeast corner was the hearth gate, also called the song gate because the levi’im would bring their instruments in through it.  A large domed building was located there.  Its major purpose was to provide dormitory space for the cohanim, so it must have been at least partially outside of the azarah and in the heil.  The walls were lined with stone shelves on which the cohanim slept.  One floor tile was removable; when the Temple complex was locked at night, the keys were stored under that tile and one of the priests slept over it.  There were four rooms adjoining the hearth.  The sheep chamber was where the animals for the daily sacrifices were kept.  The “lehem hapanim,” or showbread, were prepared in another chamber.  Every Friday, twelve loaves were baked and were placed in the “shulhan,” table, to replace the loaves from the previous week.  In the receipt chamber, people who wanted to bring a meal offering would come to pay for it.  Then they would take the receipt to the oil chamber in the ezrat nashim to purchase the appropriate offering.  (People who brought an animal sacrifice would either bring an animal they already owned or purchase an animal outside the Temple grounds.)  There was a chamber under the receipt chamber where the altar that was defiled by Antiochus was stored.  The fourth chamber housed a ramp leading to the basement area that housed mikvaot and bathrooms.  Various underground tunnels led from place to place within the Temple complex as well.

The open area at the front of the ezrat cohanim, just after the duchan, was the central sacrificial area of the Temple.  Its biggest feature was the altar, “mizbeah,” where the sacrifices were burned, two stories high and accessed by a ramp.  Each upper corner had a protruding stone, the “karnos,” horns of the altar.  The altar itself was made in three layers.  The outside walls were whitewashed, with a horizontal red line halfway up each side. The blood of some sacrifices had to be applied to the top of the wall, and the blood of other sacrifices had to be applied to the bottom, so the red line marked the boundary.  Near the base of the ramp were two floor drains that drained away the blood of the sacrificial animals that was not applied to the altar.  The blood drained to the Kidron valley, where it fertilized the soil.  Farmers bought the fertile soil, and the money went into the Temple treasury.

To the north of the altar was the butchering area where the animal sacrifices were slaughtered and processed.  There were eight small columns with hooks to hang the carcasses while they were skinned and butchered.  There were eight tables where the meat was washed.  There were 24 hoops set into the ground.  It is not clear what they were for. 

To the west of the base of the ramp was a washbasin, with twelve spigots, where the cohanim washed their hands and feet.  The cohanim refilled the basin each morning.

Twelve steps led up from the west side of the altar.  At the top of the steps was the largest building in the complex, the “heichal.”  It had a huge, impressive façade, and the building itself was three stories tall.  It could be seen from anywhere in the city.  The entrance was adorned with gold and silver, and a colorful woven curtain covered the entrance.  There were bunches of grapes fashioned out of gold and precious stones adorning the façade, along with carved beams and large copper columns.

There were four significant spaces within the heichal.  Working from the entrance, there was the hall, then the “kodesh,” and then the “kodesh k’doshim.” Last, there were offices built into the walls.

The hall was only 11 cubits wide.  Cedar joists were set into the ceiling, and golden crowns and chains were suspended from them.  At either end of the hall were the chambers of the knives, one for the knives that were ready to use and the other for the knives that needed sharpening or repair.  Near the doorway from the hall to the kodesh were two tables, one of gold and one of marble, which held items used when the breads for the shulhan were replaced.

The entrance to the kodesh was through four doors, each olive wood covered with carved gold and covered by a curtain.  Above the entrance was a carving of a menorah.  The walls and floor of the kodesh were covered with carved gold, and the ceiling was carved wood.  The kodesh held three functional objects, all of gold: the incense altar, the shulhan for the lechem hapanim, and the menorah.  To make the space even more spectacular, there were ten duplicates of the shulhan and (possibly) ten duplicates of the menorah.

Two curtains, one cubit apart, separated the kodesh from the kodesh k’doshim.  Like the kodesh, the walls and floor were gilded. The kodesh k’doshim was empty.  Except for maintenance and repair, it was entered only once a year, by the cohen gadol on yom kippur.  In the mishkan and the First Temple, the ark was housed in the kodesh k’doshim, but the ark did not survive into the Second Temple period.

There were small offices built into the walls of the heichel, although we do not know exactly what they were used for.  There must also have been support buildings near but outside the Temple complex.  We can easily imagine many functions that would have needed space:  a lounge, a chamber for the levi’im guards, a weapons room, a tool room, a janitor’s closet, space for repairing the decorative elements of the Temple complex, offices for priestly and levitic supervisors, treasury offices, utensil storage, donation offices, charity distribution office, storage and processing areas for materials that were given to the cohanim, an infirmary, etc.


With that background, let’s return to the next series of mitzvot.

            Although there was no ark in the Second Temple, there are mitzvot about the ark.  On the edges of the ark were rings, and long poles extended through those rings.  Mitzvah #96 prohibits removing those poles.  With the poles in place, it would be easy for the levi’im to make a quick exit and take the ark with them.  We want to demonstrate every honor to this sacred vessel, and being prepared to protect it well is part of showing it honor. 

            We have not had an ark since the end of the First Temple period, so no one has had an opportunity to observe this mitzvah for a very long time.  Our author considers why this mitzvah should count as one of the 613 mitzvot.  He explains that this mitzvah remains in effect for all generations even though we no longer have the opportunity to observe it.  There were temporary mitzvot, mitzvot that could only apply for a limited amount of time in the theory of the mitzvah, and those mitzvot do not count in the 613.  For example, there were various mitzvot the Jews were required to keep during the three days leading up to the revelation at Sinai.  In theory we could observe the mitzvah not to remove the poles from the ark now.  We are only unable to observe it because of the historical circumstance that we no longer have the ark.  But in theory this is a “mitzvah l’doros,” a mitzvah that remains in effect throughout the generations.

            Mitzvah # 97 is a positive mitzvah to put the lehem hapanim in to the shulhan according to the required procedure.  Each week, twelve loaves were baked in the Temple.  The loaves were not allowed to become hametz.  The loaves were placed on the shulhan, which had two vertical rows of shelves, six shelves per row.  The source verse for this mitzvah says the lehem should be placed before God continually.  To fulfill this, two teams of four priests would participate.  One would stand on either side of the shulhan.  As one priest slid out a loaf, the other priest would slide a new loaf onto the shelf.  A small vessel holding a handful of frankincense was placed in each row, accompanying the lehem on the shulhan.  When the old loaves were removed each shabbat, the frankincense was burned on the altar and the lehem was eaten by the cohanim.

            The author spends much of this essay reinforcing the general approach to the Temple and its rituals that he explored in mitzvah #95. Specifically he reiterates that the Temple ritual was not for God’s benefit, but for the benefit of the people who participated and observed it.  If we observe mitzvot properly we will be worthy of the good God wants to bestow on us.  The author expands this with an interpretation of Ramban.  Bread is the most basic and common of foods.  When we use it in the Temple ritual, the bread becomes a vehicle through which we fulfill God’s will.  We hope to be rewarded for doing that through the mechanism of the blessing of having enough food to eat.  Similarly, when we bring the omer of grain on Passover we hope to be blessed with a good harvest.  When we pour water libations on Succot, we hope to be blessed with abundant water.  Although the author is attracted to this explanation, he notes that Rambam says he is unable to explain any theme for this mitzvah.

            In the dinei hamitzvah section of the essay, the author introduces a new concept.  He says the two rows of bread and incense are “m’akvin zeh lazeh.”  That means that one row of bread is insignificant without the other row, and one vessel of frankincense is insignificant without the other.  When two things are m’akev, each one needs the other.  One alone does not fulfill the mitzvah.

            Mitzvah #98 is a parallel positive mitzvah to light the menorah according to the required procedure.  Our author explains a plain, straightforward understanding of the shoresh of this mitzvah.  Keeping the Temple lit enhanced its splendor and the impression it made on the people who experienced it.  In the ancient world, most people ended their activities at dusk.  Light was a luxury, and it was therefore rare.  The menorah, or at least several of its lamps, was kept lit day and night.  The author does mention the possibility of mystical explanations that are wondrous and wise, although he does not say what they are.

            The author explains that specific mitzvot related to the Temple service were observed even though the activities involved would normally be considered in violation of Shabbat.  These include the Shabbat sacrifices and lighting the menorah.

            Each morning and afternoon, the menorah was cleaned of the ash and residue of the lamps that had burned out, and then relit.  Although Rambam counts lighting and cleaning the menorah as one mitzvah, other authorities count those two actions as two mitzvot.