A Little Architecture: The Azarah

THE ENTRANCES TO THE AZARAH

There were seven entrances to the Jews’ Courtyard (see Mishna Middos, ch. 1, Mishna 4).

On the other hand, Mishna 6 in the second chapter of Middos tells us that there were thirteen entrances. So what do you do? Which do you believe?

As usual, there are various approaches to choose from, but we will stick with that of Rebbainu Tam (Kesuvos 106a) who says that, counting the major gates (those measuring ten amos wide by twenty amos tall) there were only seven, but there were also six minor entrances. The Mishna at the beginning of Middos is concerned only with the big ones…

What were the gates? Here we go:

Along the northern side of the courtyard, the westernmost gate was sha’ar hanitzotz (gate of the spark). To its east was the sha’ar hakorbon through which were brought most of the animals to be used in the Temple service. There were at least 32 steps leading up to this gate1 (just imagine dragging all those cows and sheep up the stairs!). Further east was the sha’ar hanashim (women’s gate – one of the smaller gates) and finally, the Bais Hamoked.

Now, to the south side: From the west, there was the sha’ar ha-eliyon (another small gate). Eastward was the sha’ar hadelek. East again was the sha’ar habechoros and finally the sha’ar hamayim.

Ok. That’s eight. Now there was the main entrance on the eastern wall, the Sha’ar Nikanor and two smaller entrances – one on either side of nikonar. Eleven.

On the west wall of the Azarah, were two small unnamed gates. Thirteen – seven large and six small.

THE GATE OF THE SPARK

This gate had two names (just to confuse you). The name, the Gate of the Spark (Sha’ar Hanitzotz) refers to the twenty-four hour flame that was kept burning in the gateway should the eternal flame of the main altar have needed replacing.

The other name, is Sha’ar Yechaniya, named after the great Judean king, Yechaniya. Now, of course, Yechaniya also had two names: Yechaniya and Yehoyachin (but if you think this is bad, the main altar had at least four names and the smaller altar in the heichal had at least four more!)

Why was this particular gate named after this particular king? Because it was through this gate that Yechaniya, in the last years of the first Temple period, was led into captivity at the hands of Nevuchadnezzer. Our people chose to remember Yechaniya for his final acts of courage and heroism during this terrible captivity (Middos 2:6).

Outside the gate, overlooking the Temple Mount, was a balcony built on two pillars. Priests regularly stood in this attic keeping watch over the Temple (it wasn’t that the Temple needed watching – they weren’t usually afraid of attack – but ceremonial guards lend a place an aura of importance). There were three places where priests kept this honor guard: here, in Bais Avtinus (see below) and in the Bais Hamoked. Many other places were guarded by levites (Middos 1:1).

THE WATER GATE

This gate, like the Sha’ar Hanitzotz, had more than one purpose.

It, too, had a balcony on the outside from which a priest stood guard over the Temple Mount. Above the gate itself were two rooms. One, Bais Avtinus, was used by members of the Avtinus family who were expert at preparing the ingredients for the incense (ketorus). The second room contained the mikvah (pool) used by the high priest for the first of his five Yom Kippur immersions.

If the room next to Bais Avtinus contained a mikvah used by the high priest on Yom Kippur (see Leviticus, ch. 16; 4 etc.), where, you might ask, did all the water come from? (We’re referring to the drawn water in which the kohen actually immersed – but the 40 seah of the mikvah itself was most likely rainwater).

Even modern plumbing often requires pumps to raise water to upper levels of a building against the force of gravity and this mikvah in particular had to be at least 23 amos (about four stories) above the floor of the Azarah (twenty amos of the gate itself and three amos of height to contain enough water for a kosher mikvah suitable for immersion). What pushed the water up that great height?

The rabbis (BT Yoma 31a) tell us that the water for the mikvah (as well as much of the water used in the Temple) came from a well (called Eyn Eitom) that sat at the top of a neighboring mountain, some miles away. The water was brought by way of underground pipes. Since this other mountain was slightly higher than the Temple Mount, it produced just enough pressure (thanks to gravity) to force the water to rise to the top of the mikvah.

THE JEWS’ COURTYARD

To the west of the Women’s Courtyard lay the Azarah (main courtyard). This courtyard’s forty-amah-high walls enclosed the Temple’s main buildings.

The most noticeable structure in the Azarah was the Antechamber (Ulam) and behind that, the heichal (known, for some reason, as the Hearth). These two adjoining buildings towered over the rest of the Temple – being more than twice the height of anything else in sight.

We’ll get to all that, but right now we’re interested in the courtyard’s general layout. In amongst all the confusion of the Azarah, lay the Jews’ Courtyard. Rectangular, the Jews’ Courtyard was bounded from the outside by the outer walls of the Azarah and on its inside by the walls of the heichal. In all, the Azarah measured 187 amos from east to west and 135 from north to south.

Technically, the area whose sanctity was only that of the Ezras Yisroel filled only the first eleven amos to the west of the Women’s Courtyard wall and the areas to the north, south and west of the heichal. The Priest’s Courtyard – a space stretching eleven amos from the Jews’ Courtyard to the main altar along with the space of the altar itself (from its south-facing ramp all the way to the northern wall of the Azarah) were normally off limits to “common” Jews (but then, who’s a common Jew?).

It was in this space (in particular the easternmost strip) that much of the business of the Temple was done. The area boasted seven major buildings (or, to be more precise, two clusters of three buildings each and the Bais Hamoked further west along the northern wall – Middos 5:3).

The cluster in the Jews’ Courtyard’s south-east corner consisted of the Salt Chamber (for storing the salt used in the Temple service), the Parve Chamber (no, it had nothing to do with milk-free diets) and the Washing Chamber (for cleaning out the innards of slaughtered animals). Each of these chambers was (according to Tosafos Yoma 31a) built underground with stairways leading down from the floor of the courtyard.

On the roof of the Parve chamber was a mikvah used by the high priest on Yom Kippur (for his final four immersions). There were curtains all around for privacy.

The north-east corner of the Azarah contained the Chamber of Hewn Stone (the Lishkas Hagazis – the supreme court chamber), the Wood Chamber (so named, according to some, because of the wood used to build it – it was also called the Palhedrin and served as the high priest’s private chamber), and the Exiles’ Chamber, which housed a water well built by the returning exiles.

Separating the eastern section of the Jews Courtyard from the Priests’ Courtyard to its west were three steps. It was on these steps (called the duchan) that an overflow crowd of levites would stand while involved in their musical service. The main body of levites were located on the twelve stairs between the altar and the antechamber.

By the way, in your own travels through the tractates of Middos and Tamid you might have noticed a different version of the above layout. The northern cluster is often placed in the south and vice versa. We had to choose one of the two for our explanation, but nevertheless, it’s important to be aware of the other possibility.

THE CHAMBER OF HEWN STONE

At the top end of the Jewish legal system lay the supreme court building in the Jews’ Courtyard. Here, when the need arose, the Sanhedrin of seventy-one judges met and dealt with the most serious and difficult cases. Among other things, it was this body which gave final approval for a Jewish king to go to war.

The building itself was divided into two parts: the half which lay inside the wall of the Azarah was used as, among other things, a synagogue for the priests during their morning service. The half that was built outside the wall was the meeting place of the Sanhedrin (Middos 5:4 – see R’ O. Bartenura). Why outside? Since the Sanhedrin met seated it was only appropriate to sit outside the Azarah proper).

THE FIREPLACE CHAMBER

The Fireplace Chamber (Bais Hamoked), was one of the three locations in the Temple guarded by priests (the other two were above the Water Gate and above the Gate of the Spark – besides these, there were many levites on guard throughout the area). The guard would stand on the building’s roof, next to its huge dome and watch over the northern half of the Temple Mount.

At night, in the building below, the priests of that day’s duty were sleeping, some on the floor of the main hallway and some on large slabs of stone that stuck out from the northern wall. At the southern end of the hallway was a huge door leading into the Azarah. Built into the door was a smaller opening that allowed priests in and out in the early morning with a minimum of noise and fuss. At the northern end of the hall was another door which led to a staircase down to the Temple Mount.

Off to either side of the hall were entrances to smaller rooms. The south-western room was a holding pen for the animals which would most likely be needed for the coming days’ sacrifices. To the south-east was the chamber used for baking the lechem hapanim (the show breads, see Exodus, 25; 30).

Inside the north-east chamber were the remains of the original altar, dismantled after having suffered Greek misuse at the time of the Chanuka story (Middos 1:6). The north-west was home to a small fire for warming cold priests and from it a tunnel stretched under the floor of the Temple to a mikvah and bathroom. Priests who became impure at night would immediately go to that mikvah, then wait for the opening of the outer gates in the morning and then leave Temple Mount.

THE PARVE CHAMBER

This one takes the prize as the most interesting name in the entire Temple literature!

It seems there was a fellow named Parve who had an unhealthy interest in witchcraft (he also had some unsavory friends – like Bilaam and his two sons).

Parve picked up a desire to get in to see the high priest at work on Yom Kippur. One version has him using witchcraft to build the room that bears his name, then tunneling underground into the Holy of Holies. Another version sees Parve climbing to the roof of his room to watch the high priest in the mikvah.

The priests seem to have been tipped off about the plot and managed to catch the culprit in the act, killing him for his trouble. To express thanks to God for having saved us from whatever scheme Parve had had in mind, the sages named the room Parve.2

THE ALTAR

Of all the objects in the courtyard, the altar (mizbayach) commanded more than its share of attention. The whole structure including its ramp stretched across sixty amos from north to south and thirty-two from east to west. When a priest walked along the outer rim of the altar’s roof, his feet were ten amos above the floor (in other words, his head was nearly four body lengths up).

If the purpose of the Temple as a whole was to provide a place for bringing sacrifices, then the altar was the activity center: (see Mishna Menachos 5:5-6)

  • Blood from newly slaughtered animals was sprinkled on the altar – either above or below the bright red line (the chut hasikra) painted half-way up the side.
  • Entrails were often burned on one of the wood piles on the roof.
  • Offerings of wine and water were poured down one of the two drains built on the south west corner of the roof.
  • meal offerings (menachos) were touched to the side of the altar to attain the proper sanctity.
  • Those sacrifices which required burning were placed on the fires of this altar.
  • Even the ashes from the fires were packed into a ball (called “the tafuach”) in the middle of the roof (Tamid 2:2).

Just a quick rundown (see Middos 3:1): From floor level to the height of one amah was the base of the altar (called the yesod). The yesod was not a perfect square as a strip one amah thick on the south and east sides was left out.

From above the yesod until the height of six amos was the sovev (lit. “surround”). The top of the sovev was an amah wider in every direction than the level above it, so it formed a walking ledge. It was below this ledge that the red “chut hasikra” was drawn to separate between blood that had to be thrown “above” and blood thrown “below.”

The final section was the maracha (top – lit. “arrangement”). It’s roof rested three amos above the sovev. At the corners of the roof were one amah cubes called the keranos (corners).

THE RAMPS

The main ramp to the top of the altar was as long as the altar itself (thirty-two amos). Since the height to which it rose was ten amos, the ratio of elevation must have been about one to three. Not such a steep climb.

And it couldn’t have taken much time to walk up either (thirty seconds, let’s say). Nevertheless, to the west of the main ramp, was a smaller ramp leading back down to the south west corner of the altar itself.

Why? For no other reason than to speed up a priest’s trip from the top. If, while carrying a vessel of blood in his hands, he could arrive more directly at the bottom corner, he would save around thirty seconds.

Why should we care? Because the blood he was carrying had to be poured over the corner of the altar before it coagulated (solidified). Apparently, blood, when exposed to air, will coagulate quite quickly. Hence, the concern for speed (Shita M’kubetzas to BT Zevachim 62b note 12).

Besides the main ramp and its small companion, there were two others leading from the top of the sovev (ledge) to mid-way down the main ramp – one on each side of the altar. Why two? So that a priest who had to walk around the ledge to place blood on the keronos (corners) wouldn’t have to turn around and retrace his steps in such a narrow space; instead, he could keep going and descend on the other side.3

Just think of it: these priests had to walk at considerable heights (six to ten amos) along ledges less than two feet wide – all while balancing bowls filled with blood. It must have taken some skill – and nerve.

As you might have noticed from the picture, at the point where the main ramp met the top of the altar, there was (according to some opinions) a wide gap. The gap was eight amos long (from north to south), more than one amah wide (east to west) and quite deep. What a place to stick a trench!

Its real purpose, we are told, was to allow a priest to throw sacrificial limbs from the ramp onto the top (the roof) of the altar. “Throwing” requires empty space above which to throw. The empty space had to descend all the way to the yesod. If the gap was any narrower, the ledge of the sovev below would get in the way (BT Zevachim 104a).

According to Tosafos (BT Pesachim 77a) the gap was not actually needed to fulfill the mitzva of “throwing” the sacrifices, but rather as a reminder to throw…

THE ROOF

Even though at its base, the altar was thirty-two by thirty-two amos, the actual distance, edge to edge, at the roof level was twenty-eight by twenty-eight (this, because the sovev was one amah smaller in every direction, and the top portion another amah narrower).

The outer two amos along each edge of the roof were taken up by a slightly depressed walkway for the priests and by one-amah cubes at each corner (the keronos). That left twenty-four by twenty-four amos for real busines. In that space were (during the year) three wood piles. One, the biggest, was for the actual burning of sacrifices. Coals from the second pile were used for the incense and the third was an eternal flame.

In the center of the roof area, rising above the woodpiles, was the huge tafuach – a smooth hemisphere of ash. The ashes from burnt offerings were packed into this round shape after a day’s service; the size of the pile giving witness to the willingness of the Jewish people to give of themselves and their possessions for their God (Tamid 2:2).

It was from this tafuach that the priest would take a small shovel-full of ash every morning, as part of the mitzva of “trumos hadeshen” (see Levit. 6; 3). He would dig into the pile, choosing ash from its center, then take his now-full shovel to deposit its contents on floor next to the main ramp.

On Hoshana Raba (the last day of the festival of Succos), giant aravos (willow branches) were brought into the courtyard and, while resting on the floor, were draped over the top of the altar’s roof. These branches had to have measured close to twenty-five feet long (BT Succah 45a)!

Our custom of buying and later carrying bunches of willows on Hoshana Raba (the seventh day of Succos) is a reflection of this ancient Temple practice.

THE STAIRS TO THE ANTECHAMBER

Between the western edge of the altar and the door to the Antechamber to the heichal lay a flight of stairs stretching 22 amos from east to west and rising six amos from the floor. These stairs spanned the whole eastern face of the heichal (Tiferes Yisroel to Middos 3:6; note 61).

In fact, level floor only stretched for one amah west of the mizbayach. After that, the first of the twelve stairs rose its half amah and pushed west a full amah. Each of the stairs in the Temple, the Mishna tells us, was half an amah high and half an amah deep…except for these. Here, there were four flights of three stairs each with a landing of either three or four (or, according to some, five) amos between each flight. Built into one of the landings was the laver (kiyur – but more about that later).

On the top landing (which was on the same level as the floor of the heichal), were two eighteen-amah high columns, one on each side of the huge door to the Ulam. One was called Yachin and the other Boaz. Yachin, after the Davidic dynasty which is constantly “prepared” (muchan) to return, and Boaz, after David’s great-grandfather, Ruth’s husband.

THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE

Stretching from the northern wall of the altar to within a few amos of the northern wall of the courtyard, was an open area known as the bais hamitpachayaim (slaughterhouse). This was the main (for want of a better expression) meat processing center of the Temple.

It was here that most of the animals destined for the altar were slaughtered (kodshei kedoshim – the sacrifices whose sanctity were highest – could be slaughtered only in this area). And it was in this open space that most animals were skinned and prepared for fulfilling their sacrificial function.

Twenty-four metal rings through which the heads of live animals could be drawn and secured for slaughter were anchored in the floor. Beyond the rings were eight marble tables on which carcasses were slit open and their fats and entrails removed. Beyond these tables were eight marble pillars with cubes of wood on top. Protruding from the cubes on three sides were nine pegs used for hanging carcasses for particularly busy days (when the tables were full).

The Mishna in Avos (5, 5) mentions one of the miracles of the Temple: Despite the raw meat lying in the hot, Israeli sun and the gallons of blood spilled all over the floor, no fly was ever seen in the area of the slaughterhouse. This, we are told, was in honor of the holy work of the altar!

THE KIYUR

The kiyur (laver) was the water vessel from which priests washed their hands and feet each time before they would participate in the Temple service. You might remember Rashi (Exodus 38; 8) telling us how the kiyur in the Mishkan was made of the mirrors used by our holy mothers while enslaved in Egypt.

Originally, the kiyur was built with two spigots – one from the top half and one from the bottom (for use later in the day when the water level was lower). As the demand grew, ten more spigots were added on the bottom.

Predictably, at the end of an average day, there would be some water left over. If left out in the kiyur overnight, this water would become unfit for its holy use, leaving no choice but to throw it out. As that would have involved a perceived indignity, a man named Ben Katin (BT Yoma 37a) invented the muchani (water well) into which the kiyur was lowered nightly. Being submerged overnight in ground water, the water in the kiyur was just as fit for use the next morning as it had been the day before.

1Based on the rule that all the stairs in the Temple were 1/2 amah high (see Middos 3; 3) and assuming that, from the floor of the cheil to the floor of the Azarah, was an elevation of 16 amos.

2Middos 5; 3 – Tosafos to Yoma 35a (see also Ezras Kohanim)

3Tosafos, BT Zevachim 64a (“Yoser m’lamed…”). Rashi argues and allows only one small ramp from the main ramp to the ledge (on the east side) and another from the west side of the main ramp to to floor…

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