A Little Architecture: The Heichel


Rising far above the rest of the Temple site was the heichal complex. The heichal and its antechamber, the Ulam, formed a massive “T”, with the top bar lying to the east and following a north-south plane. The Ulam was long (one hundred amos) and very narrow (from the east wall to the west wall was only eleven amos).

As antechambers go, the Ulam boasted its fair share of attractions: While its main purpose was preparation for entry into the heichal, there were sights a-plenty to hold the interest of someone with time on his hands.

To begin with, the entrance itself was massive. The opening leading in from the top of the stairs (there was no door, but a curtain) measured twenty amos wide by forty amos high (Middos 3:7)! That’s double the size of any other door in the Temple.

Above the opening were five graduated ceder beams, built both for their beauty and to support the enormous weight of the wall above – a wall that measured five amos thick!

Just inside the opening were two tables. It was on the one to the right – made of marble – where the priests used to lay the loaves of the lechem hapanim (show bread) on their way into the heichal on the Sabbath. To the left was a golden table upon which lay the lechem hapanim on their way out (after their week of sitting on the golden show bread table in the heichal).

Incidentally, the priests who happened to be on duty each week were treated to the tasty mitzva of eating the week-old bread – still miraculously warm and fresh.

At either end of the Ulam (that is to say, to the south and north ends) were chambers called the batai chaliphos. Along the walls of these rooms were cubbies used to store either the knives used in the Temple service (each watch of priests had its own cubby) or, according to some opinions, the priestly garments.

There were ceder beams connecting the wall of the Ulam with its twin, the outer wall of the heichal (the Ulam was not actually joined to the heichal, but their walls did rest on each other at the north-west and south-west corners). You can understand the need for extra support when you think about the sizes involved: Two walls, one hundred amos high, one hundred across and five thick might otherwise have trouble standing up.

On the other side – the heichal side – was the entrance to the heichal itself (ten amos wide by twenty high) and to each side of the main door, smaller doors leading into side offices.


From the Ulam into the heichal were three doors. The main passageway was through the double doors in the middle. The entrance measured ten amos wide, twenty amos high and six amos deep (that is to say, the six-amah thickness of the heichal wall left a short corridor in the doorway).

To either of the main door’s sides were smaller doors. These both led into the first of rows of offices or storage rooms. We are told by the prophet Ezekiel that only one of these doors was ever used. The door to the south of the main entrance was for God’s “use” alone – priests never even opened it (Middos 4:2). At sunset every Sabbath and at every new month the doors would, however, open by themselves (Ezras Kohanim to Middos 4:2).

There is an ancient argument (Middos 4:1) concerning the actual appearance of the (main) doors. Rabbi Yehuda envisioned two sets of articulated doors (doors that fold over each other), one at the “Ulam” end of the corridor and the other at the heichal end.

The Rabbis, however, saw the doors as doubled, each five amos wide and meeting in the middle of the corridor. When opened, the outer doors would fold back into the corridor and cover its wall. The inner doors would fold back to cover five amos of the inner wall of the heichal.

Aside from these short stretches, the entire inner wall of the heichal was covered with golden tiles.

Although the Mishna in Middos (3:4) describes how once every year (before Passover) the walls of the heichal were re-plastered with white lime, from a later Mishna (4:1) we see that the inside of the heichal was covered from top to bottom in gold. We must, therefore, assume that only the outer walls (those visible from outside the building) were covered in lime, while the inside was all gold.

When Ezra first began rebuilding the Temple, he didn’t have the means to splash gold and silver around the way he might have liked. From where, then, did is all come?

It seems there were some priests who had more than a healthy appetite for the finer things in life. And some of the finer things in life came their way in the form of the skins of olah (burnt) offerings. The skins of these offerings were meant to be shared among the priests of whichever watch happened to be on duty. However, the more ambitious priests managed to muscle their way to the front of the line and usually got the best pick.

The Talmud (BT Pesachim 57a) tells us that those officials in charge of the priests subsequently decreed that the hides would only be distributed at the end of the week’s watch, when everyone would be there together and things could be better controlled. Still, however, the priests with “connections” would consistently come out ahead. So all the priests, making full use of peer pressure, agreed to dedicate their shares – wherever they might be – to the Temple treasury.

It wasn’t long, the Talmud continues, before there was enough money from sales of the hides to cover the whole heichal with tablets of gold.

That’s where all the money came from.

And just so people shouldn’t think that the Temple treasury was mismanaged, or that the workmanship of the heichal was in any way inferior, these golden tiles were removed from the walls of the heichal every festival and piled up on the Temple Mount for everyone to see.


And finally we arrive at the center of it all; the building towards which we face every day in our prayers. As we imagine ourselves passing through the Ulam, through the double golden doors and into the huge, silent, gold-covered hall, how can we not suck in our breath from sheer awe?

Forty amos ahead hangs the first of two plush curtains. The beautifully woven material measuring nearly forty amos wide by forty high – along with its twin hanging just one amah behind it – divides the sixty amah chamber into two. The section in which we now stand – the heichal, or Kodesh – takes up forty of those amos. Beyond the curtain-wall lie the twenty amos of the Kodesh Hakedoshim (the Holy of Holies).


In the Kodesh there are three golden objects. In the center (twenty amos from each of the east and west ends, and ten amos from both the northern and southern walls) sits the golden altar (mizbach hazahav). Not imposing by virtue of its size, the altar rises only two amos from the ground and is only one and a half long and wide. It was to this altar that the morning and afternoon ketoros (incense offerings) were brought and burnt daily.

To the right and further back (to the west) than the altar, is the table (shulchan). It too, isn’t enormous, but it, too, is crafted of fine wood and completely covered with gold. The table itself is only one and a half amos high, two amos long and one and a half wide. Poles, rising from the table-top, provide support for two “stacks” of golden trays. On each tray is one of the twelve loaves of the lechem hapanim (show bread). Before each Sabbath, new loaves were baked and, on Sabbath morning, brought into the heichal to replace the old ones.

To the left (the south) is the golden menorah. Each of the seven branches (not eight the way our Chanuka menoras are made…those commemorate the eight day miracle) is topped with a cup. The purest olive oil is poured into the menorah each evening and its wick is expected to burn through ’till the morning.

This holy room was the domain of only those priests directly involved with their work. One couldn’t just walk in on a whim.

But this room, too, was just a pathway to the Temple’s real heart; to the chamber where Israel’s greatest treasure lay, where the Divine Presence rested – the Kodesh Hakedoshim. The Holy of Holies.


The curtains separating the Kodesh from the Kodesh Hakedoshim were a feature unique to the Second Temple.

When King Solomon built the First Temple, the Heichal stood only thirty amos high. It was possible to support a one amah wide wall of thirty amos. However the ceiling of the second Temple was ten amos higher, and that was more than the builders were willing to take on. Therefore, two curtains – one just behind the other – were hung from the ceiling.

Why two? Because the area of the original wall had technically belonged either to the side of the Heichal (Kodesh) or to the Holy of Holies. They weren’t sure which. So to avoid the problem (because they couldn’t take away from one at the expense of the other) they built the Kodesh a full forty amos long and the Holy of Holies twenty amos, with the amah between the curtains filling an extra amah above and beyond the dimensions used in the first Temple.

The curtains did not completely fill the width of the room: The outer curtain (the one to the east) was flush with the wall at its northern end and to the south was rolled back over itself a bit, leaving a space through which one could gain entrance. The western curtain was the opposite; its opening was to the north. Thus there was a way for the high priest to enter, yet those standing outside in the Heichal were unable to see the room itself.


After all the build up, you’re perhaps a little unsure what to expect in the Kodesh Hakedoshim. But in light of all the wonders we’ve seen until now, perhaps it’s the simplicity of this room which stands out more than anything else.

While it’s true that the walls were coated with golden tiles (even the ceiling and floor), still, there was precious little else in the way of furniture. In the Second Temple there wasn’t even a holy ark on the floor, just an empty room with carvings or paintings of ceruvim (cherubim) on the wall and the small tip of a rock (called the “even shesia”) projecting out a few inches from the floor.

In the First Temple, the ark sat in the middle, its length stretched north/south and its carrying poles east/west. The two sets of tablets of the covenant (on which were carved the Ten Commandments) given to Moses by God, the staff of Aaron, a complete scroll of the Torah written why Moses himself and one jar of mon (manna) from the generation of the desert also found their place here.

Though it’s impossible for us to understand how, nevertheless, for all the room’s simplicity, the Divine Presence rested here. It was here that the Eternal met This World such that the greatest achievements of man could evoke as great a Divine inspiration as is possible.

Above the Kodesh Hakedoshim (and indeed, above the heichal as well) was an attic, nearly identical to the rooms below it. The space might have been used for storage of things of great value (some say that the beams and curtains of the original tabernacle from the forty wilderness years were kept there).

The part of the aliya (attic) that was directly above the Kodesh Hakedoshim had a pattern of holes in the floor. If repairs to the walls of the Kodesh Hakedoshim below were ever needed, elevator-like boxes with workers inside were lowered through these holes.


The aron hakodesh (the holy ark – remember, the ark wasn’t present through the Second Temple era) was actually a small golden box (two and a half amos long, one and a half wide and one and a half high). More accurately, it was three small boxes, one inside the other. The outer and inner layers were solid gold and the middle layer was wood. covering the top opening of the box was a golden board called the kaporos.

Built over the kaporos (all from one piece of gold), were two winged figures with baby-like faces – the ceruvim. In Solomon’s Temple, there were also ceruvime standing on the floor at each end of the aron, their wings stretched behind and above them, filling the room.

Miraculously, although the aron and the ceruvim above it were very large, from the perspective of an observer standing in the room, they took up no space (in other words, you could walk through the space where the figures were supposed to be).

Next to the aron on the floor (again, of the first Temple) lay Aaron the priest’s staff (see Numbers 17:16-26) and a jar of mon (mana) left over from the Jews’ sojourn in the desert (see Exodus 16:32 and Rashi).

Rashi tells us that in the time of the prophet Jeremiah this jar was taken out and shown to the nation. It seems that their struggle for physical survival didn’t leave them enough time for Torah study, so the man of God pointed to the jar of manna, saying:

“Your fathers were sustained in the desert for forty years through the miracle of the manna. Just as their food was provided then, so now are there many ways for God to send your needs…”


Hidden behind the golden walls of the heichal was a whole complex of offices, storage rooms, building structural support and drainage systems. The offices were reached through the small door to the right (north) of the main door to the heichal.

First thing each morning, a priest would use two keys and a lot of stretching to open this small door. Entering, he would find himself in a small room with three more doors leading in new directions. One door led into the space between the two sets of heichal doors. Once there, the priest would open the inside doors, then the outer doors from the inside. Another door led to the first of the offices and a third led outside to a spiral staircase.

In all, there were thirty-eight offices forming a “u” shape around the bottom twenty amos of the heichal. On the heichal’s north and south sides were three levels of five offices each (totaling fifteen to a side). To the west, the bottom two levels boasted three offices each, with two more above those.

Doors opened from each of the offices to those on either side, and those furthest east were open to the Ulam. Not only were there doors from one office to its neighbors to each side, but there were staircases from one level to the next. Each office also had a window for light.

The opinion of the Rambam is quite different. In his model, there are six east-west strips of offices lying one next to the other – three to the south of the heichal complex and three to the north. The remaining eight offices lay to the west.

We don’t really know what each of the offices was used for, but we can assume that some were for storage and others were for administrative purposes.

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