THE MISHNA’S TEMPLE
How do we know that it’s this Temple that the Mishna is talking about and not the version built by Herod (which, after all, still stood during the life times of some of the Mishna’s rabbis)? first and foremost is the Mishna (Middos 2:1) that tells us that the Temple Mount was 500 amos by 500 amos. Ask any archaeologist or Josephus scholar and he’ll tell you that Herod’s Temple wasn’t even a square. It was roughly rectangular – much longer from north to south than from east to west. Certainly not 500 by 500.
Next. The eastern gate of the Temple Mount was called (in Tractate Middos) Shaar Shushan (the Shushan gate). From the Book of Esther you know that Shushan was the capital of Persia. Carved into the wall over this eastern gate was a picture of the city of Shushan. This was done on the orders of the Persian king, Koresh, to serve as a reminder to the Jews not to rebel against Persian rule.
The Persian empire lasted only thirty four years after the building of the Second Temple. Herod didn’t get down to his work until 283 years later. He was scared stiff of the Romans. The Romans were in charge in those days.
Do you think he would have pasted the Shushan skyline over the main door – right under Roman noses? Do you think they would have let him live if he’d tried?
Above all, it is the fact that the greatest experts on the subject through subsequent centuries (like, for instance, the author of “Ezras Kohanim” – see vol. one, page 39a) teach that our Mishna deals exclusively with the House that Ezra built, and not that of Herod.
Who were the Samaritans (Kussim)?
Sancheriv (the king of Assyria – see II Kings 17:6, 24) wished to subdue the diverse population of his vast empire. His method (much like that of the Russian dictator, Stalin, in more recent times) involved moving whole nations from their native lands to far-off places; each to a place as different as possible from what they were used to. This way, Sancheriv reasoned, his subjects would be less likely to rebel (being busy getting used to their new homes and lacking the “home turf advantage”).
When Sancheriv conquered the ten tribes of northern Israel (135 years before the destruction of the first Temple), he exiled them (where they ended up is a whole different story) and filled the newly-emptied land with the survivors of many conquered nations including the Samaritans (perhaps from Crete, an island off the southern coast of Greece).
Having been left unused for some time before they got there, the Samaritans found their part of the country somewhat overrun by wild animals. It seems that more than a few Samaritans were attacked and eaten by lions. The immigrants reasoned that the God of this land mustn’t like the idols which they had brought with them from Crete.
The Samaritans thus chose to give Judaism a try. However their conversion fell under a cloud of doubt in light of their motives (having only converted to escape the lions).
Over the centuries the question lost some of its urgency since the observance of the Samaritans had, in any case, lapsed badly. Eventually they fell into some kind of “Biblical” (read: denial of the Oral Torah) Judaism seasoned with a liberal measure of paganism. The problem was made worse by their antagonism for Torah-Jews and by their active efforts to subvert authentic Judaism.
Hence, their opposition to Ezra’s efforts to build a Jewish community in Jerusalem.
In one of the great ironies of history, Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Just), one of our people’s greatest teachers, seemed to have had at least one son who was somehow ignorant in Torah-matters.
The Talmud (Menachos 109b) leaves us with the story of Shimon, who, nearing death, instructed his younger son, Chonyo (also known as Onias), to take over as high priest. Chonyo, it seems, wished not to embarrass his older brother, Shimi, and gave up the position.
But as the day approached for Shimi to take on his new responsibilities, Chonyo regretted his generosity. He plotted to have his brother expelled from the position – and perhaps even killed!
How did he do it? Knowing that his brother knew little about the Temple service, Chonyo offered to instruct Shimi on the fine details of the induction service.
“Put on these clothes,” he told his older brother, handing him women’s clothing, “and meet me tomorrow morning in the Temple courtyard.”
The next day, Chonyo waited with all the rest of the kohanim (priests) for his brother’s arrival. When Shimi came, dressed as he was, Chonyo pointed and shouted:
“Look at that man! He promised his wife that as a sign of his love for her, he would wear her clothes the day he became high priest!”
The other priests chased Shimi, intending to punish him for so disgracing the Temple. But before they could do anything, Shimi managed to figure out what had happened and told the whole story. Now the priests’ attention turned back to Chonyo, the real culprit…
By the time all the dust had settled, Shimon Hatzadik’s brother, Eliezer, was high priest and Chonyo was in Alexandria, Egypt. Once there, Chonyo built an altar and began to attract a following among the local gentiles, aiming to teach the people about the true worship of God. No Jew offered sacrifices on this altar as Jewish sacrifices outside of the Temple in Jerusalem were (and still are) strictly forbidden.
Eventually, Chonyo returned to Jerusalem and took up the position of high priest he had lost so many years before.
Three generations later, another Chonyo (a direct descendent of Shimon Hatzadik’s son) traveled to Egypt. He too built a altar – actually a replica from the Temple in Jerusalem – and there Jews offered their own (forbidden) sacrifices.
Such was the strange state of the Jewish community of Alexandria…
…And if you think a Jewish temple in Alexandria was strange, wait ’till you hear about Yeb!
Around a century ago, archaeologists working near the present-day site of the Aswan Dam (on the Nile River) discovered a collection of perfectly preserved papyrus letters. The letters seemed to be the correspondence of the mercenaries of a Persian garrison stationed in the area towards the beginning of the Second Temple period. What is interesting to us, is that these paid soldiers – and their families who lived alongside them – were Jewish! They lived in the garrison town for generations, cut off from Jewish life.
Reading the letters (written originally in Aramaic) we can learn a great deal about the Jewish life of the period. For one thing, these Jews had a temple dedicated to pagan idol worship. Apparently, some Egyptian vandals destroyed their temple and the Jews had unsuccessfully applied to the Persian governor in Alexandria for permission to rebuild it. Later they wrote to the Jewish governor in Jerusalem from whom they received the permission they sought.
In another letter, the high priest in Jerusalem found it necessary to inform the people of Yeb that the festival of Passover was approaching and that it was forbidden to eat chometz for the whole week. It is hard to imagine the ignorance that plagued such Jews even while the Temple still stood!
UNDER THE WOMEN’S COURTYARD
A priest during the time of the second Temple was once checking wood in the wood chamber of the Women’s Courtyard. According to the Mishna (Shekalim 6:1) he noticed an unusual floor tile. He investigated, and realized that buried under the floor was the Holy Ark!
He ran to tell others of his discovery, but before he could reveal exactly where the treasure was hidden, he died.
This is the version in the Mishna in Shekalim.
The Talmud (Yoma 54a) offers two other opinions: The first was that the ark was taken by Nevuchadnezzer to Babylonia, and the second that it was buried in its place (under the Holy of Holies).
INSIDE THE CHAMBER OF HEWN STONE
Two pieces of information:
Number one: A full session of Sanhedrin included the 71 judges seated in a semi-circle; three rows each of 23 students who sat in straight rows before the judges; at least two scribes and various interested parties.
Number two: The Talmud (Succah 7b) tells us that the space taken up by a seated man is no less than one amah.
Now work it out: the semi-circle of judges had a diameter not less than 45 amos and a depth (radius) of about 22. The three rows of students must have filled at least three more amos (from front to back) and we must allow one more for the scribes etc. Therefore, the Sanhedrin-half of the building, aside from its walls, must have measured at least 45 x 26 amos. And it is known that the courtyard-half of the building was equal in size to its Sanhedrin twin.
Now, to the west of the Chamber of Hewn Stone lay two adjoining buildings (palhedrin and exiles’ chamber) which must have taken up some space, so even if we say that the shorter dimension (i.e. 26 amos) lay on an east-west axis, when you add it to the width of the walls and the size of the two western buildings, you run into a problem:
There wasn’t room in the courtyard for the buildings to have stretched more than 22 amos west of the Women’s Courtyard wall, because at 22 amos, the slaughter house area began (as it stretched from the altar all the way to within five amos of the northern courtyard wall).
And the north-south axis didn’t leave us much room to work with either, as the whole distance from the northern wall to the beginning of Nikanor Gate was about sixty amos. How, then, did everything fit in?
One possible answer lies in recalculating the minimum floor space needed to hold 71 sitting judges etc. Who says that their semi-circle was perfectly round? Perhaps they were seated in a long “u” shape to save space or maybe they were staggered (i.e. one slightly behind or in front of his neighbor).
We are told that the altar was given two coats of white lime yearly (one before each of the two main festivals – see Middos 3:4). thus, the wood piles must have been sitting on a stone roof that was covered by a thin layer of plaster.
The woodpiles were burning pretty much constantly for years (centuries, in fact). The fires must have been quite hot – as at least one of them was called upon to incinerate whole animals…and you need more than a pair of Shabbos candles to do that!
Now think about this: The tremendous heat of the fires never caused a crack in the stone (nor, presumably, in the plaster with which it was coated). It couldn’t have; because a crack would have flawed the whole altar – making it unfit for use.
This, some commentators point out, must have been one of the greatest (unsung) miracles of the Temple.
The altar (described by the sages as God’s instrument for prolonging men’s lives) was once the scene of a bizarre attack:
In the last years of the Second Temple, the position of high priest was a political appointment rather than the office of the most capable and God fearing man available. The priest with the best connections in Rome was the one who could beg, bribe and steal his way into the job. More often than not, in those chaotic final years, the high priest was a member of the heretical (and blighted) sect called the Tzaddukim (Sadduces).
The Tzaddukim had their own twisted way of performing many of the Temple practices. Some commandments they denied altogether. Among the more famous was the ceremony of water libation – performed during the festival of Succos.
To show his contempt for this mitzva, one particular high priest poured the water over his feet, rather than into the drains located at the south-west corner of the altar roof.
To show their contempt for such a high priest, the people pelted him with their esrogim (citrons).
It was a great idea. Only one problem: the thousands of esrogim (and perhaps stones as well) raining down on the altar actually wore down the sharpness of the corner – making the whole structure technically unfit for use (see BT Yoma 48b). It also brought on a vicious, deadly police riot compliments of the Roman units that had been stationed nearby.
THE VIEW FROM THE BLEACHERS
We learned previously that the tiles of gold from the inside walls of the Heichal were put on show every festival.
The Talmud in Yoma (54a) tells us how – also on the festivals, when so many Jews were in the Temple – the curtains of the heichal were pulled back to allow everyone to see the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.
Isn’t it interesting that at just the time when everyone would be looking in, the golden walls were resting at another end of the Temple and the poor, bare walls of the Heichal were exposed for all to see!
And isn’t it interesting that common Jews would be allowed to see into the Holy of Holies in the first place? Even workmen were lowered into this holy room in special elevators so they couldn’t see any more than necessary for their work (Middos 4:5).
Another point: Which cherubim did the people see? It couldn’t have been the those on the Ark because in the Second Temple there was no ark – it had been hidden to protect it from those who destroyed the first Temple. Therefore the Temple in Yoma (54a) tells us that it was the cherubim that were carved or drawn onto the walls of the Holy of Holies that we were all allowed to see.
This source also relates that when the Roman leader entered the Holy of Holies upon his victory over the Jews, he saw these cherubim facing each other, and ripped them off the wall to take them outside.
But getting back to the point. How exactly did anyone in the crowd see anything of the Heichal? Let’s examine the logistics:
Except when necessary for his own offering, a non-priest was not allowed further west than midway between the eastern wall of the main courtyard and the altar, so the odds are that onlookers were restricted to that place. This was an area measuring eleven amos by about eighty amos (that’s 135 minus the space taken up by the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the north and various buildings to the south). Not a whole lot of people are going to be able to squeeze into that area, at best a couple thousand.
The floor of the Jew’s Courtyard was eight and one-half amos lower than the floor at the entrance to the Ulam. That’s more than the height of two tall men. Doesn’t do much for the average guy on the floor, does it?
The ten amah high altar blocked the view of anyone standing in the southern half of the courtyard. That would cut the viewing crowd by half.
Ok. So even if you’re carrying a periscope or are sitting on someone’s shoulders and are lucky enough to be one of the few in direct line of sight of the action…you’ll need pretty good eyesight.
Think about it: Between the front row of spectators and the Holy of Holies lay the Priests’ Courtyard (11 amos), the east-west length of the altar (32 amos), the 22 amos between the altar and the Antechamber, the 16 amos of Antechamber (with its wall) and a good 46 amos further before you even get into the Holy of Holies. That’s at least 127 amos all told.
127 amos. Let’s call that 200 feet. And what are you trying to see? Three-foot-high carvings on the wall.
The Talmud here might be hinting at still another Temple miracle!