Why a Temple

To understand what the Temple meant to our nation, we’ll need a bit of background.

Jewish history is the story of a nation preparing; of a people moving towards a goal. For our forefathers, the goal was the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Since then, we strive both as a nation and as individuals to become worthy of that revelation by achieving perfection in Divine service. The Temple has historically played a giant role in this journey.

In each of its manifestations (whether as a tent-like Mishkan or full blown marble, gold and cedar Temple), the Temple has served as the focal point of this national struggle. One might say that the Temple’s changing appearance served as signposts; inspiring us to greater spiritual ambitions. Perhaps, too, our growth over the centuries was reflected by the changes – the Temple serving as a kind of barometer. It might also be fair to suggest that our failings were the cause, not only of the eventual destruction of the Temples, but of their steadily falling fortunes.

And what about the Temple service itself?

How does the sacrificial service help us? To answer that, we’ll have to think about the purpose of the Temple sacrifice. Of course, while intense effort can certainly help us develop a working understanding of the Temple’s function and purpose,1 we must acknowledge that there will always be elements of the Divine master plan that lie beyond our capacity. Here, we’ll follow, as best we can, the thoughts of the Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 95).

God expects and wants nothing more of us than to fear Him with pure hearts and serve Him to the best of our abilities. And we’ve been given the means to reach that goal: the commandments (mitzvos).

The pure heart may be the center of a Godly life, but man is drawn after his actions. What he does has a greater effect than what he says or thinks.

When we do something wrong – when we, in effect, rebel against God’s rule – what is there that can undo the damage? How can we make it as though the mistake had never been made? There’s teshuva (repentance). There’s regret for the past slip and the promise to try never to do it again. That God has given us this wonderful gift of teshuva is in itself a great kindness.

Teshuva is wonderful, but sometimes we need inspiration, road markers to help us along the way.

Partly to that end, God commanded us to set aside a place of high purity, distinct from the everyday, mundane world. This place would be the site of undiluted Godly service, of kohanim working tirelessly at their tasks, of the fulfillment of the Will of God.

It was to this place (the Temple) that we would come after a spiritual fall. What better medicine could there be for someone who has just stumbled than to spend time in the place where the proper service of God was not only in practice, but at its peak?

But we wouldn’t only watch. Remember, we are drawn after our actions. We would bring along an animal (or bird or meal) offering from our own flock – from our own homes. Our offering was taken from us and slaughtered instead of us (for don’t we deserve as much for rebelling against the true King?).

Each part of the service was meant to inspire us to think seriously about our lives and the way we use both our bodies and minds. The very fact that we gave up such an expensive and useful animal led us to reconsider our priorities (“was owning things like this really the object of my life’s work?”).

And it isn’t just the sin offering (the chatas) that should get us thinking. Each offering and activity in the Temple contains its own library of inspiring and educational thoughts. In fact, according to the comprehensive thought-system of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch,2 the Temple service in all its detail is designed to teach humans the very essence of Godly living at every point in our lives. Thus, a trip to Jerusalem could, if used properly, spark deep spiritual maturation.

1For a discussion of the limits of human understanding of God’s commandments, see the chapter “”Beyond Reason” from my book “Midrash – Bringing Torah to Life”

2To be found particularly in his commentary to Exodus 25-30 and Leviticus 1-8


Besides being hugely important to the development of European Orthodoxy in the Nineteenth Century, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch also seemed to possess a dazzling mastery of the full breadth of Judaism’s Oral Law. His brilliance is especially evident in his systematic and comprehensive approach to the temple literature. What follows, is a brief summary of some of Rabbi Hirsch’s better known observations.

They shall build for Me a sanctuary, then I will dwell in their midst (Ex. 25:8)

It’s not just about architectural design.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, the Temple will not have achieved its purpose until its influence has been felt on every plane of Jewish national and personal life. That God allowed its repeated destruction proves that the Temple’s mere construction and sacrificial service couldn’t possibly have been its ultimate goal.

And the word of God was to Solomon. The house which you are building, if you follow My laws and do My justice and keep all of My commandments to go in them, then I will keep My promise to you that I made to David your father. And I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel and I will not abandon My people Israel. (I Kings 6:11-13)

So the Temple’s continued existence is conditional. This is expressed by the two Hebrew words that describe it: mikdash (sanctuary) and mishkan (tabernacle). When – and only when – the Jews use the Temple to consecrate (mikdash) and carefully define their lives, God promises to provide His “protecting and blessing-giving presence…in our midst, manifesting itself in the happiness of our private and national lives” – i.e., mishkan, which is related to “shochen,” proximity (Hirsch to Ex. 25:8).

Our task? To absorb the moral and religious lessons suggested by the Temple’s structure and context, and apply them to our practical life decisions. One could then say that while our innermost aspirations are tree-like rooted in the Temple’s fertile soil, their “fruits” find expression wherever in the world we tread. Or, in the words of King David:

They are planted in the house of God, but they blossom in the courtyards of the Lord. (Psalms 92:14 – see Hirsch there and to Psalms 27:4)

Now just what is this curriculum of Temple-symbols? Rabbi Hirsch sees elements of it in even the smallest details and his thoughts fill hundreds of pages of this writings. The main altar is a particularly useful example.

An altar of earth you shall make for me and slaughter upon it your elevating offerings and your peace offerings; your flocks and your cattle. In any place where My Name should be remembered I will come to you and bless you. (Ex. 20:21)

The altar’s very physical structure clearly defines both its meaning and that of the activities that surround it. The altar, made from processed materials, rests directly on the ground and rises heavenward. It is as though we have taken the world’s resources and, by fashioning them for our benefit, have harnessed the sophistication of human civilization to help us climb towards God (and emphatically not as some kind of invocation “forcing” God down to earth).

While God can certainly be found in isolated contemplation of unspoiled nature, He is most productively met at the very crest of human endeavor.

It is this upward-striving feeling our altar evokes that defines the slaughter and processing of various offerings. Rather than acts of destruction, when performed in the shadow of such a powerful symbol of yearning for God, they are to

“…have the positive active object of being given over to that which the altar represents i.e., the elevation of everything earthly, material, up to the spiritual, to God.”

So closely intertwined are they, that an offering’s slaughter is entirely invalid if it coincided with some imperfection of the altar. Or, in other words, the thoughts accompanying the slaughter must be imbued with only the most complete feelings of holy human aspiration.

The “furniture” of the heichal was not only significant in and of itself, but was yet more instructive due to its placement. The ark lay furthest west behind a separating curtain. Just to the east, against the south and north walls, the menorah and table of show breads were positioned. Further east, beyond the heichal doors, was the main altar. (See Ex. 26:34-35)

Thus, orientated along its east-west axis, the Temple invites the Jewish people to visualize themselves entering the Temple precinct from the east, and looking westward, past the menorah to the south and the table of show breads to the north and ultimately towards the Holy of Holies containing the Torah.

But for what purpose?

In Rabbi Hirsch’s system, the ark, containing the Tablets of the Evidence (I Kings 8:9) and the master scroll of the Law (Deut. 31:16), represents God’s revealed will and Israel’s responsibility to remain loyal to it. The menorah carefully sets the foundations for Jewish intellectual life. And the table, with its twelve breads, demonstrated the way an ideal Jewish community relates to its sustenance.

All of which teaches that the God-given Law of the ark, lying eternal and unchanging behind its protective curtain, actively shapes Jews’ intellectual and creative lives (the menorah) and their enjoyment of life’s pleasures (the table).

Hirsch insisted that, while a sensitive examination of the Torah will reveal that everything in the temple loudly declared its own symbolic meaning, the symbols were never of God Himself, but rather, of the ideal state sought by the Jewish people (see Ex. 20:21). After all, Judaism itself does not seek to teach us to see God, but to see the world through God’s eyes.

For example, when considering the Cherubim which stood over the ark (see Ex. 25:17-20), we must not seek some insight into God or His heavens, but instead, our attention turns to the kind of burning, protective love and ever-growing loyalty that every Jew should have for God’s Torah.

Reflecting the cries of the prophet Isaiah (1:11-13), Hirsch forcefully observed that temple offerings on their own were of little value. The real profit is in their lasting affect on our moral existence. From mankind’s earliest dawn, clear and absolute distinctions were made between sacrificial offerings and the people who brought them: success sprang not from an offering’s particular quality or cost, but from a human being’s emotional engagement (see Gen. 4:7).

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