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These are Ma'amadot. [The Torah] says, 'Command the Israelites and tell them [to offer] My sacrifice, My food'. Now how can a person's sacrifice be offered if he is not present? So the early prophets established twenty-four watches. Each watch in Jerusalem comprised Priests, Levites and Israelites. When the time came for each Watch to go up to Jerusalem the priests and Levites would go, while the Israelites in that Watch would assemble in their cities and read from the Creation story.


The reason why we commence our study of Tractate Tamid with a mishnah from Tractate Ta'anit will become apparent later on in this shiur. This mishnah seeks to explain the term 'ma'amad'. The Torah [Numbers 28:2], quoted in this mishnah, commands the daily sacrifices that are referred to as 'Tamid' - continuous sacrifices that were offered every day of every year, one in the early hours of the morning and another during the mid-afternoon. (According to the Gemara [Ta'anit 26b] the last time the Tamid was offered was on 17th Tammuz in the year 3830 - 70 CE - three weeks before the Bet Mikdash was overrun by the Romans and ruined by fire and demolition. This was during the siege of Jerusalem and the supply of animals had run out.) Since the Tamid was an offering on behalf of all Israel, all Israel, as it were, should be present when it is offered. However, this is an obvious impossibility. Therefore, what this mishnah states is that all Israel were divided into twenty four watches ['mishmarot'], and each watch was to serve in the Bet Mikdash for one week twice a year. Thus perhaps a better rendition of 'mishmeret' would be 'duty roster'. However, since the number of people was far too large to give everyone a chance to serve twice a year it was highly likely that any given member of the roster might get a chance only once in a lifetime to actually serve for one week in the Bet Mikdash. The priestly watches were changed every Shabbat after the Musaf [additional] offering, and when they were changed the corresponding watches of the levites and the Israelites would also change. A cursory reading of the above mishnah suggests that it was only the priests and the levites who were required to be physically present in Jerusalem and that the members of the Israelite roster remained in their towns and villages. This is not the case, as becomes clear from the commentary of Rambam [Moses Maimonides, North Africa, 12th century CE. From now on we shall simply refer to him as Rambam.]

I have already explained that the term 'Ma'amad' includes all the members of the priestly and levitical watch together with the [Israelite] members of the Ma'amad. These latter were the representatives of all Israel ... When the time for the tour of duty of their Ma'amad came round all the members of that Ma'amad who lived close to Jerusalem would be present in the Bet Mikdash, together with the priests and Levites when a sacrifice was offered; those who lived at a distance from Jerusalem would congregate in the synagogues...

In brief, therefore, there was a weekly representation of all Israel present in the Bet Mikdash, a representation or delegation that consisted of ordinary Jews, who were neither priests nor levites.

Let us imagine that were are members of a Ma'amad whose tour of duty is this week and we are privileged to be this week's representatives of all Israel. (The members of this watch who were priests or levites were also present, but they were on 'active service' as it were, while our rôle is passive: we are just spectators and our presence indicates that the sacrifices are being offered in the name of all Israel.) Let us imagine that the year is 50 CE and that our tour of duty started last Saturday afternoon, at which time we were too excited and too apprehensive to pay great attention to the plaza of the Temple Mount. (For many of our delegation this was the first time in their lives that they had entered the precincts of the Bet Mikdash.) Now that we have reached the third day of our seven day stint, as we approach the Temple Mount [Har ha-Bayit] we look around us and take in the sights of this unique site.

Hulda Tunnel We approach the Temple Mount from the south, as do most people. The mount itself is, of course, surrounded by valleys on all sides, some of them quite steep. Before us is an impressive and broad flight of steps leading up to two huge entrances. These are known familiarly as the 'Ĥuldah Gates' - presumably named for the prophetess of that name [2 Kings 22:14].We enter through one of these gates and we find ourselves in a huge vaulted underground passage that gradually rises upwards by steps through the mount. We are thus approaching the Bet Mikdash from under ground as it were and we eventually exit from this huge walkway through apertures in the floor, very much like the exits into the street from a modern subway.
Portico We are in a huge esplanade. This esplanade was created by the architects and engineers who, some seventy years ago, started the reconstruction of the whole Temple complex, a wholesale reconstruction and beautification commissioned by King Herod. Actually, here and there, work is still going on unobtrusively, even though Herod has now been dead for some fifty years. This glorious esplanade is surrounded on three sides by beautiful porticoes. These are covered walkways that are supported by majestic columns. Ahead of us and occupying the area of the esplanade towards our left is the Bet Mikdash itself. Our sages do not consider the area of the esplanade to the south of the Bet Mikdash as being an integral part of it, but merely an addition wrought by Herod and his architects, but the did admit that this monster of a man had achieved a superlative architectural creation. They freely admitted [Sukkah 51b] that 'anyone who has never the Bet Mikdash in its splendour has never in his life seen a glorious building'. The esplanade is crowded with people of all races and faiths, milling around, some making purchases in the shops that shelter in the porticoes. (In the main these shops sell animals and birds for personal sacrifices, but some of them are banks for currency exchange, since the Bet Mikdash has its own coinage. I do not know whether they sold souvenirs!)

Since we must not be late for our tour of duty we press on through the milling crowds and approach the Bet Mikdash itself. A small flight of steps leads up from the esplanade to a partition wall about 80 centimeters high; this partition completely surrounds the whole of the immediate precincts of the sanctuary and entrance is gained through gateways in the partition. Built into this partition at regular intervals are notices, in Greek, that warn non-Jews that they may not enter beyond this partition. (One such notice has been excavated; if we translate the Greek into a modern idiom is would read something like:

Entrance by non-Jews beyond this point is strictly prohibited on pain of death. You have been warned.

We enter through the main gateway through this partition, which is on the eastern side of the Temple complex. This entrance is often referred to colloquially as 'the Beautiful Gate'. Inside there is a narrow walkway that completely surrounds the complex. This walkway is about 5 meters wide. Crossing it and continuing directly forward we enter into the largest of the courtyards of the Temple precincts. Bet Mikdash This courtyard, about 70 meters square, is known as the Courtyard of the Women. This is not, as is often thought, because it was here that the women were segregated. In fact, the vast majority of men would proceed no further either. (Perhaps it is not out of place to note here that the masses attending worship in the Bet Mikdash did so in the Court of Women [Ezrat Nashim] and there was no segregation of the sexes in this court (except on one occasion during the year, which was not essentially religious in nature.) A large and imposing flight of fifteen semi-circular steps gave entrance from the Court of Women to the innermost court. Womens' Court Thus the court of the Bet Mikdash where the general public assembled for worship was completely separate from the inner court where the actual sacrificial cult was performed. A magnificent flight of fifteen broad semi-circular step gave access from the main court to the inner court. At the top of this flight was 'the Platform' on which the levitical choir and orchestra performed while the two daily sacrifices, the Tamid, were being offered in the inner court - not visible to the assembled worshippers. As we have said, it was in the Court of Priests, which is usually referred to simply as the Azarah [the Court] that the sacrificial cult took place, unseen by the lay people massed in the Court of Women. A small strip, about 5 meters wide, just within the entrance was marked by a line painted on the floor. Within this line we, the twenty-four representatives of the Jewish people, will stand to witness the ritual on behalf of the whole people. Generally, but not exclusively, Beyond this strip only the priests would go. It was here that the main altar was, upon which the sacrifices were incinerated and it was here that the rest of the equipment and furniture associated with a slaughter-house were kept and used. The Azarah gave entrance to the actual building of the Bet Mikdash, which was divided into two rooms: the larger one housed the small golden altar of incense, the golden table of the Shewbread and the famous candelabrum whose similitude is engraved on the Arch of Titus in Rome and which serves as the emblem of the State of Israel. The smaller one, the Holy of Holies, was completely empty.

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The priests keep watch in the Bet Mikdash in three places: in the Avtinas Room, in the Flame Room and in the Hearth Room. The Avtinas Room and the Flame Room were in the upper story and the youngsters were on watch there. The Hearth Room had a vaulted ceiling and a stone pavement that jutted out from the wall. It was here that the elders of the day's roster would sleep, with the keys to the Courtyard of the Priests in their hand. Each fledgling priests [slept] with his own mattress on the ground. They did not sleep in their sacred vestments but would strip them off, fold them up and place them under their heads, and dress in their own clothes. If any one of them had a nocturnal emission he would go out by the winding staircase that goes under the edifice (there were lights [in the passage] burning every so often) until he reached the Immersion Room. There there was a fire burning and there was a toilet. If he found it locked he knew that it was occupied, if it was open he knew that it was vacant. He would go down [into the water] and immerse himself, then he would come out, dry himself, and warm himself at the fire. Then he would go back and resume his place with his fellow priests until they opened the gates the following morning, when he would go home.


Our mishnah consists of several sections, although it does not neatly divide up into reisha, emtza'ita and seifa as we have been wont to find so far. This is probably best explained by the fact that Tractate Tamid is one of the earliest of the tractates of the Mishnah to be formulated. According to the great Amora of Eretz-Israel, Rabbi Yoĥanan [Talmud of Eretz-Israel, Yoma 12a], our tractate was formulated by Rabbi Shim'on of Mitzpeh, who was a contemporary of Rabban Gamli'el the Elder. In other words, this tractate was formulated some time during the first third of the first century CE - let's say sometime between the year 20 and 30 CE. This attribution by Rabbi Yoĥanan seems to be essentially plausible, although there may well be certain of the mishnayot of the tractate that were formulated by others. Be that as it may, the tractate presents eye-witness descriptions of the workings of the Bet Mikdash. Its great age (about a century older than the hard core of Tannaitic material) probably explains why the mishnayot are not neatly divided up as we are used, but are more like journal descriptions. [For a description of some of the technical terms used in this paragraph please read the Introduction to the Mishnah.]

The first part of our mishnah describes the arrangements for a guard for the Bet Mikdash. Obviously this guard was a guard of honour: it was not armed nor was it manned by professionals; furthermore, the area under guard was only the Courtyard of the Priests. There was a similar guard of honour manned by levites for the rest of the complex. According to Middot 1:2 there were regular checkups by the permanent officials of the Bet Mikdash to make sure that the guard was in place and not shirking. The punishment for being found asleep at your post was humiliating: "Rabbi Eli'ezer ben-Ya'akov says that 'they once found my uncle asleep [on his watch] and they burned his clothes'."

In order to understand the description of the three places at which the priestly guard was stationed we must review the layout of the priestly area in greater detail than the 'tourist's eye view' previously given. The actual complex of the Bet Mikdash was situated in the north-western part of the great esplanade that we described in our last shiur. The complex was oblong in shape, its longer sides on an east-west axis. Thus the innermost sanctum of the Bet Mikdash, the Holy of Holies, was situated at the far west of the esplanade, the site now being occupied by the mosque of Omar (The Dome of the Rock). To lay people the main entrance into the complex was from the east, where a grand entrance gave access to the largest of the courtyards, the Courtyard of Women. We have already described this courtyard. We also mentioned that a magnificent flight of fifteen broad semi-circular steps that gave access from the main court to the inner court. The entrance was through an immense set of bronze doors, the Nicanor Gate - a magnificent donation to the Bet Mikdash from a Jew from the Diaspora. Just inside the Court of the Priests was a narrow strip, about 5 meters wide, marked by a line painted on the floor. This was the so- called Courtyard of the Israelites which, as we have already mentioned, was the station of the twenty-four representatives who witness the ritual on behalf of the whole people. Beyond this strip only the priests could go. If we enter the Courtyard of the Priests through the Nicanor Gate (most priests surely did not, but entered through side entrances) we see before us the magnificent edifice which was an architectural wonder. Twelve steps led up to the main entrance to the building of the Bet Mikdash itself. This building was about fifty metres in both height and width. Just inside is a huge vestibule with an enormous decoration of pure gold hanging from the ceiling: a vine with its grapes. The vestibule gives entrance to the Mikdash, the main hall, or Hekhal. This hall houses three precious objects: ahead of us and in the centre is a small altar of pure gold; beyond that and to our right there is a table, also of pure gold, on which are set out each week the loaves (actually wafers) of the Shewbread; opposite the table, to our left stands the candelabrum of pure gold (whose likeness can be seen to this day in the decorative mural on the Arch of Titus in Rome). At the end of this magnificent hall is a golden curtain which shields off from our sight the innermost sanctum of all, the Holy of Holies. Into this innermost sanctum only the high priest would go at the most solemn part of the ritual on Yom Kippur. The Rock in the Dome of the Rock In the centre of this room, which was a cube of about ten metres on all sides, one could see, protruding from the floor, the very top of the rock, more of which can be seen to this day inside the Dome of the Rock. This room was completely empty. (Its counterpart in the first Temple had housed the holy Ark, which was lost during the aftermath of the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian in 587 BCE and their arsoning of the first Bet Mikdash.) When one views this magnificent building from the outside it can be seen that the vestibule is wider and higher than the rest of the building. This shape reminded people of the shape of a lion, with a head that seems wider than the body. For this reason it seems people applied to the building the loving sobriquet 'Ari'el'. This name, according to Middot 4:7 was based on a biblical verse [Isaiah 29:1].

We leave the Mikdash and return to the Courtyard of the Priests. The object that dominated most of its space was the main altar, which was about sixteen meters square at its base and about twelve meters square at the top. If we imagine that we are standing in the space reserved for the Ma'amad the altar is straight ahead of us and it is approached via a ramp, about sixteen meters long, to the left of the altar. Ahead of us and to our right are all the main appurtenances of a slaughterhouse. The whole of this courtyard is surrounded by a portico, just like the esplanade outside. Above this portico, in the upper story, were rooms which were used for various purposes.

Our mishnah states that the priests who were on duty provided the guard of honour in three places. (The levites provided a guard of honour in a further twenty-one places outside the Courtyard of the Priests.) One place where the priests kept watch was the Avtinas Room. According to Mishnah Yoma 1:5 it was here that the Avtinas family prepared the incense that was used in the temple ritual. The way in which the aromatics were mixed was a secret jealously guarded by this family. The Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Yoma 7a] says that the Avtinas Room was on the left hand side of the courtyard, not far from the private office of the high priest. Another place where the priests kept watch was the Flame Room. I am none too sure that my translation here does justice to the meaning of the Hebrew. A literal translation of 'Bet ha-Nitzotz' would the the Spark Room. Possibly it housed flints. According to Mishnah Middot 1:5 it was on the northern (right hand) side of the courtyard, opposite the Avtinas Room. Both of these rooms were upper stories above the portico. Our mishnah states that the guard of honour in the Flame Room was comprised of children, priests who had not yet reached Bar-Mitzvah. The third priestly contingent would stand watch in the Hearth Room, which was on the ground floor on the right hand side of the courtyard, nearer to where we are standing (in the court of the Israelites) than the Flame Room. The Hearth Room, as its name implies, was a large vaulted chamber which had a stone hearth set into one of its walls. This hearth housed a fire which was kept alight all night to give warmth, for those priests who were not on watch slept here. (It can get very cold in Jerusalem during the winter months.)

Our mishnah mentions 'the elders of the day's roster'. Previously, we have mentioned the twenty-four 'watches' into which all Israel was divided, and that each week it would be the turn of a different 'watch' to serve in the Bet Mikdash. The priests of the 'watch' were further subdivided into six 'rosters' [Bet Av]. Each roster would serve for one day of the week, with all of them serving on Shabbat. Thus a priest would be lucky if he managed to spend two days of his life on active service in the Bet Mikdash. Our mishnah teaches that the elders (leaders) of the day's duty roster would sleep in the Hearth Room with the keys to the Priestly Courtyard in their hands. The rest of the priests on duty (called 'fledglings' to distinguish them from the 'elders') would also sleep in the Hearth Room, each with his own mattress and his sacred vestments rolled up as a pillow under his head.

The last part of our mishnah deals with the behaviour of a priest who has a nocturnal seminal emission - in other words an ejaculation of semen during his sleep. (Actually, the halakhic procedure would have been the same in all cases of seminal emission - coitus, masturbation etc - except that these seminal emissions would, presumably, not have taken place in the sacred area of the Bet Mikdash.) According to the Torah all emissions of semen require ritual purification before contact with priestly perquisites. The Torah [Leviticus 22:2-7} states:

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Tell Aaron and his sons that by removing themselves from the Israelites' sacred donatives, the donations that they dedicate to Me, they will avoid profaning My holy name. Tell them that throughout all future generations any one of their male descendants who is in a state of ritual impurity and who approaches the donatives that the Israelites dedicate to God, that soul shall be excised from before Me. Any man of Aaron's descendants who ... has ejaculated semen... shall be ritually impure until the evening; he shall not eat of his sacred donatives until he has bathed his whole body in water: then, after sundown, he is considered to be ritually pure, and he may then eat of the sacred donatives, for that is his food.

The sacred donations to which the above passage refers are, in the main, 'Terumah' and other perquisites to which the priests were entitled. Terumah ['donative'] was originally an amount of farm produce varying between 1.67% and 2.5% of the produce, depending on the farmer's generosity, and was to be set aside as a perquisite for the Kohen [priest] of his choice. The priest was not permitted to enjoy his perquisites when he was in a state of ritual impurity. Furthermore, no person, priest or non-priest, was permitted within the Bet Mikdash proper when in a state of ritual impurity. The procedure for removing the ritual impurity was in two stages: to bathe in a Mikveh (a pool of natural, undrawn water, which contained water to at least the minimal amount), and then to wait for the following sunset: after both these occurrences he was considered once again to be ritually pure. A person who had already bathed in a Mikveh but who was still waiting for sunset was termed 'Tevul Yom'. (It seems easier to leave this Hebrew term untranslated and to rely on the preceding description.) For the sake of completeness I insert here a short excerpt on the subject from the Encyclopedia Judaica:

...The person or article to be purified must undergo total immersion in either mayyim ĥayyim ('live water'), i.e., a spring, river, or sea, or a mikveh, which is a body of water of at least 40 se'ahs (approx. 120 gallons) that has been brought together by natural means, not drawn. The person or article must be clean with nothing adhering (ĥatzitzah) to him or it, and must enter the water in such a manner that the water comes into contact with the entire area of the surface... Immersions were required especially of the priests since they had to be in a state of purity in order to participate in the Temple service or eat of the 'holy' things. The high priest immersed himself five times during the service of the Day of Atonement. Other individuals had to be ritually pure even to enter the Temple. However, it became customary among the Pharisees to maintain a state of purity at all times, a fact from which their Hebrew name Perushim (separated ones) may have developed.

Total immersion also came to form part of the ceremony of conversion to Judaism... Since the destruction of the Temple, or shortly thereafter, the laws of impurity have been in abeyance. The reason is that the ashes of the red heifer, which are indispensible for the purification ritual, are no longer available. Thus, everybody is now considered ritually impure. The only immersions still prescribed are those of the niddah and the proselyte, because these do not require the ashes of the red heifer and because the removal of the impurity concerned is necessary also for other than purely sacral purposes (entry into the Temple area, eating of 'holy' things). The niddah is thereby permitted to have sexual relations and the proselyte is endowed with the full status of the Jew.

In addition to the cases mentioned in the Bible, the rabbis ordained that after any seminal discharge, whether or not resulting from copulation, total immersion is required in order to be ritually pure again for prayer or study of the Torah... The ordinance was attributed to Ezra but it did not find universal acceptance and was later officially abolished. Nevertheless, the pious still observe this ordinance. The observant also immerse themselves before the major festivals, particularly the Day of Atonement, and there are ĥasidic sects whose adherents immerse themselves on the eve of the Sabbath as well.

Thus, a priest who has a seminal emission while in the area of the Bet Mikdash must remove himself from there. Our mishnah explains that the moment he realizes what has happened he must make his way to a Mikveh that was situated beneath the Temple edifice. All the commentators are agreed that when the Bet Mikdash was sanctified after its original construction the areas beneath the buildings were explicitly excluded from the sanctification. This Mikveh was reached through an underground passage that led to an area that contained the Mikveh and a toilet. After bathing in the Mikveh the priest would make his way back to the Hearth Room; when the gates were opened the following morning he would make his way outside the Temple (avoiding passing through any of the courtyards which were forbidden to him) and could not return until after sunset. (In his commentary on Mishnah Middot 1:9 Rabbi Ovadya of Bertinoro [Italy and Eretz Israel, 15th century CE] explains that the priest was permitted to return to the Hearth Room after he had visited the Mikveh even though he was a Tevul Yom because that was where the incident had already occurred anyway. I would add that, in addition, we should take into account that until the gates were opened the following morning he had no means of exit.) We should note that recently archeologists have discovered this underground passage and it does indeed have niches in its walls for holding candles at regular intervals.

Our mishnah mentions that the underground public convenience area also housed a toilet. This is called in Hebrew 'Bet Kisseh shel Kavod'. The word 'Kavod' means 'honour' and our mishnah seeks to explain why the toilet facility received this name. It explains that the dignity of human privacy was observed: if the toilet was locked this meant that it was occupied and the occupant should not be disturbed.


Richley Crapo presents two questions. The first question reads:

Is it clear from early sources that the passages from the ĥuldah gates into the esplanade were, in fact, underground at the time of the Second Temple? Or is it possible that they entered the south side of King Herod's Royal Stoa with corresponding exits at ground level on its northern side, and that the underground passageways were created after the destruction of the Temple and Herod's stoa as a result of Hadrian raising the ground level within the esplanade?

I respond:

I think this is very unlikely, and I have not heard of this being discussed in authoritative archeological circles. The underground entrance through the Ĥuldah Gates is mentioned in early rabbinical sources, including the Mishnah. If, as Richley suggests, people could enter through the south side of the complex, which is where the Ĥuldah Gates were (and are!) how were they to reach the esplanade from the valley below? - especially since archeologists have found no external approach via a staircase on the southern wall and they have found the Ĥuldah passageway (under what is now the Aqsa mosque). There were indeed external staircases giving access to the esplanade on the western side: the buttress remains are visible for all to see today as Robinson's Arch and Wilson's Arch.

Richley's second question:

Is it certain that the Holy of Holies stood on the spot now occupied by the Dome of the Rock?

I respond:

This certainly has been discussed by archeologists, but it is still a very moot point. In any case, the difference is a matter of a few metres, and wherever the site of the Holy of Holies may have been it is certainly occupied today by some part of the Mosque of Omar. It seems from my layman's point of view that if our own sources refer to a rock in the Holy of Holies and if the present site also houses a rock in the general area in which the Holy of Holies was...

Marc Auslander writes:

I was wondering if the Yom Kippur ritual described in the Seder Ha'avodah changed when the innermost sanctum was empty. Did the Kohen Gadol still carry in the fire-pan and burn incense? Did he sprinkle the blood in the empty room?

I respond:

The innermost sanctum was empty throughout the whole of the existence of the second Temple (very nearly 600 years). The fire-pan containing incense was placed by the High Priest on the rock inside the Holy of Holies. He then sprinkled the blood on the bottom of the curtain covering the entrance, and then re-entered the Holy of Holies in order to retrieve the fire-pan.

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Anyone who wanted to clear the ashes from the altar would rise early and bathe [in the Mikveh] before the superintendent would arrive. At what time would the superintendent arrive? There was no fixed hour: sometimes he would come at cock-crow, sometimes a little before, sometimes a little after. The superintendent would arrive and knock for them. They would open for him and he would say, 'Anyone who has already bathed may come and take part in the lottery.' They would throw lots and one of them would win.


The altar referred to in our mishnah is the main altar situated in the Priests' Court. This altar was a very large structure. It is described in the first mishnah of the third chapter of tractate Middot:

The altar was thirty-two cubits by thirty-two cubits. At a height of one cubit it receded one cubit thus creating the base. It was now thirty cubits square. It rose five cubits and receded one more cubit, thus creating the 'Surround' [Sovev}. It was now twenty-eight cubits square. The space occupied by the horns was one cubit on each side. It was now twenty-six cubits square. The walkway for the priests was one cubit on all sides. Thus the place of the fireplace was twenty-four cubits square...

Main Altar

The altar was thus a structure which rose up, narrowing in stages. At is base it was about sixteen metres square while at the very top, where the fire was kept burning, it was about twelve metres (forty feet) square. The top of this large structure was reached by a ramp and not by steps, which were forbidden by the Torah [Exodus 20:23].

On the top of the altar was a fire stack, fueled by wood. This fire stack was kept alight all the time, all day every day, as required by the Torah [Leviticus 6:6]. The first item of 'housekeeping' every day was the removal of ashes from the fire stack so that the fire would burn properly. The mishnah in tractate Yoma [1:8] reads as follows:

The altar was cleared of ashes daily at cock-crow or just before or just after. On Yom Kippur the ashes were removed by midnight and on festivals by the end of the first watch. The Court was always full of Jews before cock-crow.

Cock-crow is before dawn (though, in the Gemara [Yoma 20b] there is an additional view reported that the term refers to a human performing a function similar to that performed today by the Moslem Muezzin; the Gemara does not decide between the two views.) This means that any priest who wanted to take his chances in getting this task allotted to him would have to rise in the middle of the night in order to bathe in the Mikveh - mentioned in the previous mishnah - before the superintendent arrived. (Even a priest who was certain that he was in a state of ritual purity had to bathe in the Mikveh, since this was a prior requirement of anybody who wished to enter into the Priests' Court.)

The superintendent referred to by our mishnah was obviously a priest who was a permanent member of the staff of the Bet Mikdash. Since all the priests on duty were probably doing this for the first time in their lives (and for the last time as well, most likely!) there had to be someone who could direct them and 'orchestrate' their performance. This superintendent would arrive and knock on the door of the Hearth Chamber where the duty roster were sleeping sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The first item on their agenda was to decide which of the priests on duty would have the task of clearing the ashes from the main altar (there was another one, much smaller and much grander, inside the Heikhal, as we have already mentioned). This was not considered a chore, of course, but a desirable privilege. Indeed, this was the case regarding all the tasks to be allotted that day. There were always far more priests who wished to earn a privilege than there were tasks to go round, so each task was preceded by a lottery, thus leaving the choice of the priest to chance (or to Heaven, as one chooses to interpret).

I shall now describe how the 'lottery' was performed. My explanation is based on that given by Rambam in his commentary to Mishnah Yoma 2:1. The superintendent would line all the priests up in a row or a circle. He would then say 'think of a number', or something like that. Anyway a number was agreed - twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-seven, whatever. He would then say from which priest he would start counting - let's say from the tenth man to his left. He would then tell them all to hold out one finger (a term still used in modern Hebrew to indicate voting). The superintendent would then count the fingers from the one he had indicated as the starting point until he reached the number which had been agreed, and thus the lucky winner was known.


Reuven Boxman writes:

The detailed description of the guard arrangements so closely parallels the arrangements used by armies today (which probably follow a very long tradition), that I think that the possibility that this guard was not merely honorary, but also functional, should be considered. Assuming that professional, armed guards patrolled the outer regions of the temple and provided 'exterior security', it would be prudent to likewise patrol the interior region, i.e. the priestly precincts, in case someone slipped past the exterior guards, or even to maintain accountability for the sacred objects, i.e. to prevent non-malicious misappropriation or misplacing. Presumably, if only priests were allowed in these interior areas, only they could perform this duty. Even if unarmed, the priestly guard (or maybe a better word would be watchman) could shout an alarm, summon help, or direct the attention of his superiors, according to the nature of the incident.

Paula Tobenfeld writes:

Could you please explain to me the difference between Mishnah and Talmud? It seems that both texts start out with a Mishnah followed by commentary. Are they structured similarly? Are all Mishnayot of the Mishnah included in the Talmud? Does the Talmud merely elaborate on the discussions of the Mishnah?

I respond:

The Talmud - or rather, the Talmuds, since there are two of them - contain material from the period of the Amora'im, and this material is an attempt to elaborate on the Mishnah and to understand its provisions. Amora is a term used to describe the sages who lived in Eretz-Israel and Babylon from about the year 220 CE to about the year 500 CE (from the death of Rabbi until the temporary closure of the Yeshivot of Babylon by the Persian authorities. The greatest of the first generation of these sages was Rav. Rav had been a student of Rabbi's in Eretz-Israel but returned to Babylon before Rabbi's death (around 217 CE) and founded a Bet Midrash in the town of Sura - only instead of calling it a Bet Midrash he called it a Yeshiva. Just as Rabbi had taken a revolutionary step and committed the Unwritten Torah to writing (the Mishnah) so Rav took an unprecedented step. In his Yeshiva the textbook to be studied was no longer the Torah (as was the case in the Bet Midrash until Rabbi), but from now on the text to be studied was the Mishnah. Thus, just as the Tanna'im had elaborated and delved into the Torah, so the Amora'im would elaborate and delve into the Mishnah.

Paula is incorrect when she says that the Mishnah is text followed by commentary. The Mishnah is pure text: each segment is a didactic statement of law according to set principles (which we sometimes have mentioned in our Shiurim). An explanation of the nature of the Mishnah has already been given by me in the Introduction to the Mishnah which is posted in the archives. One great institution of Babylonian Jewry was that of the Kallah. Twice a year, for a month at a time, ordinary Jews would crowd into the Yeshivot to listen to the great Amora'im discussing Mishnah. The Mishnah to be discussed was recited for all to hear and then a general discussion would begin. One sage might ask for the meaning of a certain word, and several suggestions would be made as to its correct meaning. These suggestions would not be the personal guess of the Amora, but his understanding of what the original Tanna had intended, and he would have to back up his suggestion with citations and prooftexts. Each suggestion might be challenged, until one explanation is accepted as the correct one. Someone might then point out that it seems to him that the mishnah under discussion is in direct contradiction to another Mishnah or to a Baraita. The discussion will then move to and fro until the matter is resolved. Sometimes one such discussion [Sugya in Aramaic] might be resolved in a couple of words or a couple of lines of text. At other times the discussion might extend of several folios of a modern edition of the Talmud. When the discussion is exhausted the elucidation of the mishnah is complete - on that topic. The discussion might come to an end because there is general concurrence or it might come to an end because one of the disputants can make no further response. Rarely, it is found to be impossible to resolve and issue and it is left in abeyance.

These discussions took place over nearly three centuries in many great Yeshivot - Sura, Pumbedita, Mechoza, Naresh etc. They were not collated, edited and formulated until the beginning of the fifth century CE. Traditionally, the work of editing the Babylonian Talmud is attributed to two Amora'im, Ravina and Rav Ashi, though modern scholarship sees the process of editing being completed much later, towards the end of the fifth century.

I hope this description offered 'while standing on one leg' as it were is acceptable and answers Paula's questions.

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He would take the key, open the wicket and enter the Court from the Hearth Room. They would enter in his wake, carrying two lighted torches. They would then divide into two groups: one would follow the portico in an easterly direction and the other would follow the portico in a westerly direction. As they made their way they would do a check. When they reached the Pancake Makers' Room they would meet up and say, 'Shalom, all is well'. There they would leave the Pancake Makers to make the pancakes.


The selection of the priest who earned the privilege of clearing away the ashes from the main altar took place still inside the Hearth Room where the whole contingent of priests had spent the night (except for those on guard duty). Once that selection had been made the party could begin the day's activities. Since the Superintendent was the only one who really knew what had to be done it was always he who took the lead. We recall that we learned in the first mishnah of this chapter that the elders of the priestly watch had the keys to the Court in their safe keeping. The superintendent now relived them of this duty and took from them the key, using it to open a wicket. The physical arrangements are described by mishnah 7 in the first chapter of tractate Middot:

The Hearth Room had two gates: one opened to the Terrace [ĥel] and the other to the Court [Azarah]. Rabbi Yehudah says that the one that opened to the Court had a small wicket set in it, through which they would pass to check out the Court.

The sage referred to in the seifa [last part] of this mishnah is Rabbi Yehudah ben-Ilai, who was active almost one century after the destruction, so he cannot be offering personal knowledge, but a received tradition. He is not in conflict with Tanna Kamma, but simply adding corroborative detail. (It is interesting to point out that the verb used at the end of this mishnah, 'to check out' is the verb utilized in modern Hebrew to indicate police detection.)

Thus we have learned that the Hearth Room was built into the portico on the northern wall of the Court (if we are facing the actual Temple building it would be on our right). This room had two entrances: one, on the right, gave access to the narrow terrace that surrounded the whole complex, and that eventually exited into the main esplanade. The other entrance was, of course, on the left, and it gave access directly into the Priests' Court. The door was a massive door which was certainly not used daily - if ever. Within this massive door was set a much smaller door: this is the wicket that the Superintendent opens with the keys. By passing through this wicket the priestly party finds itself in the Court.

We must bear in mind that all this is happening during the last hours of the night before the first light of dawn. Therefore the priestly party is making its way by the light of torches. When Rambam reviews this topic in his great Halakhic code Mishneh Torah [Bet ha-Beĥirah 8:12] he remarks that when this check was made in the early hours of Shabbat morning they did not use torches. This is very surprising, since it is a well-known fact that all restrictive laws of Shabbat were permitted as part of the procedure of the Bet Mikdash. In which case why should they have hesitated to light and carry burning torches? - even though that same procedure would have been forbidden outside the Bet Mikdash. It has been suggested [Kesef Mishneh ad loc] that on Shabbat their way was lit for them by lights that had been burning since the previous afternoon, and this was because this check was not a direct part of the sacrificial cult, and that therefore they refrained from desecrating Shabbat where it was possible to avoid such desecration. All this seems unnecessary, for surely if this had been the case why does the mishnah omit such a relevant piece of information?

The party now divides up into two groups. If we can imagine them just having entered the Court from the Hearth Room and were facing the main altar, they would have the actual building of the Bet Mikdash to their right. One party now turned leftwards and started making its way round the perimeter of the Court, skirting the area reserved for the lay representatives and then making their way up the opposite side of the perimeter portico. It would seem that the purpose of this walk was to check that everything was in its proper place and that no item was missing. (This may also have assisted in familiarizing the participants with the various utensils that they would be using.) The other party would, of course, turn right and make its way around the perimeter of the Court, passing behind the main Temple building and the Holy of Holies and back down the opposite side. The two groups would finally meet up at the Pancake Makers' Room. We shall explain that curious expression very shortly. Let us just note at this point that because of the location of that room it would take the group making the right hand turn much longer to reach their destination than the group who took the left hand turn. Presumably they would wait patiently at the rendezvous point for their colleagues to arrive.

At this point let us quote tractate Middot 1:4-5

The Court [Azarah] had seven entrances: three on the northern side, three on the southern side and one on the eastern side. On the southern side were the Fuel Gate, then the Firstlings Gate, and then the Water Gate. The one on the eastern side was the Nicanor Gate, which had two rooms set into it: on the right was the room of Pinĥas the Vestment-maker and on the left was the room of the Pancake-Makers. On the northern side [the three gates were] the Spark Gate (which was a kind of portico with an upper story where the priests kept watch above and the levites below and which had an exit to the Terrace); then there was the Sacrifice Gate, and then the Hearth Room.

All that really interests us in this mishnah, given our present context, is the reference to the Nicanor Gate. We Have already mentioned this gate when we noted 'a magnificent flight of fifteen broad semi- circular steps that gave access from the main court [of the Women] to the inner court. The entrance was through an immense set of bronze doors, the Nicanor Gate - a magnificent donation to the Bet Mikdash from a Jew from the Diaspora'. Thus the Nicanor Gate connected the Court of the Women to the Priestly Court [Azarah]. We should pay careful attention to the fact that a flight of fifteen steps led up to the Nicanor Gate from the Court of Women. (At the top there was an open platform [Dukhan] in front of the gate itself: it was here that the levitical choir and orchestra performed while the sacrifice was being offered on the other side of the gate.) The fact that the Nicanor Gate was at the top of the steps meant that the Priestly Court, to which it gave access, was that much higher than the Women's Court. This left room, on the side of the Azarah, for two 'rooms' - cells, more likely - to be let into the structure of the Nicanor Gate. If we are standing at the main altar facing the gate the left hand cell was that of 'Pinĥas the Vestment-Maker' and the right-hand cell was where the pancakes were made.

The Torah [Leviticus 6:13-15] states:

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This is the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to God on the occasion of their anointment: one tenth of an ephah of choice flour as a regular meal offering, half of it in the morning and half of it in the evening, shall be prepared with oil on a griddle. You shall bring it well soaked, and offer it as a meal offering of baked slices, of pleasing odour to God. And so shall the priest, anointed from among his sons to succeed him, prepare it; it is God's - a law for all time...

Since this offering, a pancake made of flour and oil turned on a hot griddle, was to be offered not only by Aaron himself but also by all those who succeeded him 'for all time', this pancake was offered daily by the high priest. The preparation of this pancake was the task of those detailed to prepare it. Actually, according to the Gemara [28b] all they had to do at this stage was to heat the water for the mixture - which is described by one modern scholar as 'a pulp made of a mixture of flour, oil and water'.

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Whoever it was who had won the privilege of clearing the ashes from the altar would now proceed to clear the altar of ashes. They would warn him, 'Take care that you don't touch the tool until you have sanctified your hands and feet from the laver. The shovel is in the angle between the ramp and the altar on the western side of the altar.' No one would go in with him, neither did he have a lamp in his hand; but he would make his way in the light shed by the fire stack. They couldn't see him or hear him until they heard the sound of the wooden [wheel] that ben-Katin had made for the laver. They would then say, 'He made it!' He would sanctify his hands and feet from the laver and then he would take up the silver shovel and go up to the top of the altar. He would clear the embers to the sides and would use the shovel to remove the innermost embers that were completely burned. Then he would go down again. When he reached the pavement he would turn to face north and go to [a spot] about ten cubits to the east of the ramp. He would heap up the embers on the pavement three cubits away from the ramp, where the birds' crops and the ashes of the inner altar and the candelabrum were dumped.


At the end of the previous mishnah we learned how the priests on duty would make the rounds of the Court in order to check that everything was in place. Now that the check had been made the first item on the day's agenda could begin. This was the clearing away of ashes from the main altar. Already in mishnah 2 we have seen how the priest who won this privilege was chosen. We have also mentioned on a couple of occasions that everything that is being described in this first chapter of the tractate is taking place when it is still dark, before dawn. (In the summer these preparations could take place as early as 2.30 in the morning and in the winter as 'late' as 4.30.)

We must also bear in mind that the priest who had won this privilege was performing this duty probably for the first (and last) time in his life. That is why it was necessary to give him verbal instructions. The language of our mishnah ('they would warn him') suggests that the instructions were given by his fellow-priests. However, this seems unlikely, since they would be as uncertain as he was. It seems far more sensible to understand the word 'they' as the impersonal - as is almost common in mishnaic (and modern) Hebrew. Thus it seems most likely that the instructions were given to this priest by the superintendent - who has already been mentioned several times. The specific instruction was a warning to the priest not to touch 'the tool' - i.e. the silver shovel used for clearing the ashes from the altar - before washing his hands and feet. This procedure is a direct requirement of the Torah [Exodus 30: 18-21]:

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You shall make a wash laver of bronze, with a bronze base, and place it between the Communion Tent and the Altar, and put water into it. Aaron and his sons shall use it to wash their hands and feet Whenever they enter the Communion Tent they shall wash in water so that they do not die. Also when they approach the altar to officiate, to burn offerings to God. They shall wash their hands and feet and die not. This shall be a perpetual regulation for him and his future descendants.

Not only did the superintendent remind the priest to wash his hands an feet before touching the shovel, but he also told him exactly where he would find the shovel: in the corner made by the ramp where it joined the altar on the side nearest the laver, which was between the altar and the main temple building.

It was dark, as we have said. The priest had no lamp to guide him and could only make his way by the light shed by the fire still burning on top of the altar; and since it had yet to be cleared of ashes we can imagine that even that light was rather dim. It must have been quite an eerie experience for the priest, particularly since, as our mishnah specifically states, no one could accompany him. The rest of the contingent would not be able to see him. They were still standing by 'the Pancake Makers' Room' and therefore the enormous bulk of the main altar was between them and their fellow priest; and even if it had not been there they would not have been able to see him clearly in that very dim light. Since the priests officiated barefoot (even in winter!) they would not be able to hear the priest either as he made his way to the laver.

The water in the laver was sacred. However, if the water were left in the laver overnight it would thereby become profaned. On the other hand there had to be water in the laver first thing in the morning for the priests to use to sanctify themselves. A certain ben-Katin (and Rabbi Ovadyah of Bertinoro in his commentary says that he was a High Priest) had solved this problem by having a contraption made. This contraption was a wooden wheel of some kind by which the laver could be lowered overnight so that it was sunk into the water in the cistern. Thus, all the priest had to do was to hoist the laver up from the cistern in order to wash his hands and feet. His colleagues would know that he had arrived when they heard the creaking sound of this wheel being turned. At this point most codices of the mishnah have the wording that, upon hearing the creaking sound, they would say, 'The time has come'. This doesn't really make any sense. There are codices that have reached us that do not have the word 'time', and the resultant text makes much more sense: they would say to themselves, 'he has arrived' - or, as I translated in the text of our mishnah above, 'he made it' safely in the dark to the laver.

As we shall see in the next mishnah subsequently all the priests would wash their hands and feet. This act was later transferred to all Jews, who should start their day by ceremonially washing their hands first thing in the morning 'like a priest sanctifying his hands from the laver before performing his worship' [Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, Oraĥ Ĥayyim 4:1]. It is interesting that Rabbi Isaac Klein [A guide to Jewish Religious Practice, page 3] when presenting Conservative Jews with a rationale for this morning washing of the hands quotes a quaint midrash about heathen washing statues and brings support for the custom from a Christian theologian, but does not mention this picturesque priestly rationale at all.

After having washed his hands and feet the priest would retrieve the shovel, ascend the ramp to the top of the altar, and start clearing away the ashes and remains. Actually, his act was only symbolic since there was far too much to be done for just one man. As we shall see in the next mishnah the work was be to completed by the rest of the contingent. After shovelling the charred remains of fuel (wood) and carcasses he would bring a shovel full down the ramp and deposit the contents in a dump which was situated on the pavement about one third along the length of the ramp - about 5 metres along - and a few inches away from the eastern side of the ramp - i.e. the side furthest from the laver and nearest the Nicanor Gate. This dump was also used for the ashes of the inner altar of incense and the candelabrum (which we have only mentioned in passing so far). The dump was also where they would throw the crops - gizzards - removed from the bird sacrifices.

This concludes our study of the first chapter of this tractate.