Mishnah 1 | Mishnah 2 | Mishnah 3
Mishnah 4 | Mishnah 5

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When his colleagues realized that he had come down they came on the run and made haste to sanctify their hands and feet from the laver. Then they took the rakes and the prongs and went up to the top of the altar. They would push to the sides of the altar the limbs and fatty parts that had not been completely burned since the previous evening. If there was not enough room at the sides they would arrange them on the Surround [or] on the ramp.


As we mentioned in our comments on the previous mishnah the act of clearing the ashes from the altar by the selected priest was really only symbolic, since it was not possible for one man to clear that huge altar all by himself: the area of the top of the altar was about 144 square metres. Thus, when the lone priest had descended the ramp and deposited his shovel full of ashes on the dump the rest of the contingent would now complete the work. It would not be possible to offer fresh sacrifices unless the fire stack was tidied up and refurbished with new fuel. This could only be done when all the ashes had been removed so that the fire could be made anew.

The priests would now sanctify their hands and feet just as the first priest had done. The Gemara [Yoma 25b] says that the same High Priest, ben-Kattin, who had made the contraption for the laver also made twelve spouts for the laver 'so that the twelve priests who were attending to the offering of the daily sacrifice [Tamid] could sanctify their hands and feet all at the same time'. As they went up the ramp they took with them the equipment that they would need: rakes and prongs. The rakes were to gather the ashes towards the fire stack; the prongs were for stabbing the bits of carcasses that had not been completely reduced to ashes during the night. We must not forget that in addition to the Tamid, the two daily sacrifices offered each morning and each afternoon, there were many, many private sacrifices offered on an ordinary weekday. People would bring offerings that were required of them (offerings presented by people who had infringed a law of the Torah in some way, women who had given birth, converts to Judaism - to name but a very few examples) and also voluntary offerings because of great happiness or gratitude to Heaven. Thus the number of carcasses of animals and birds large and small would be quite prodigious. All of these remains had to be separated off to the sides so that they could be rearranged on the fire stack once it had been attended to. The requirement was that all these tasks must be completed before dawn, including the re-incineration of the unconsumed remains that had been raked to the sides. This requirement is mentioned incidentally in the very first mishnah of tractate Berakhot:

And not only here; but wherever the sages say 'until midnight' the 'mitzvah' [duty] is actually in force until first light: the final incineration of residual intestinal fat and limbs is to be performed until first light; the consumption of all offerings that must be consumed the same day they are offered may be done until first light.

And there we gave the following explanation:

The animal sacrifices that were offered on the main altar in the Azarah [Priestly Court] of the Bet Mikdash were not always completely consumed by the flames. The fat around an animal's intestines and various other limbs were not easily burned. These were left on the altar until the evening. If they had not burned away during the evening hours they had to be deliberately incinerated by midnight (according to the sages) or by dawn (according to Rabban Gamliel). (It was to this informal 'housekeeping' duty performed by the priests during the night that later tradition linked the Evening Service of the Synagogue.) Certain offerings made in the Bet Mikdash had to be eaten by the celebrants bringing them on the same day that they were slaughtered. Our mishnah defines 'the same day' for this purpose as being midnight (according to the sages) or dawn the following morning (according to Rabban Gamliel).

As we can now clearly see, the Halakhah discussed in Berakhot follows Rabban Gamliel and not the sages.

Our mishnah records that sometimes the amount of unconsumed carcasses was so great that there was not enough room for them all to be pushed to the sides of the altar. When this was the case they would arrange the rest of the carcasses waiting to be replaced on the fire stack on the Surround. We have mentioned this surround in an earlier on. The altar was four-square built in receding sections. The base was the widest section and about three metres from the ground another recession created the 'Surround'. It was on this Surround that the priests would arrange the extra carcasses. The text of our mishnah is not clear at this point. In a literal translation it reads: 'If there was not enough room at the sides they would arrange them on the surround on the ramp'. This is obviously an impossibility since the surround and the ramp are not the same thing at all. The difficulty is solved by the reading offered in a Baraita in the Gemara [Yoma 45b]:

...the limbs and fatty parts that had not been completely burned since the previous evening were arranged on the altar and if there were not enough room they were arranged on the ramp or on the Surround until the great fire stack was remade...

The text of this Baraita makes our present mishnah quite clear and there is no need for the rather far- fetched explanations offered by Rambam, Rabbi Shelomo ha-Me'iri [Bet ha-Bechirah] and Rabbi Ovadya of Bertinoro in their commentaries on this mishnah.


Joel Evans asks:

How reliable a document is Middot when it makes contradictory statements as basic as the number of gates leading into the inner court? The number of gates variously; five gates (Middot 1:1), seven gates (Middot 1:4) and thirteen gates (Middot 2:6)?

I respond:

Archeologists have discovered that in the main the figures given by tractate Middot hold up if correctly interpreted.

While Middot 1:1 does read 'five gates of the Priestly Court' there are codices which read 'five of the gates of the Priestly Court'. Such a reading is clearly more correct since it removes the contradiction with Middot 1:4 which speaks of seven gates to the Priestly Court. (The Gemara [Tamid 27a] also notices this discrepancy and attributes it to a Maĥloket, a difference between two sages. Alternatively, it suggests, that the Tanna of mishnah 1 agrees with the Tanna of mishnah 4, but only mentions those five gates that were actually guarded, the other two not being functional.)

The thirteen gates mentioned in Middot 2:6 are specifically referring to the Ezrat Nashim (the main Court) and not to the Priestly Court. Here, once again, there is a Tanna (Abba Yosé) who says that there were only seven entrances here. Archeologists are of the opinion that the 'thirteen gates' refer to thirteen 'breaches' made in the Terrace walkway by the Syrians during the time of the Hasmonean uprising: as a memorial these breaches were not repaired, but required of passers-by an obeisance as described in the mishnah cited by Joel.

Cheryl Birkner Mack writes:

I have often heard the explanation that the women's court at the Bet HaMikdash was not exclusively for women. However I have don't remember an explanation of the designation 'women's court'. Can you provide one?

I respond:

I have answered this question previously. here is what I wrote:

This large inner courtyard was called the Court of Women - not because it was restricted to women, but because women could proceed no further.

I now add:

most men could proceed no further either. The only men who were allowed in the Priestly Court were the priests on duty and the Israelites of the Ma'amad.

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They now began to heap the ashes onto the 'apple'. The 'apple' was in the centre of the altar and sometimes it contained three hundred kor. On the pilgrim festivals they would not remove its ashes at all since it was an enhancement of the altar. Never was a priest lax about removing the dump.


Once the unconsumed pieces of meat had been removed to the sides of the altar the priests could begin to rake the ashes into a pile at the centre of the altar. This pile was called the 'apple', presumably because the pile of ashes, which was added to day-by-day, grew to resemble and apple. Alternatively, the Hebrew word tapu'aĥ must be understood as deriving from the root which indicates 'to swell'. The larger the ash pile in the centre of the altar appeared to be the greater the honour to the altar, as it were. A large ash pile meant that many sacrifices had been offered; a meagre ash pile would mean that very few sacrifices had been offered, which did not reflect positively on the Jewish people. So the tapu'aĥ - ash pile - was permitted to grow. Instead of removing the ashes daily the ash pile was removed only when it had become unwieldy. Our mishnah says that sometimes it was allowed to grow until it contained 300 kor of ashes.

The basic unit of cubic measurement was 'an egg's bulk' [Betzah]. It is customary to compute this as the equivalent of about 80 cubic centimetres. Twenty-four of these made up one kav, which would bring us to about 1.92 litres. Six kabim made up a se'ah (11.52 litres) Thirty of these made up one kor, which means that the ash pile was left until it contained about 105,000 litres. Whichever way you look at it that's a lot of ash! In a very revealing passage of rabbinic interpretation the Gemara [Tamid 29a] recognizes that this figure is incomprehensibly large. (Fundamentalists, please not this passage carefully!]

Rabbi Ami says that the Torah, the prophets and the sages all are prone to exaggeration. The Torah exaggerates when it says 'large cities fortified to heaven' [Deuteronomy 1:28] ... The sages exaggerate in this matter of the ash pile ...

The Torah [Leviticus 6:3-4] requires as follows:

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The priest shall put on his linen uniform, together with linen underwear next to his skin, and he shall remove the ashes created by the fire consuming the sacrifice on the altar; he shall place them next to the altar. He shall then strip off his clothes and put on other clothes to remove the ash dump to outside the camp to some ritually pure place.

The priestly 'uniform' was a linen surcoat. The fact that the Torah specifically requires the priests to wear linen underclothes suggests that for ordinary lay people this was not the case. This priestly 'uniform' could only be worn by priests who were actually on duty. The fact that the priest to whom fell the task of removing the rubbish dump from its place next to the altar (see previous mishnah) was not permitted to do so while wearing his sacerdotal garments necessarily implies that the Torah does not see this bit of housekeeping as part of the 'ritual' of the Bet Mikdash. Our mishnah points out that although this was the case (that the removal of the rubbish dump was not a part of the ritual) the priests were never lax about it and always performed this chore as and when required.

Whatever the actual size of the ash pile in the centre of the altar it was always allowed to be particularly large during the three pilgrim festivals, Pesach, Shavu'ot and Sukkot. The reason is the same as the one we have given above - only more so! The larger the ash pile in the centre of the altar appeared to be the greater the honour to the altar, as it were. A large ash pile meant that many sacrifices had been offered; a meagre ash pile would mean that very few sacrifices had been offered, which did not reflect positively on the Jewish people. Many Jews came especially to Jerusalem during the Passover and Tabernacles periods and took the opportunity of being there to offer their personal offerings. On Tabernacles especially the number of communal sacrifices was extremely large and the size of the ash pile proudly reflected this fact.

When the ash pile (and dump) was actually removed is not clear. The Torah which we quoted above would seem to suggest that the ash pile and the ash dump should be cleared away daily. This certainly is the view of Rambam, who writes [Mishneh Torah, Temidim 2:13-14]:

They would then rake the ashes from all sides of the altar and make a heap of them on the tapu'aĥ... and then they would take it down. On the pilgrim festivals they would not remove the ash pile but let it grow into a high pile at the centre of the altar, because it enhances the altar. Any one of the priests who so wished could remove the ash pile and take it down and then remove it from the city...


Juan-Carlos Kiel poses several questions.

You describe how the upper altar platform some 12m x 12m was cleaned. Now, it was the support for the fire stack that had been burning all night. So it would have been very hot, as the embers were still burning. How would the barefoot priests go on this platform without being burnt?

I respond:

I gave the text of Mishnah Middot 2:1 in our shi'ur of November 9th last. There one of the parts of the altar specifically mentioned by the mishnah is 'the walkway for the priests' which 'was one cubit on all sides'. This walkway presumably solved the problem posed by Juan-Carlos.

Juan-Carlos continues:

I see in my imagination a high, yellow golden structure (the altar was made of Jerusalem stone), or white, as it may have been whitewashed, sprinkled with blood in the lower part, a bonfire on top, and piles of ashes and bones of the sacrifices by the fire, while a 'barbecue' smell lingers all over. Is this a correct description?

I respond:

Without going into details at this stage, the imaginative picture drawn by Juan-Carlos is essentially plausible.

Juan-Carlos adds:

But more important than all those details, I understand the Temple was enclosed by high walls, and only the Ma'amad would be able to see what was happening. So for the masses that would attend at the Temple, most of the rituals were hidden, making it a secret, hidden cult. Is this correct? How would the masses of worshippers become aware of what was being performed inside?

I respond:

It is certainly correct that the masses of the people worshipping in the Womens' Court could not see the sacrificial part of the ritual. While this was going on they were 'entertained' by the levitical choir and orchestra singing the psalm of the day from the dukhan at the top of the flight of fifteen semi-circular steps that led from the Main Court into the Priestly court through the Nicanor Gate. The cult was not secret: everyone knew what was going on. Nor was it hidden: that is to say that even though people could not see what was going on this was because there were physical obstructions. Their representatives saw everything that there was to see. The masses of worshippers knew what was happening because important parts of the ritual were accompanied by trumpet fanfares, so they knew what was happening and when it was happening.

H. Helfgott notes my statement concerning offerings presented by people who had infringed a law of the Torah in some way, women who had given birth, converts to Judaism... And he asks:

When did ger toshav shift in meaning from something like 'resident alien' to 'convert'? Did that happen before or after the destruction of the second Temple? I had the impression that it started happening before but mostly among Pharisees. I'd think the loss of territoriality changed such concepts a little. To what extent does the Mishnah project the meaning of ger from its time onto the past - and rabbinical norms onto temple ones?

I respond:

I do not understand why H. Helfgott introduces the concept of ger toshav here. My comment was concerning the ger tzedek. Ger toshav was a status that ceased to exist with the cessation of the Jubilee [Mishneh Torah, Avodat Kokhavim 10:6]. (The jubilee was only observed when 'all Israel' were in Eretz-Israel.) The ger tzedek is the only kind of ger recognized today and also in the period of the 2nd Bet Mikdash. The conversion of the ger consists of three acts [Mishneh Torah, Issurei Bi'ah 13:4]: circumcision, bathing in a mikveh and the offering of a sacrifice. (Women are excused the first but are obligated by the other two!) During the time when the Bet Mikdash does not exist the ger cannot bring his sacrifice, but if it were to be rebuilt during his lifetime (including the re-institution of the sacrificial cult) he would be required to offer his sacrifice even if years had passed since his conversion [ibid 13:5].

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They now began to haul up the twigs to arrange the fire stack. Were all kinds of wood acceptable for the fire stack? Yes, all kinds of wood were acceptable for the fire stack with the exception of olive and vine. However it was usual to use branches of the date palm, walnut and pine.


Once the fire stack had been cleared of débris it had to be refueled. According to Mishnah Middot 2:5 the largest courtyard, the Court of Women, was about seventy metres square. But its size was curtailed by four unroofed rooms in each of its four corners. Each of these rooms was about twenty metres square. If we imagine ourselves entering the Court of Women through the main entrance on the east we have the massive Nicanor Gate at the far end before us, standing on its flight of fifteen semi-circular steps. To our left is the room in which people who had taken upon themselves the Nazirite vows [see Numbers 6:1-21] would cook their Peace-Offering and shave off their hair - which they would dispose of in the fire upon which the Peace-Offering was being cooked. For further details see paragraph 2 below. To our right is the 'Wood Room'. This is where the stocks of wood were kept and from which, presumably, the priests would take supply every morning. In a charming note the mishnah says that in this supply room priests who had some bodily defect that disqualified them from the ritual would sit and separate twigs and branches that had worms and maggots. I say that this is charming since one could have imagined that when their contingent went to Jerusalem they would be left behind; but they were not and a useful job was found for them despite their disqualification. Ahead of us and to our right is a room called the Lepers' Room (where people recovering from skin diseases would bathe prior to the rehabilitation ceremony). As regards the last room I prefer to quote directly from the mishnah [Middot 2:5]:

The south-western room: Rabbi Eli'ezer ben-Ya'akov says, 'I forget what it was used for'. Abba Sha'ul says, 'They would store there wine and oil; it was called the Bet-Shemanyah Room.'

I recognize that for the sake of completeness we should describe the details of the functions of the Nazirites' Room and the Lepers' Room, even though this will divert us temporarily from our main subject. I quote directly from the commentary Bet ha-Beĥirah of Rabbi Menaĥem ben-Shelomo Me'iri [Provence, 1249-1316]:

In the Nazirites' Room they would cook their Peace-Offering: their Peace-Offerings had to be cooked in a holy place because of the cooked foot [of the offering] which was a priestly perk... On the eighth day [of their rehabilitation, see Leviticus 14:1-32] they would bathe there even though they had already cleansed themselves and bathed since everybody who enters the Priestly Court, even the ritually clean, must bathe.

Other commentators (Rabbi Ovadya of Bertinoro for example) explain that the Torah [Leviticus 14:10-18] requires the blood of the leper's sin-offering to be daubed on his thumbs and ears. In order to enable the officiating priest to perform this part of the ceremony the leper would step just inside the Priestly Court, and stand in the narrow strip that was reserved for the Ma'amad (Court of the Israelites). Since this was, in fact, a part of the Priestly Court it required them to bathe in a mikveh.

So the priests would bring the supply of wood from the Wood Room into the priestly court and would haul the twigs and branches up the ramp to the top of the altar. The wording of our present mishnah suggests that it is very early indeed (Were all kinds of wood acceptable for the fire stack? Yes, all kinds of wood were acceptable for the fire stack). The Gemara [Tamid 29b] brings two reasons why the olive and the vine were not used to fuel the fire stack. One is purely practical: they generate too much smoke when they burn. The other suggestion is more philosophical: these are the two staple trees of Eretz-Israel and it would be financial and ecological folly to cut them down for fuel. One of the trees that did provide wood for the altar's fuel was the pine. I have thus translated the Hebrew Etz ha-Shemen, 'the oily tree' [see I Kings 6:23, Isaiah 41:19, Nehemiah 8:15] from which pitch and tar were derived.


Juan-Carlos Kiel seems to have many questions and comments recently! Here are some more of them.

At the end of Tamid 1:4 I translated:

When he [the priest] 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.

Juan-Carlos comments:

I believe the translation should be: When he reached the pavement, he would turn to the north and go by the east side of the ramp ten cubits. He would heap up the embers on the pavement three handbreadths away from the ramp, where the birds' crops and the ashes of the inner altar and the candelabrum were dumped. However, in Middot 3,2 it states that the place for the birds' crops was on the west side of the ramp, close the altar. This depiction seems to me more accurate, as it would not be fit to put the ashes and trash on the east side of the ramp, where the bystanders would be able to see it, but hide it behind the ramp.

I respond:

This retranslation is unnecessary. The reference to Middot 3:2 is inaccurate, since that mishnah is referring to very small holes in the floor of the courtyard down which the blood that was splashed on the base of the altar could drain away. (The following mishnah also describes how a flagstone could be lifted which then gave access to a channel through which the accumulated dried blood could be removed from underneath the altar.) These mishnayot have nothing to do with the rubbish dump. Furthermore, the only 'bystanders' who would be able to see the rubbish dump on the east of the altar were the people of the Ma'amad; as we have already seen, so one else who was not a priest would be in the Courtyard at all.

Still with the barefoot priests:

The top of the altar was about 12m x 12m. The priests walkway was 0.5m wide (one amah). It would be very difficult to reach the ashes some 5.5m away!!!

I respond:

What were the rakes and prongs for if not for that? However, the actual fire stack was not in the centre of the altar, but over to one side, so presumably it was not so hot in other parts of the altar.

One more point on the tapu'aĥ: 105,000 litres = 105 cubic meters or a cube 4.7m each side. While this is a huge pile of ashes, it seems to be something you can pile up in the center of a 12m x 12m platform.

I respond:

I agree. However, if the Gemara already has conceded that the figure is an exaggeration why should we attempt to rationalize it?

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He would arrange the main fire stack on the eastern side, with its front facing east, and the twigs that were further back reached the tapu'aĥ. There was a space among the twigs where they would ignite the kindling.


After the ashes had been cleared away and the fuel brought up ready, the main fire stack could be rekindled. The priest who had won the privilege of removing the ashes from the altar now resumed his duties to complete the task. His task was to arrange the fire stack anew. (While this is not made clear in our mishnah it is made clear in a Baraita quoted in Yoma 22a.) This suggests that it had died out during the night - which also might explain why the altar itself was not so hot in the morning. The wood for the fire stack was arranged, ready for kindling, on the eastern side of the altar - that is on the side facing the members of the Ma'amad and, behind them, the great doors of the Nicanor Gate which gave access into the Women's Court. The fire stack was also arranged so that it was 'facing' east. This element of our mishnah has given some trouble to the sages of the Gemara [Tamid 30a]. How can an arrangement of twigs and branches 'face' in any direction in particular? The most logical explanation might be to connect the 'face' of the fire stack with what is said later on in our mishnah, and it refers to the opening that was made among the twigs to enable the kindling twig to be inserted into the stack. (In modern Hebrew the word still has the meaning of 'front', particularly in its military connotation.) However, elsewhere in our sources the word which I have translated 'face' clearly means a sign of identification ('Ĥazit', from the Aramaic root 'to see'). Some luminaries, headed by Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥiel - the Rosh - [Germany and Spain, 1250-1327] take the former view; others, particularly Rambam [North Africa, 1135-1204] take the latter view.

Our mishnah explains that the wood for the fire stack was arranged in such a way that the twigs and branches that were furthest away from the front would actually reach as far as the ash dump, the Tapu'aĥ, which was in the centre of the altar. Bearing in mind the dimensions of the altar this would suggest that the fire stack was very large indeed.

However, a complete different understanding of the arrangement is offered by Rabbi Avraham ben-David of Posquières [France, 1125-1198]. His view is that the fire stack did not have to be that large. Its rearmost twigs did indeed reach as far as the Tapu'aĥ, but its 'front' did not reach the eastern edge of the altar, but only 'faced' in that direction. The 'space' thus left between the fire stack and the edge of the altar was to enable the priests to approach the fire stack without getting burned or singed.


Albert Ringer has two questions:

  1. The discussion about the tapu'aĥ seems to imply the top of the altar could be seen maybe from the far side of women's court or the city?) Is that possibly correct?
  2. Devarim describes how the first fruit must be brought to the temple. It must be explicitly handed over to the priest. Is that done in the same area where the ma'amad stands?

I respond:

According to the Gemara the altar was about 5 metres high. According to Josephus, who was a priest himself and had actually served in the Bet Mikdash before its destruction (to which his behaviour indirectly contributed), the altar was about 7.5 metres high. Presumably the figure given by Josephus is a 'guesstimation'. But it makes little difference. The answer to Albert's question is that it would not seem possible for the altar to be seen from outside the Azarah, since according to Mishnah Middot 2:3 'all the entrances and gates that there were there were 20 cubits [about 10 metres] high and 10 cubits wide". An entrance ten metres high would surely obscure an altar which was only about 5 metres high.

The description given in Mishnah Bikkurim 3:4 and 6 certainly seems to imply that the person bringing the firstfruits did carry his basket of produce into the Azarah. Furthermore, it seems to imply that this person did enter into the Azarah itself, beyond the 'court of the Israelites'. For Mishnah 6 there reads:

While the basket was still on his shoulders he would declaim from Deuteronomy 26:3 onwards until he finished the whole passage ... When he reached verse 5 he would set down the basket from off his shoulder and would hold it by its rim. The priest would place his hand underneath it and move it to and fro. He would read from verse 5 until the end of the passage and then he would set it down by the side of the altar, prostrate himself and exit.

Rabbi Ovadya of Bertinoro says that the basket was placed on the south-western side of the altar: someone standing in the Court of the Israelites would have to cross the whole left hand side of the altar, skirting the ramp, in order to reach the south-western corner.

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They would select from there nice branches of the date palm in order to arrange the second fire stack (for the incense), facing the southwestern corner, about four cubits distant from it in a northerly direction - approximately five se'ahs of embers; and on Shabbat [they would put] about eight se'ahs of embers since there they would lay the two censers of frankincense for the shewbread. They would return the limbs and fatty parts that had not been completely burned since the previous evening the the [main] fire stack. They then ignited both fire stacks, descended and went into the Gazit Room.


We saw in our last shiur how the main fire stack was prepared for ignition. Our present mishnah deals with a second, smaller, fire stack that was also prepared at the same time. Actually, there were three fire-stacks on the altar, but our tractate does not mention the third at all, so perhaps it would be best to elaborate on the third fire stack first.

The Torah [Leviticus 6:2-6] outlines everything that we have learned so far:

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Command Aaron and his sons saying, 'This is the law of the Offering - the offering on its fire stack throughout the night until morning. The fire shall burn on the altar. The priest shall put on his linen surcoat and he shall wear linen underwear next to his skin, and he shall remove the ashes created by the fire burning the Offering on the altar; these he shall place next to the altar. Then he shall take off his clothes and put on other clothes, remove the ashes to outside the camp, to a ritually pure place. The fire shall burn on the altar and shall not go out. On it the priest shall burn twigs each morning and arrange upon it the Offering ... A fire shall always burn on the altar: it shall not go out.'

This text is the basis for all the items on the priestly agenda that we have studied so far: the ashes to be removed from the altar and placed next to it as a ritual act; the ashes to be removed from the Temple completely as a non-ritual act; twigs to be arranged on the altar for the fire stack. But the Torah makes one more stipulation: A fire shall always burn on the altar and shall not go out. In order to remake the fire stack it was necessary to let it die out so that the ashes could be removed. It was thus necessary for there to be another, small, fire stack whose sole function was to be constantly burning in order to fulfill the requirement of the Torah that 'a fire shall always burn on the altar, it shall not go out'. This is the third fire stack: it was a small stack that was never allowed to die out. Since it had no other ritual function it was lit anywhere on the altar that was convenient. It seems to me that the correct interpretation of this arrangement is that a new small stack was created and ignited whenever necessary, before the existent one would die out. It is thought by some that this fire that 'shall never go out' is the prototype of the Ner Tamid, the 'Eternal Flame', that is kept burning above the Ark in most synagogues.

Our present mishnah, however, is not concerned with this third fire stack, but with the second one. The second fire stack, much smaller than the main one but larger than the 'eternal' one, was needed for preparing the incense. Later on embers would be taken from this stack and removed to the golden altar that was inside the Hekhal, the main sanctuary. This golden altar served for the burning of incense.

Our mishnah gives very precise details as to where on the altar this second fire stack was arranged. In order to understand more clearly let us imagine that we are one of the priests on duty this morning. We approach the top of the altar by ascending the ramp. (The altar was approached by a ramp and not by steps because of a specific requirement of the Torah: 'You shall not ascend to My altar by steps' [Exodus 20:23].) We are standing at the top of the ramp facing the enormous square of the altar. Ahead of us, in the very centre of the altar, is the huge ash dump, the Tapu'aĥ, that will be removed from there only when it becomes too unwieldy. Between the Tapu'aĥ and the far edge of the altar to our right is the main fire stack. The second fire stack is by the corner nearest to us on our left: it is about two metres further into the altar from the corner. (The third stack could be anywhere on the altar, as we have said, but the unused space towards the farthest corner to our left would be a likely place.)

The size of this second fire stack can also be estimated, since our mishnah says that they would bring up from the wood supply twigs of date palm (and probably walnut and pine also - see mishnah 3 above). The amount of twigs used was such that according to their estimated would yield about 5 se'ahs of burning embers - about 60 litres. (On Shabbat they would add more twigs because they would have to warm on it the censers that were needed for the offering of the Shewbread, which was changed every Shabbat.) The embers from this fire stack will be needed for the golden altar later on - as we shall see when we reach chapter 5 of this tractate.

Now that everything was ready they would restore to the main fire stack the remains of carcasses that had not been completely burned from the previous day's offerings. You will recall that these had been drawn out of the ashes of the main fire stack and arranged around the sides of the altar [see mishnah 1 above]. Now they were restored to the main fire stack so that they could be completely incinerated. When all these preparations were complete the fire stacks were ignited.


Yiftah Shafir writes:

As one who was born in Jerusalem and lived there for several years I couldn't help wondering - how was the work done in the cold rainy days (and nights). Specifically - How could they keep the fire on the altar in these rainy days?

I respond:

It does seem improbable, doesn't it? It is so improbable that our ancestors thought that it was miraculous! One mishnah [Avot 5:5] reads as follows:

Our ancestors merited ten miracles in the Bet Mikdash: no woman ever aborted because of the stench of the sacrificial meat; the sacrificial meat never went off; no fly was ever seen in the slaughterhouse; the High Priest never had an seminal emission of Yom Kippur; the rains never quenched the twigs on the fire stack; the wind never wafted the column of smoke; no defect was ever found in the Omer, in the two loaves and the Shewbread; they stood crowded but had enough room to prostrate themselves; no snake or scorpion ever caused injury in Jerusalem; no person ever said there is no room for me to stay in Jerusalem.

Now, why do I think that this is a pious list of mishaps that actually did happen!? The stench from the burning meat must sometimes have been unbearable - particularly on festivals when many sacrifices were offered. If the High Priest had a seminal emission during Yom Kippur he became disqualified for that ritual. (One of the reasons for my thinking that we have hear a list of this that actually did happen, is because Yoma 1:1 specifically says that in the days prior to Yom Kippur a substitute was always arranged for the High Priest in case he became polluted by a seminal discharge and thus prevented from carrying out his duties. Another reason for my wicked disbelief is the fact that the Gemara [Yoma 21b] specifically says that at the end of Sukkot everyone would anxiously watch which way the wind blew the column of smoke arising from the main fire stack, because by popular superstition this would indicate what kind of year it would be.) The Omer was a measure of barely offered on the second day of Pesaĥ; the two loaves were offered on Shavu'ot; and the Shewbread was offered after the Musaf sacrifice every Shabbat. However, the last item on the list is true to this very day - unfortunately!

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