A Detailed Walk Through the Beis Hamikdosh

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by Yehudis Litvak

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The Beis Hamikdash was the place where the Jewish people would assemble to serve Hashem and where His presence was accessible in the most direct way possible in this world. Jews from all over Eretz Yisrael, and some outside of it, would converge to the holiest place on earth three times a year. At the holidays of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos, Yerushalayim would be bursting with pilgrims, and still there was room for everyone. All Kohanim and Leviyim that were fit for service would perform the avoda inside the Beis Hamikdash during these special times.

At other times of year the Beis Hamikdash was not as crowded, but the avoda took place every day. The Kohanim and Leviyim, as well as selected Yisraelim, would take turns serving in the Beis Hamikdash, one week at a time, twice a year. The Kohanim were divided into twenty four mishmaros, according to their families, by David Hamelech.

When the Jews returned to Yerushalayim after the Babylonian exile, only four of the priestly families returned. The Gemara describes how Neviyim arose and conducted a lottery in order to divide those four families into twenty four mishmaros so the same system could continue in the second Beis Hamikdash. The watches would switch on Shabbos day, so that the avoda of the first half of the day was performed by the mishmar of the previous week and the avoda of the second half of the day was performed by the new mishmar. The entire mishmar would perform the avoda on Shabbos. The rest of the week, the head of each mishmar would further divide his group into six batei av, with each beis av performing the avoda on a different day of the week.

The Leviyim were also divided into twenty four watches by David Hamelech, and were further divided into batei av, with each beis av serving on its designated day. Some of the Leviyim would be assigned the jobs of guarding the Beis Hamikdash, while others would act as gatekeepers, opening and closing the gates when necessary. Other Leviyim would stand on the duchan, a three-step platform, and either sing or play musical instruments while the sacrifices were being offered. There were at least twelve singers and twelve musicians on the duchan at any given time during the avoda.

Along with Kohanim and Leviyim, certain distinguished Yisraelim were also divided into twenty four groups, called maamados, and had tasks assigned to them during their designated weeks. The Mishna explains that communal sacrifices could not be brought in the absence of the community, and therefore Yisraelim had to be present as community representatives during the avoda that was performed on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Those maamad members that lived in Yerushalayim or its proximity would join the Kohanim and Leviyim of their mishmar in the Beis Hamikdash. Those who lived far would gather in their own synagogues.

They would fast on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of their week. On each day of their week, they would recite four prayers and read from the Torah twice. The passage they read from the Torah was the account of creation corresponding to the day of the week.

The rest of the Jewish people, as well as non-Jews, were able to come to the Beis Hamikdash and offer korbanos on any day of the year. They would enter the Har Habayis through the Chulda gates, on the south. Before entering, they would leave behind their shoes and walking sticks. Most people would then walk to the right, towards the entrance to the Beis Hamikdash itself. Mourners and people who were excommunicated would walk to the left, so that they could be comforted or urged to repent by the other worshippers. Non-Jews and Jews who were tamei meis could also enter the Har Habayis, but they could only walk up to the soreg, a low lattice fence surrounding the more consecrated area. When the Greeks conquered and defiled the Beis Hamikdash in Chanuka times they made thirteen holes in the soreg, protesting the fact that they were not allowed to go further. The Chashmonaim repaired those holes and instituted the practices of bowing when passing by them, in gratitude to Hashem for returning the Beis Hamikdash into Jewish hands.

Behind the soreg was an area called cheil that went around the Beis Hamikdash. It contained twelve steps which were covered by an awning and used for sitting. The entrance to the Beis Hamikdash itself was on its eastern side. Through the eastern gate, one would enter the Ezras Nashim, the first courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash. It was a large open area, with a chamber in each corner. One chamber was used for storing wood and checking it for worms, and another chamber was used for storing oil for the menorah and for the mincha offerings. Another chamber was for the Mezorayim who came to purify themselves after they were healed. There, they could immerse in the mikva. And the fourth chamber was for the Nezirim who finished their nezirus. There, they shaved off and burned their hair and cooked their offerings. Ezras Nashim also contained a room where the judges of the lower Sanhedrin, consisting of twenty three members, judged the difficult questions brought to them.

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Any Jew who was ritually pure could enter the Ezras Nashim. The next courtyard, past the fifteen round steps and through the Gate of Nikanor, was the Ezras Yisrael, where only ritually pure men could enter. It was a much smaller area than the Ezras Nashim, and it contained the Lizkas Hagazis, the Chamber of Hewn Stone, where the Great Sanhendrin of seventy one judges decided the most difficult cases. At the end of the Ezras Yisrael, just before the Azara, was the duchan, a three-step stage from which the Leviyim would play musical instruments and sing songs accompanying the korbanos of the day.

The next courtyard, the Azara, contained the large mizbeach and the Heichal, the building. The main avoda in the Beis Hamikdash took place in the Azara and the Heichal, and was performed by Kohanim. Non-Kohanim could go inside the Azara only in order to bring a personal offering. Between the mizbeach and the Heichal were the twelve steps where the Kohanim would assemble daily to bless the Jewish people.

Only Kohanim were allowed to enter the Heichal, which consisted of three parts. The first was the ulam, a hall where the knives for slaughtering the korbanos were kept and the lechem hapanim was placed during the process of exchanging the old one for the new one. The next part of the Heichal was the Kodesh, which contained the golden mizbeach for incense, as well as the menorah and the shulchan holding the lechem hapanim. Beyond the Kodesh, separated by a curtain, was the Kodesh Hakodashim.

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In the first Beis Hamikdash it contained the Aron Kodesh , with the keruvim on the cover, standing on the even shesiya, the foundation stone from which the world was created. The Aron Kodesh was hidden by King Yoshiyahu towards the end of the era of the first Beis Hamikdash, and in the second Beis Hamikdash the Kodesh Hakodashim only contained the foundation stone. Only the Kohen Gadol was allowed to enter the Kodesh Hakodashim, and only on Yom Kippur. He would bring a pan of incense and place it in front of the Aron Kodesh in the first Beis Hamikdash, or on top of the even shesiya in the second.

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On the north side of the Azara was a domed building called Beis Hamokeid, the Chamber of the Hearth, where a fire was constantly burning. Kohanim would sleep there the night before they were scheduled to serve in the Beis Hamikdash. The older Kohanim would sleep on stone slabs protruding from the walls, holding the keys to the courtyards. The younger Kohanim would sleep on their own mattresses, in their own clothes, with the bigdei kehuna, the priestly garments, folded under their heads. In the morning, they would descend a winding staircase located in one of the chambers of the Beis Hamokeid to immerse in the mikva. They would then don their bigdei kehuna and assemble in the Lishkas Hagazis, the room of the Great Sanhedrin, for the first lottery of the day.

There were four lotteries held daily in the Beis Hamikdash to determine which kohen would perform certain daily duties. The Kohanim would stand in a circle, and the lottery overseer would stand in the middle. One of the Kohanim would take off his hat to mark the starting point of the lottery. A number would be picked, much higher than the number of participating Kohanim. Each kohen would hold up one finger. The overseer would begin going around the circle, counting the fingers, starting with the kohen who took off his hat. After going around the circle several times they would reach the chosen number, and that kohen would receive the task. When a lottery involved an avoda requiring more than one kohen, the Kohanim standing just after he chosen kohen along the circle would receive the next tasks.

Before dawn, a patrol of Kohanim would split into two and encircle the Azara, making sure that everything was in its place. They would meet in the middle, next to the Chamber of Chavitin Makers, south of the Gate of Nikanor, and inform each other that everything was in order. Some Kohanim would remain in the Chamber of Chavitin Makers and begin preparing the chavitin, the Kohen Gadol’s daily flour offering.

The kohen who won the first lottery would be the first one to go up on the mizbeach and perform the mitzvah of terumas hadeshen, removing a portion of ashes leftover from the previous night. Before performing this avoda, as well as any other avoda, the Kohanim would wash their hands and feet with the water from the kiyor, situated in the Azara. After terumas hadeshen, the Kohanim would rearrange the ashes and leftover parts of the sacrifices on the mizbeach, and the kohen who performed terumas hadeshen would add wood to the fire on the mizbeach.

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Then the second lottery would be conducted to determine who would perform the tasks involved in bringing the daily tamid offering, as well as who would remove the ashes from the incense mizbeach and who would prepare the menorah. Then the gates to the Heichal would be opened, and the selected Kohanim would begin their tasks.

The overseer would inquire of the watchmen if it was time to slaughter the morning tamid offering. At the first lights of dawn, he would proclaim, “Barkai! The day has dawned.” When the whole eastern horizon, up to the city of Chevron, would light up, the overseer would inform the Kohanim that the time had come to slaughter the sheep for the morning tamid.

The Kohanim would bring out the selected lamb from the Chamber of Lambs located in the Beis Hamokeid, as well as the ninety three silver and gold utensils required for the daily service. After the lamb was slaughtered the Kohanim who won the lottery would bring its parts to the ramp of the mizbeach, together with the meal offering accompanying the tamid and with the Kohen Gadol’s daily meal offering, followed by a wine libation.

After the tamid was brought and the menorah and the golden mizbeach prepared the Kohanim would assemble in the Lishkas Hagazis and recite the blessings of Kriyas Shema, the passage of the Torah containing the Ten Commandments, the Shema itself, and other accompanying blessings. Then they would conduct the third and fourth lotteries. The third lottery involved bringing the ketores, the incense offering on the golden mizbeach. A kohen could perform this avoda only once in his lifetime, and only Kohanim who had never offered ketores were allowed to participate in this lottery. The fourth lottery selected the Kohanim who would bring the parts of the tamid offering from the ramp to the top of the mizbeach, onto the fire, and pour the accompanying libations. During the wine libation, the trumpets would be sounded and the people in the courtyard would prostrate themselves.

After the tasks distributed by the lotteries were performed, the Kohanim would gather on the twelve steps between the Heichal and the mizbeach and, raising their hands high above their heads, bless the Jewish people with the priestly blessing.

With that, the morning avoda was concluded. Throughout the day, individuals would come and bring their offerings. Then, towards the end of the day, the afternoon tamid offering would be brought. It was the last offering of the day, with the exception of korban pesach on erev pesach. The procedure was the same as in the morning, with the same Kohanim who won the lottery in the morning performing the same tasks.

Eyewitness accounts from the ancient times describe how inspired and uplifted people felt after visiting the Beis Hamikdash. We all await the day when the Third Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt and when the Jewish people will once again assemble in the holiest place on earth to serve Hashem.

Meanwhile, we can derive inspiration from learning about the Beis Hamikdash. The information in this article is based on Mishnayos Middos, Tamid, and Yoma, the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Sefer Avoda, as well as the Temple Institute website, http://www.templeinstitute.org , which contains illustrated tours of the Beis Hamikdash and the daily avoda.

Sidebar: Temple Institute

The Temple Institute known as Machon Hamikdash is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is dedicated to every aspect of the Biblical commandment to build the Beis Hamikdash. Fusing decades of halachik research with modern technology, the Temple Institute has constructed 60 sacred vessels for use in the Third Beis Hamikdash. Built according to the Torah’s exact specifications, they include the half-ton golden menorah, the shulchan hapanim, as well as the Kohen Gadol’s garments including the gem encrusted Choshen Mishpat. For more information please visit, www.templeinstitute.org

Sidebar: The Mizbeach, the Menorah, the Shulchan, the Golden Mizbeach

The main mizbeach was a large structure located in the Azara. The top of the mizbeach was square, 32 * 32 amos (about 53 * 53 feet). It was 10 amos (about 17 feet) tall, and the Kohanim would ascend it through the ramp attached to the mizbeach on its south side. The mizbeach was constructed of unhewn and uncracked stones, never touched by metal, obtained from the valley of Beis Kerem, from a land that was never plowed. There were three fires on top of the mizbeach: the perpetual fire, the fire used to burn the korbanos, and the fire used for the incense offering.
The menorah, a seven-lamp candelabra, was located on the south side of the Kodesh, inside the Heichal. It was 18 tefachim (about 5 feet) tall. It was hammered out of one piece of gold. Its design included decorations, such as goblets, bulbs, and flowers.

The shulchan was located on the north side of the Kodesh. It was 12 tefachim (about 30 inches) long and 6 tefachim (about 15 inches) wide. It had four gold side frames which held two arrangements of the lechem hapanim.

The golden mizbeach was located in the Kodesh, midway between the north and south, towards the outside. Its top was square, 1 * 1 amah (about 20 * 20 inches). It was covered with gold on the outside. It was used for the incense offering.