Monday, March 18, 2013

Preparing the Temple for Pesach

In Temple times, the weeks leading up to Pesach included not only preparing the house but the body as well, for anyone who had contracted corpse-tumah had to purify themselves before partaking of the Pesach offering or visiting the Temple. The procedure entailed a one-week quarantine during which the individual was sprinkled with spring water mixed with the ashes of the red cow [parah adumah]. It was not necessary to travel to Jerusalem to do so but rather this could be  carried out in the comfort of one's own city since the family groups [mishmaros] of Kohanim living throughout the land of Israel possessed small, but sufficient, amounts of ashes for this express purpose.

It once happened in the First Temple era during the reign of King Chizkiah that an unprecedented breach of ritual purity caused the festival of Pesach to be delayed a full month (Sanhedrin 12a). One theory as to the source of this tumah is that the skull of Aravnah the Jebusite was discovered beneath the Altar (Tosafos ad loc., based on Yerushalmi Sotah 5:2). [Aravnah was the owner of the threshing floor purchased by King David to serve as the site of the future Temple (II Samuel 24:18-25).]

There are a number of difficulties with this approach:
1) If it was a matter of corpse-tumah, the purification procedure only takes one week, so why was a whole extra month needed?
2) If the remains of Aravnah were causing the tumah, could they not simply be removed from the Temple precincts (where they obviously did not belong) and reinterred elsewhere?
3) Why is it that the skull was only discovered at this point?
4) A closer look at the source in Yerushalmi indicates that this incident of the skull being found occurred in the Second Temple era, not the First Temple era (as Tosafos understand).

The Chasam Sofer (to Sanhedrin 12a) offers a novel historical perspective which addresses each of the above questions. When Aravnah sold his threshing floor to King David he reserved a small portion of his estate for himself and it was there that he was eventually buried. In that region of Jerusalem there were many natural subterranean tunnels and the tumah from Aravnah's tomb made its way through them to the area beneath the Temple. Now, when the First Temple was built King Solomon had taken this into account and he designed the walls in such a way to form a halachic barrier to the tumah which kept it from invading the Temple grounds.

Many years later, the evil King Achaz destroyed the original Altar and built a new one for idol worship in its place, and the extent of his "renovations" was such that it disrupted the halachic barriers put in place by Solomon. When King Chizkiah took office and began to repair the Temple, the tumah from Aravnah's tomb was rediscovered. [Although the Gemara speaks of Aravnah's "skull," Chasam Sofer explains that the term גלגל actually refers to the spreading of tumah underground. See further there.] The remains could not be moved since they were in their rightful place so Chizkiah needed to repair the halachic barriers in order to ready the Temple for use. This, however, was not a simple matter, and he found it necessary to delay the festival of Pesach by one month in order to allow his men time to carry out the repairs.

When the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians they razed the building down to its very foundations ["aru, aru, ad hayesod bah"], once again breaking down the barriers which shielded the Temple from the tumah of Aravnah's tomb. The Yerushalmi which indicates that the skull was discovered during the Second Temple era is describing what happened when the Temple was rebuilt by the returnees of the Babylonian exile when they once again had to address the issue of Aravnah's remains.

(Special thanks to R' Nechemiah Feldman for bringing this Chasam Sofer to my attention.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

LEGO® Outer Altar of the Tabernacle

There are many similarities between the Outer Altar constructed for the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Outer Altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both have a one-amah high Yesod (base) around the bottom,  both have keranos (horns) at the four top corners, and both stand 10 amos tall.

The differences between these two altars range from the obvious to the obscure. In the obvious category are all those structural details which make the Tabernacle altar portable, such as the smaller size (it measured just 5 amos to a side, as opposed to 32 amos), the hollow interior which was filled with dirt when the Jews camped and emptied during travel (as opposed to being made of solid stone), the walls being made of wooden planks plated with copper, and the need for poles to carry it.

An interesting fact about the poles is that they were placed just above the midpoint of the Altar, some 6 amos from the ground. Now, most people measure 3 amos from their shoulders to the ground (Meiri to Shabbos 92a) which would make it nearly impossible for anyone to even reach the Altar's poles, let alone carry them on their shoulders. Turns out that the Levites, who carried the Altar, stood 10 amos tall and could easily handle this job (see Shabbos 92a).

Among the more subtle differences is that the Yesod of the Tabernacle Altar went around all four sides. In the Second Temple, due to certain technical requirements which had to do with the location of the Altar with respect to the boundary between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, there was no Yesod along most of the southern and eastern sides of the Altar. In the wilderness this was not an issue, hence the Yesod could surround the Altar on all four sides.

I assembled a Lego® model of both altars which I usually show together so that people can get a sense of the difference in size between the Tabernacle Altar (which most people are more familiar with from reading about it in the Torah) and the vastly larger altar built for the Second Temple. Below are some pictures of the Tabernacle Altar model. The body of this altar measures about 3 inches to a side and 6 inches tall.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

מלאכת המשכן וכליו

It is that time of year when I take out my copy of Meleches Hamishkan V'keilav by Rabbi Dovid Meyers (printed by the author, 2006 [second ed.]). This book is an exhaustive study of every element of the Tabernacle, from the beams and coverings to the Ark and Menorah. The author has researched so many of the sources which deal with these topics and presents each item in unprecedented detail. The book is arranged by topic in an easy-to-use format, first citing the relevant Torah passage and then a listing of all the laws and requirements which are derived from the verses and commentators. The meat of the book is found in the form of footnotes where the different opinions and sources are cited and discussed. In addition to all the above, there are copious line drawings to illustrate each point, and at the end of every section there is a very helpful collection of drawings which shows the item in question according to the various opinions cited in the notes.

The author has also reviewed much of the material in his book with HaRav Chaim Kanievsky and he prints the correspondance with HaRav Kanievsky in a separate section in the back.

One of my favorite gems of Tabernacle Torah which this book addresses is a question I had asked myself about the adanim (silver sockets) which hold the kerashim (wooden beams). Every student of the Tabernacle knows the dimensions of the adanim, which are 0.75 x 1 x 1 amos (with a hole in the middle to accept the kerashim), and we also know that each one was formed from one kikar of silver. The problem is that the volume of one kikar of silver is simply not enough to form the shape of the adanim! I was pleased to discover that this issue had been raised by others before me and that this question was asked to the Chazon Ish. He answered that the adanim were not, as commonly believed, made of solid silver, but rather were hollow on the inside (Meleches Hamishkan V'keilav p.311, note 15, citing Ta'ama D'kra).