Monday, May 27, 2013

Spices of the Incense: Karkom (Saffron)

Ground saffron
Twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, the Kohanim would offer Incense upon the Golden Altar inside the Sanctuary Building. This special blend of spices and other ingredients was prepared by the Avtinas Family in one large batch which lasted an entire year. The Talmud (Kereisos 6a), based upon an Oral Tradition, provides the names and quantities of each ingredient and in this post I would like to focus on the spice known as כרכום [karkom], commonly translated as saffron.

The Talmud records that 16 maneh of saffron were used in compounding the Incense. One maneh is equal to approximately 20 ounces, so 16 maneh would equal 320 ounces, or 20 pounds of saffron. If this does not sound like an inordinate amount of spice, consider how saffron is obtained.

Crocus sativus (common crocus)
with bright crimson stigmas
Saffron is derived from the three bright crimson stigmas [thin stalks] which grow from the crocus flower. After being harvested, dried, and ground, the [modern day] yield of saffron per flower comes to about 0.00025 ounces. At this rate it takes over 4,000 crocus flowers to produce a single ounce of dried spice! For this reason, saffron has come to be known as the most expensive spice in the world.

To produce the 20 pounds of saffron used in the Temple for the Incense, a staggering 1.3 million flowers were needed. Based on modern planting densities used in the Mediterranean (see this article, under "Cultivation"), the amount of land required to grow this many flowers is 12.7 acres. For comparison, the entire Temple Mount (which measures 750 feet by 750 feet) is 12.9 acres. Even though there was a garden located on the western side of the Temple Mount which was used to cultivate the spices of the Incense, it emerges that another, much larger, plot of land was needed where the bulk of the saffron could be grown.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Beit Hamikdash by Rabbi Zalman Koren

A book newly available in English is Rabbi Zalman Koren's The Beit Hamikdash (Shaar Press, 2010). This large and exquisitely illustrated volume showcases the author's research and model of the Second Temple. It comprises three parts: an introduction to the concept of a Temple and its place in Jerusalem; a detailed description of the Temple structure which incorporates Talmudic and archeological sources; and a walk-through of the Temple model on display in the Western Wall Tunnels. Students of Tractate Middos and the classic Second Temple literature will no doubt find some of the author's conclusions innovative (such as his skewed orientation of the Courtyard walls and the fact that the Women's Courtyard was not perfectly square), but these result from a reading of the Jewish sources which is heavily influenced by the archeology and features of today's Temple Mount. Nonetheless, the account he presents demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge of the literature and is sure to pique the interest of anyone seeking a scholarly approach to the structure of the Temple.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Immersing the Paroches Curtain

The Paroches curtain of the Sanctuary Building had considerable weight and, according to the Mishnah, three hundred Kohanim were needed to assist in immersing it. [All Temple vessels were immersed in a mikveh prior to their first use.] While this number is understood to be an exaggeration, even when the Mishnah exaggerates it still allows for a literal interpretation of its words, as follows: When immersing the curtain it was important to keep it from bunching up or folding over itself which would prevent water from getting into all the folds of the cloth. For this reason Kohanim would be stationed all around the perimeter of the curtain and pull it taut while lowering it into a shallow mikveh that was (at least) 20 amos wide and 40 amos long. It was not necessary to have anyone stand along the top edge, however, since a band of gold fastened to that edge kept it from wrinkling. The remaining three sides had a total length of 100 amos (40+20+40) which is equivalent to 600 handbreadths (6 handbreadths per amah). Since a handbreadth is the size of a fist, 300 Kohanim holding on with two hands would require exactly 600 handbreadths.

The closest I came to experiencing this event was at the Fort McHenry flag raising. When the weather is nice and the winds are just right, the large flag is flown over the fort and all of the guests who are there at the time can participate in raising it. This flag measures 30x42 feet, which somewhat approximates the size of the Paroches (which was 30x60 feet). Not nearly as heavy, though, since this flag is made of lightweight material and is quite thin, while the Paroches was one handbreadth thick and weighed more than an elephant.

Raising the large flag at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preview of Temple Mount / Eastern Gate

For my next scene I am working on some of the details of the Temple Mount interior.

Just inside the walls of the Temple Mount ran a cedar-covered portico supported by marble columns, each of which was hewn from a single block of stone and adorned with flowered capitals. The columns stood 25 amos tall and each measured “as wide as three men can reach” which is about 12 amos (18 feet) in circumference. The cedar roof covering this portico extended 30 amos (45 feet) from the inside of the Temple Mount walls and had a fence on top to prevent anyone who might be walking there from falling off.

Aside from this portico which covered the interior perimeter of the Temple Mount, the remaining area of the Temple Mount was also covered by a roof. This roof extended from the inner edge of the portico up to the walls around the Courtyard, leaving the Women’s Courtyard and the Main Courtyard open to the sky. The roof was designed to keep out the heat of the sun in the summer and the rain in the winter and had some sort of openings to let in light.

In the rendering shown below I have started putting many of these elements into place, such as the columns (modelled after those found at Persepolis), the cedar roof above the portico, and the fence around that roof. We are looking at the eastern wall which was lower than the other three walls of the Temple Mount and stood only 26 amos (39 feet) high. This is why it is not visible above the cedar-covered portico. The gate in this wall is the Shushan Gate leading out to the Mount of Olives. The building at the lower left is the Sanhedrin courthouse which was located just inside the eastern gate.

Not (yet) shown is the large roof of Temple Mount proper.
Interior of the Temple Mount, looking east.