by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – March 12, 2010
Throughout the latter part of the book of Sh’mot, the narrative of the Torah revolves heavily upon the preparations for setting up the Mishkan, the forerunner of the Bet Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. Numerous times in the Torah, mention is made of “the place which the L-rd will choose” (Devarim 12:11 et al), i.e. the place where the Bet Hamikdash will be permanently placed. Later, during Solomon’s reign, G-d made His choice, and the first Bet Hamikdash‘s construction was undertaken and completed (I Melakhim 5-7). After the first Bet Hamikdash was demolished by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies and the Jews were exiled, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonian empire and, subsequently, allowed Ezra and Nechemiah to lead the Jews back to the Land of Israel and to construct the second Bet Hamikdash which was again, eventually, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE.
In his Moreh Nevukhim 3:45, Rambam (Maimonides) points out that G-d’s concealing the location of the Bet Hamikdash until shortly before its actual construction avoided the possibility that “if the nations had learned that this place was to be the center of the highest religious truths, they would occupy it or fight about it…[or] those who were then in possession of it might destroy and ruin the place with all their might.”
Finally, G-d revealed to King Solomon the site upon which to construct the magnificent and unique Bet Hamikdash, an edifice which served to strengthen our respect and reverence for G-d and, thereby, intensify our devotion to Him and his precepts: In the Bet Hamikdash, we placed the aron hakodesh (holy ark) containing the two stone tablets which Moses brought down from heaven, on which were inscribed, among others, the commandments, “I am the L-rd…” and “You shall have no other god before me.” And since bestowal of the Torah involved the phenomenon of prophecy which usually operates through the agency of angels, placing keruvim, the form of angels, upon the aron hakodesh served to inculcate the concept of prophecy among the people of Israel. Placing the menorah (candelabrum) before the curtain in front of the ark, Rambam notes (Moreh 3:45), “was a sign of honor and distinction for the Bet Hamikdash” since the chamber’s being filled by the glow of a continually burning light hidden behind a curtain produced a great impression upon the onlooker. The Shulchan (table) with twelve loaves of bread upon it appears to have symbolized that sustenance for each of the twelve tribes was apportioned under the aegis of G-d whose manifest presence rested within the Bet Hamikdash. And “since many animals were slaughtered daily in the holy place, the meat cut into pieces and the entrails and legs burned and washed,” Rambam explains (Moreh 3:45), “the odor of the place would undoubtedly have been like that of slaughter houses were nothing done to counteract it…[Therefore] burning incense there twice every day in the morning and evening [and the use of the anointing oil served] to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor…This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Bet Hamikdash. If there would not have been a good odor [in the Bet Hamikdash]…it would have produced” disrespect and revulsion.
To further inspire respect for the Bet Hamikdash and, consequently, for G-d represented therein, those who ministered in and about the Bet Hamikdash, the kohanim and levi’im (priests and levites), received great honor and were distinguished from the rest. The kohanim, who were charged with the upkeep of the Bet Hamikdash and its sacrificial order, were to be clothed in fine elegant garments and could only officiate if they were without blemish, and the levi’im, who guarded the Temple and graced it with vocal music to produce lofty emotions among the audience, were discharged when they could no longer exercise their duties. Moreover, even when fit for service and actually officiating in the Bet Hamikdash, the kohanim were not allowed to sit down or enter its chambers whenever they wished, and the chamber containing the aron hakodesh, the kodesh hakadashim (holy of holies), was only permitted to be entered by one person, the kohen gadol (high-priest), four times on one day, Yom Kippur. Indeed, the Bet Hamikdash was constantly guarded and surrounded by levi’im; the impure, i.e. those who contracted tum’ah, and mourners were prohibited from entering the Bet Hamikdash‘s confines, none in a drunken or disorderly state could approach the Bet Hamikdash and officiating kohanim were to first wash their hands (Moreh 3:45). As Rambam notes, “The Bet Hamikdash was to create, in the hearts of those who enter it, certain feelings of awe and reverence…but when we continually see something, however sublime it may be, our regard for that thing will be lessened and the conception we have received of it will be weakened….Consequently…we were not to enter the Bet Hamikdash whenever we wished…[Thus] the impure were not allowed to enter the Bet Hamikdash although…only a few people are pure, for even if a person…[does not become impure as a result of touching] a dead animal, he can scarcely avoid touching one of the eight types of creeping animals…and if he avoids touching these, he may touch a niddah [menstruating woman] or a male or female who have running issue or a leper or their bed. Escaping these, one may become impure by cohabitation with his wife or by issue of semen. And even when he has cleansed himself from any of these kinds of impurity, he may not enter the Bet Hamikdash until after sunset….All this serves to keep people away from the Bet Hamikdash and prevent them from entering it whenever they liked (Moreh 3:47).” Thus, the esteem of the Bet Hamikdash and the glory of G-d was preserved.
May we soon be graced by the glory of G-d again being manifested among us and may that manifestation be one for eternity.