Monday, May 14, 2012

Tour of the Temple: Class 5

The Women's Courtyard

Interior of the Women's Courtyard
To the east of the Main Courtyard stood a large enclosed area called the Women’s Courtyard. Entry into this area was not restricted to women, as its name might imply, but in fact was used as a staging area for the multitudes of people arriving daily bearing sacrifices and gifts who would assemble here before proceeding into the Courtyard. It was called the Women's Courtyard because the women would specifically gather here to watch the Rejoicing of the Water-drawing which took place each year on the holiday of Succos (see below).

The Women's Courtyard was enclosed by walls, 135 cubits to a side, which were identical in height and thickness to the walls of the Temple Mount. Centered in the eastern wall was a single gate providing access from the Temple Mount. Cut stones, one cubit square and set with mortar, were used to tile the floors, and the entire expanse of the Women's Courtyard was left open to the sky. Along the walls of the Women's Courtyard were many niches for storage purposes and numerous windows which were low enough that people standing in the Cheil could glimpse what was going on inside.

On the holiday of Succos the Rejoicing of the Water-drawing would take place inside the Women's Courtyard. The celebration began on the second night of the holiday when the great sages and pious men of the generation would assemble in this courtyard to dance, juggle, and sing God's praises while scores of Leviim stood upon the fifteen round steps in front of the Nikanor Gate (in the western wall of this Courtyard) providing musical accompaniment. This rejoicing continued all night until dawn when, with great ceremony, a delegation was dispatched to a nearby spring to draw water for that day's water libations which would be poured onto the Altar. Numerous spectators, both men and women, stood along the sides of the courtyard to watch these festivities. During the Second Temple era the mingling of men and women at this event led to a certain amount of frivolity (this had not been the case in the First Temple) and steps were taken to correct this. The Sages came up with an innovative solution in which the women would gather upon balconies constructed within the courtyard while the men would stand below on ground level. 

These balconies for the women ran along the southern, eastern, and northern sides of the courtyard, but not the western side. Halfway up the walls were protruding stone ledges that supported the wooden planks which formed the floorboards of the balcony. A row of marble columns, similar to those used on the Temple Mount, encircled the interior of the Women's Courtyard, and these, too, may have been used to support the balcony. Above the floorboards they built row upon row of ascending steps to afford all of the women a good view of the festivities below. As a safety measure, the entire balcony was surrounded by a protective fence. Only the stone columns and protruding balcony supports were permanent fixtures whereas the floorboards and steps were put up each year during Succos and then taken down after the holiday.

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