Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tour of the Temple: Class 7

Gates of the Courtyard

The Nikanor Gate, as viewed from the Women's Courtyard
The Main Courtyard was surrounded by walls 40 cubits (60 feet) tall and seven large gateways opened into the Courtyard from the outside. All of these gateways had the same dimensions as the Temple Mount gates – 10 cubits wide and 20 cubits tall (15 feet by 30 feet), and they all had double doors. When the Jews returned from exile to build the Second Temple they were poor and could not afford to spend lavishly on the structure. At some later point when their financial situation had improved they were able to plate all of the doors of the Temple gates with gold.

In the center of the eastern wall of the Courtyard stood the Nikanor Gate. This gate, which served as the main public entrance into the Courtyard, was named for the pious and wealthy individual who donated its two doors. Nikanor had these doors crafted of Corinthian bronze by the artisans of Alexandria in Egypt and then personally accompanied them on their journey by ship to the Israeli port of Acco. Along the way the seas turned stormy and threatened to sink the ship and its precious cargo. The captain, fearing for the lives of those on board, ordered one of the immense bronze doors to be cast into the sea to lighten the ship’s load. The sailors did so, but to no avail, and the captain then ordered the second door to follow the first one into the depths. At this point Nikanor threw himself on top of the remaining door and declared, “If you throw this door into the sea you’ll have to throw me in with it!” As soon as the words left his mouth the storm miraculously abated and the ship was able to continue on its way. Upon arriving in Acco they discovered that another miraculous event had occurred — the first door was found floating in the water right next to the ship! Thus, both of Nikanor's doors were brought to the Temple where they were installed conspicuously in the main entrance of the Courtyard.

Two smaller gateways flanked the Nikanor Gate to its north and south which would be used by people exiting the Courtyard. Since the Nikanor Gate was directly opposite the entrance of the Sanctuary, anyone exiting through this gate would be required to walk out backwards so as not to turn their back on the Holy and Holy of Holies. To avoid this, people exiting the Courtyard would use one of these two smaller gates off to either side and could do so without having to walk out backwards. This arrangement served the additional purpose of relieving congestion at the Nikanor Gate and thus optimized the flow of pedestrian traffic.

In the southern wall of the Courtyard were three large gates, distributed evenly along the length of the wall. The westernmost of these was the Kindling Gate through which they would bring firewood to fuel the fires of the Altar. In the center of the wall was the Firstborns Gate where firstborn animals would be brought into the Courtyard and given to the Kohanim. The third gate in the south was the Water Gate which took its name from the fact that on Succos the water libations (see Class #5) were brought into the Courtyard through this gate. This gate was selected for this purpose since it was located across from the Altar, allowing the libations to be poured onto the Altar without delay.

The northern wall also contained three large gates which were located across from those in the south. Nearest to the west was the Spark Gate, so named because the Kohanim maintained a fire there which was kept burning constantly. To the east of the Spark Gate was the Sacrifice Gate through which all animals used for sacrifices of the highest sanctity were brought into the Courtyard. [All sacrifices fall into one of two general categories: those of lesser sanctity and those of the highest sanctity. The latter category has certain stringencies associated with it, including the requirement that the animals be slaughtered in the northern half of the Courtyard. It is for this reason that the Sacrifice Gate was located in the northern wall.] The third gate in the north opened into a large chamber called the Hall of the Fire which, in turn, opened to the Courtyard. This chamber served as the sleeping quarters for the Kohanim working in the Temple and contained a large warming fire for their benefit.

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