Monday, November 26, 2012

Chanukah: Finding the Oil

One of the most widely-known miracles of the Chanukah story involves the finding of the flask of pure oil. When the Jews returned to the Temple it appeared that all of the sealed containers of pure olive oil had been contaminated by the Syrian-Greeks and there was none left with which to light the Menorah. By Divine Providence a single sealed flask of oil was found and this miraculously fueled the lamps of the Menorah for seven days while more oil was prepared.

From the description of the Temple given in Tractate Middos (the tractate dedicated to recording the measurements of the Temple) we learn that the main storage area for oil was located in the southwest chamber of the Women's Courtyard – the Chamber of the Oil. Certainly all of the containers in this chamber would have been defiled, and it is more likely that the flask was found somewhere else. Here I present two opinions given by the commentators as to where this flask may have been found.

1. In the Sanctuary
The Talmud states that "when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all of the oil in the Sanctuary." From here we learn that oil was stored in the Sanctuary as well. There were thirty-eight cells, or small rooms, built around three sides of the Sanctuary and the special olive oil used for the Menorah may have been stored here.

The Sanctuary. Area of the
small rooms is highlighted.
Some maintain that the flask of oil of the Chanukah story was found in the Sanctuary. There was a room in the Sanctuary (possibly one of the cells) or, according to a slightly different version, a niche in the wall, which was closed off by a door and sealed with the seal of the High Priest (see Siddur of Rokeach, Chanukah; Orchos Chaim, Hil. Chanukah 1; Kol Bo 44). This area had somehow escaped the notice of the Syrian-Greeks and when it was later opened by the Jews it was found to contain a single flask of olive oil. According to this view, it was not the flask itself which was sealed with the seal of the High Priest but rather the area in which it was found.

2. Beneath the Altar
Southwest corner of the Altar
At the southwest corner of the Altar's top were two receptacles where the wine and water libations were poured. The libations flowed down through the Altar into a deep subterranean cavity called the Shissin. Once every seventy years the Kohanim would enter the Shissin through an access hole in the Courtyard floor in order to empty it of the congealed wine. One opinion maintains that the sealed flask of oil was found within the Shissin, apparently hidden there by a quick-thinking Kohen before the Temple was taken (Otzar Hamidrashim, Chanukah, p.193). As for why the Jews were exploring the Shissin at this time, the Altar was in the process of being rebuilt and it is therefore likely that they stumbled upon this flask of oil as they were removing the old stones from the lowest level of the Altar.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chanukah: Rebuilding the Altar

Rebuilding the Altar of the Temple
One of the more shocking discoveries made by the Maccabees after expelling the Syrian-Greeks from the Temple was that the Outer Altar had been used for idol worship. Although the stones of the Altar were attached to the ground and legally impervious to the defilement of idol worship, the Jews felt that it was unconscionable to resume the holy sacrificial service on such stones. One of the lesser-known facts of the Chanukah story is that amidst the cleaning up of the Temple, searching for pure oil, and assembling a new Menorah, the Jews also dismantled the entire Altar and rebuilt it using new stones. See this earlier class for a more detailed description of the Outer Altar.

The stones of the original Altar were stored within the Hall of the Fire, a large structure built into the northern wall of the Courtyard. The main purpose of the Hall was to serve as sleeping quarters for the watch of Kohanim currently on duty and it also provided them a place to warm themselves during the day, a necessary amenity since they had to walk around barefoot on cold marble floors as they performed the sacrificial service. The large warming fire located here gave it its name.
Chamber of Receipts. Three of the original
Altar stones are displayed above the fireplace.

In each of the four corners of Hall of the Fire were smaller chambers. The northeast contained the Chamber of Receipts where the Kohanim would issue receipts to individuals purchasing wine, oil, and flour from the Temple treasury. It was in this chamber that the stones of the Altar were stored. Now, it was impossible to fit a volume of stones the size of the Altar into this very small chamber. It is therefore likely that this chamber had a massive basement within the tunnels beneath the floor of the Courtyard where the large majority of the stones were stored, while some of the stones were left on display in the chamber upstairs to serve as a reminder of the miraculous events of the Chanukah story.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chanukah: The Cheil and the Soreg


At the heart of the Chanukah story is the Holy Temple. It was here that the persecution of the Jews began under the rule of Antiochus who ordered that the Temple be desecrated and converted into a place of pagan worship. Mattisyahu, son of Yochanan the High Priest, fled to the countryside where he became the father of the Jewish resistance. His sons and followers, the Maccabees, fought bravely against all odds and were aided by Divine Providence to eventually return to Jerusalem and bring the Temple back to Jewish hands. It is their miraculous victories and efforts to restore the sacrificial service to its earlier glory which we commemorate on the holiday of Chanukah.

In these upcoming posts I would like to explore the connection between the physical structure of the Second Temple and some of the core elements of the Chanukah story.

The Cheil and the Soreg

The Cheil and Soreg outside of the Women's Courtyard
Standing at a distance of 10 cubits outside the walls of the Courtyard on all four sides was a low wall, half a cubit high. This wall, as well as the area between it and the Courtyard walls, was referred to as the Cheil. A wooden latticework fence, 10 handbreadths high, was built atop this wall and was called the Soreg.

The purpose of both the wall and the fence was to mark the point beyond which no one contaminated with corpse-tumah, nor any non-Jew, could pass. Archaeologists have discovered one of the marker stones from the Cheil and the inscription (written in Greek) reads, "Any foreigner who passes beyond the wall and fence surrounding the Temple has only himself to blame for the fact that his death will follow."

Marker stone from the Cheil
When the Syrian-Greek kings occupied the Temple during the years leading up to the events of the Chanukah story they made thirteen breaches in the Soreg fence to demonstrate their disdain at having been barred from entering. After the Maccabees regained control of the Temple they repaired these breaches and the Sages instituted that anyone who passes by one of the repaired breaches must bow down to give thanks to God for destroying the foreign regime and abolishing their evil decrees.

Al Hanissim ("For the Miracles") is a prayer of thanksgiving recited during the holiday which gives a brief synopsis of all of the historical events of the Chanukah story. One of the lines reads, "They breached the walls of my Tower," a reference to the enemies of the Jews breaching the Soreg fence which surrounded the Temple (i.e., "Tower"). While the heathen marauders were bent upon breaking down the dividing lines between all nations of the world, our Sages underscored the importance of preserving our Jewish identity by specifically choosing to include the breaching of the Soreg in our liturgy.

The Chassidic masters are quoted as saying that this incident served as the precedent for eating latkehs on Chanukah. To commemorate the repairs made to the breached Soreg the Jewish people contrived a dish – the potato pancake – which resembled a patch (as in a patch on a garment). This Chanukah staple was originally called a latteh, which is the Yiddish word for patch, and over time this became latkeh.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Mystery of Bar Kokhba by Leibel Reznick

I was recently introduced to one of R' Leibel Reznick's books titled The Mystery of Bar Kokhba (Jason Aronson, 1996). In it the author attempts to shed some light on the enigmatic figure of Shimon Bar Kochba, the military leader who led the Jewish revolt against Rome some decades after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

One of the more intriguing theories which R' Reznick presents is that Bar Kochba not only recaptured Jerusalem from Roman hands but proceeded to build the Third Temple upon the Temple Mount. Included among his many proofs for this theory is the fact that the raised platform which exists today on the Temple Mount is precisely the correct size to have served as the Courtyard floor of the Third Temple. He writes that this platform measures 540 feet from east to west by 550 feet from north to south and is thus too large to have been the 187x135-amah Courtyard of the Second Temple and too small to have been the 500x500-amah Temple Mount of the Second Temple. Rather, the raised platform may have been the Courtyard of the Third Temple built by Bar Kochba which, according to the prophecy of Ezekiel, measured 346 amos from north to south and 340 amos from east to west.

R' Reznick does list some counter arguments to the claim that a Third Temple was built in Jerusalem. To those I would like to add the following observations:

1. The platform is not rectangular.
The photo below shows the Temple Mount along with the approximate dimensions of the raised platform, measured using Google's Distance Measurement Tool.
The raised platform upon the Temple Mount (Google Maps)
Now, although the measurements are approximate, the platform is obviously not rectangular but trapezoidal and the dimensions stated by R' Reznick only hold true on two of the four sides (the north and west). For this platform to have been the rectangular Courtyard of the Third Temple we must assume that, over time, the structure either eroded or was dismantled, producing the current shape of the platform today.

2. The Courtyard of the Third Temple does not measure 346 by 340 amos.
A careful reading of Tosafos Yom Tov, whom R' Reznick cites as the source for his dimensions of the Third Temple, reveals that the interior of the Courtyard measures only 312 amos from north to south and 317 amos from east to west. See Diagram A below.

Even if we assume that the raised platform encompasses the thickness of the Courtyard walls - which were 6 amos thick - this would result in an area of only 324 by 329 amos. See Diagram B below.

Another point which emerges here is that the Third Temple Courtyard is longer from east to west than from north to south, while the platform dimensions are the opposite, being longer from north to south than from east to west. The approach (apparently) taken by the author to correct this inconsistency was to include the dimensions of the large entrance halls built outside the Courtyard gates in the north, south, and east. Each hall was 11 amos long, so by including the two halls in the north and south (22 amos) and the one hall in the east (11 amos), the "Courtyard" now measures 346 by 340 amos. See Diagram C.
Dimensions of the Third Temple Courtyard: Three Possibilities

3. This theory is inconsistent with R' Reznick's view regarding the Altar.
One of R' Reznick's other theories is that the Dome of the Rock is not, as popularly believed, the place of the Holy of Holies but rather the location of the Outer Altar. The location of the Outer Altar was the same in the First, Second, and (speedily in our days) the Third Temple, thus if we are to maintain that the current raised platform represents the Courtyard of the Third Temple then the location of the Altar would be at its center. As seen in the overlay below, the center of the Third Temple does not coincide with the Dome of the Rock.
Plan of the Third Temple overlayed upon the Temple Mount