Monday, June 16, 2014

Dimensions of the Chamber of Hewn Stone: Part 1

SUMMARY After looking at the numbers, the Chamber of Hewn Stone is, as they say, simply too big to be allowed.

The Chamber of Hewn Stone, in the northeast corner of the Courtyard, was the seat of the 71-member Sanhedrin court. The northern half of the chamber was built outside the Courtyard walls (and thus remained unconsecrated) and the southern half of the chamber was located within the Courtyard. Since the judges and students were seated during the proceedings, and sitting was not permitted in the Courtyard, they sat in the northern, unconsecrated half of the chamber. This Sanhedrin was arranged just like the smaller ones of the Temple Mount and Women’s Courtyard: the judges sat on seats in a semicircle facing south and three rows of students, also in semicircles, sat before them on the ground.

Size of the Judges' Area
The Gemara tells us that a person is one amah wide, so the judges formed a half-circle 71 amos in circumference. A full circle of this size would have a circumference of 142 amos, a diameter of 45.2 amos, and a radius of 22.6 amos. Thus, the amount of space occupied by the judges themselves amounts to an area approximately 45 amos wide (east to west) and 23 amos long (north to south). See diagram.
Area needed to seat 71 judges in a half-circle.

The same calculation is performed to figure the space needed to seat a semicircle of 23 students (see this earlier post) and it emerges that the radius of that semicircle is 8 amos. Three rows, assuming that they would sit one right behind the other, would thus require 10 amos, and the total area needed for the students is 16 amos wide (east to west) and 10 amos long (north to south). Adding this area for the students to the area for the judges and the grand total for the dimensions of the court are therefore 45×33 amosSee diagram.

Size of the Consecrated Area
The Gemara (Yoma 25a) states that half of this chamber was within the Courtyard and half was outside the Courtyard. This would require that an area equivalent to 45×33 amos, or 1485 amos2 (45×33=1485), be designated for the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the northeast corner of the Courtyard. It is impossible to simply drop a 45×33 area into the northeast corner for this purpose since it would run into the Butchering Area which was situated north of the Altar and began 22 amos west of the Courtyard's eastern wall. 
Northeast corner of the Courtyard.
[A note about the thickness of the Courtyard walls: the walls are assumed to be 5 amos thick, and the thickness of the wall is also assumed to possess Courtyard sanctity. Thus, when assigning a space for the Chamber of Hewn Stone we may have the chamber reside within the thickness of the walls which will help reduce its footprint in the Courtyard proper.]

Now, if the width of the Chamber of Hewn Stone is restricted by the Butchering Area, it must be reduced to approximately 26 amos (that is, 22 amos from the wall to the Butchering Area, plus 4 amos carved out of the wall itself, leaving one amah of the wall for its own structural integrity). The length of the chamber must then be increased to 57 amos to maintain the required area of 1485 amos2. See diagram.

Although when this area is superimposed on the Courtyard it appears to fit, a room this size interferes with the presence of other chambers. The Chamber of Hewn Stone was part of a complex of three chambers located in this corner of the Courtyard, the others being the Chamber of the Basin and the Chamber of Wood. Each of these were built along the western side of the Chamber of Hewn Stone and were at least 4 amos wide (on the inside). Adding half an amah for the walls dividing these chambers, we must allow for 5 amos along the western side of the Chamber of Hewn Stone for these other two chambers to reside, thereby reducing the usable space from 26 amos to 21 amos. Furthermore, to the north of the Nikanor Gate, in the wall of the Courtyard, was the Chamber of Pinchas the Clothier. Although it was largely contained within the wall and did not protrude into the Courtyard, it still needed space for a door, which would require subtracting a couple of amos (at least) from the Chamber of Hewn Stone's southern boundary. At this point, the space available for the Chamber of Hewn Stone has been reduced to 21×55 amos, or 1155 amos2, far short of the required 1485 amos2.

In the next post I hope to resolve the dimensions of the Chamber of Hewn Stone based on the Gemara's description of this chamber as a "large basilica."


  1. Its great that you are involved in the subject, as I am also learning this and modifying my 3d model as well. There is one assumption that may help you design a more aesthetically pleasing Sanhedrin ( without that annoying L shape). I saw in a different model of the commentaries where they limit the steps of the heichal only to be in front its opening. This allowed the butchering area to be much closer to the heichal allowing much more room to allow for the Lishkat Ha Gazit. In my model I used a round building of 42 amot in diameter. Half the building is the 71 elders; 1/2 to 2/3 are the 3 rows of students. The last 1/3 of the circle sits in the "holy" and also needs to be round for the Cohen selection process (Pius).

  2. Thank you for the idea, but unfortunately I am not able to make the changes you suggest. First, my model is based on the opinion of Tiferes Yisrael and he writes that the steps of the Heichal went all the way across its 100-amah width. Second, from the language of the Mishnah describing the Butchering Area it appears to have been limited to the area north of the Altar, so I'm not sure it could be moved further west. Do you have any renderings of the model you have designed?

  3. Hi R' Elan, Ezras Cohanim says that since the full Sanhedrin of 71 rarely met and it was only the minor Sanhedrin that met most of the time in the Lishkas Hagozis, so they only made it big enough for the 21 and when the 71 gathered they would rely on a miracle somewhat like that in Avos 5:5 that the jews stood crowded but bowed down with space.

    1. A good idea, although I'm a little hesitant to say that they relied on a miracle from the outset.

  4. Hello! The approximate location of the Chamber of Hewn Stone would be to the right of the Western Wall?
    I travel in September, how can I locate the exact site?
    I will appreciate your information!

  5. Hi Carlos. Glad to hear you are getting a chance to visit the Holy Land! As for the location of the Chamber of Hewn Stone, it depends on what you mean by "to the right." If you are looking at the Temple Mount on a map (with north going up) then the Chamber of Hewn Stone is to the right of the Wall (because it is inside the Temple Mount) and a little bit northeast of the Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately it is very hard to specify exactly where it was located because we do not know with any certainty where on the Temple Mount the actual Temple was built. Archaeologists and historians have been debating this question for many years...


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