Monday, September 8, 2014

The Height of the Chambers of the Knives

SUMMARY A new sun study of the Courtyard reveals Tiferes Yisrael's opinion on the height of the Chambers of the Knives.

Alert reader U. Weinstein sent in the following comment to an earlier post:
It seems that you did not follow the assumption of the Ezras Kohanim that the 'beis hachalifos' was only as tall as the 'ta'im' and not 100 Amos tall as the Ulam.
Until reading this comment I had not given the matter any thought since, to the best of my knowledge, Tiferes Yisrael in Middos (upon whom my Temple model is based) does not mention anything about the height of the Chambers of the Knives [Beis Hachalifos]. Now, of course, I was curious whether his opinion on the matter could be deduced somehow. It turns out that it can, and one important part of the answer requires looking not at the shape of the building itself, but at its shadow.

First, some facts. The Mishnah (Middos 4:6-7) states that the Sanctuary Building measured 100 amos in width, length, and height. This is not to say that it formed a cube of 100 amos to a side, since the Mishnah itself goes on to clarify that regarding the width (north to south), only the front of the building (i.e., the Antechamber) was 100 amos wide - the majority of the building was only 70 amos wide. Regarding the height, we know that the small rooms [tauim] which ran around the northern, western, and southern sides of the building were certainly not 100 amos high since the Mishnah explains that a ladder was needed to ascend from the roofs of these rooms up to the roof of the building itself. It emerges that the measurement of 100 amos for the Sanctuary Building represents only a maximum in each direction.

In the sefer Ezras Kohanim the author describes the Chambers of the Knives as being only as tall as the tauim. According to this view the eastern face of the Antechamber was only 100 amos wide at the bottom, up to a height of approximately 20-30 amos (the height of the tauim is not stated explicitly), at which point it indented inward on either side. The amount of indentation on either side can either be 15 amos or as much as 36 amos, depending on where one draws the line between the Antechamber and the Chambers of the Knives.
Three possibilities for the width of the Antechamber above the
Chambers of the Knives (l to r): 100 amos, 70 amos, or 28 amos.
Rabbi Zalman Koren, in his book The Beit Hamikdash (p.62-63), comes to the same conclusion as Ezras Kohanim, adding that this also appears to be supported by the description of the Antechamber given in Josephus.

Tiferes Yisrael to Middos 4:7 does not state anything regarding this matter. This alone might be the single most convincing argument that he follows the "default" view that the face of the Antechamber was 100x100 amos since, in general, his commentary does not rely on the old maxim "it goes without saying," for he is prone to delving into great detail rather than leave anything unmentioned.

In the key to his diagram of the Temple #54 he states that the eastern Antechamber wall measured 100 amos wide from north to south and was as tall as the Sanctuary [i.e., 100 amos]. Taken simply, this certainly sounds like the wall was 100 amos tall along its entire width.

In #59, in defining the Chambers of the Knives, he describes them as spaces within the interior of the Antechamber, and he goes on to provide their length and width. He does not state their height because, as he said earlier, they are simply spaces within the Antechamber whose height was 100 amos.

In trying to find more evidence one way or the other I had the idea to revisit my sun study of the Temple walls (and also here). In those posts I discussed how the morning and afternoon Tamid offerings were slaughtered in specific rings (of the 24 rings located north of the Altar) so as to avoid the shadows cast by the Courtyard walls, the Altar, and the Sanctuary Building. The Mishnah (Tamid 4:1) states that the morning Tamid was slaughtered near the northwest corner [of the Altar] in the second ring (A5 in the diagram below), while the afternoon Tamid was slaughtered near the northeast corner [of the Altar] in the second ring (D5).
Layout of the 24 rings north of the Altar.
Tiferes Yisrael (§6 ad loc.) explains that the Tamid offering had to be slaughtered in a place which was היותר מקורבת למקום השמש, closest to a place of [direct] sunlight. In the case of the morning Tamid this means that it must be slaughtered in one of the western-most rings (column A in the diagram), since these are the first to come into direct sunlight once the sun rises above the top of the eastern Courtyard wall. Ring A6 could not be used since, during the short days of winter, the shadow of the Altar would still be shading this ring and so it was not in direct sunlight (see Boaz 1).

In the afternoon, the Tamid must be slaughtered in one of the eastern-most rings (column D), since, as he writes, "we must distance the place of slaughter as much as possible from the shadow of the Sanctuary Building located to the west of the rings." As in the morning, ring D6 could not be used since the shadow of the Altar would still be shading it.

Here is a new animation showing a sun study of the Courtyard. This is a closeup of the northern portion of the Altar and some of the rings and represents the shadows which would be present on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year).
In this video the Sanctuary Building has been modified to reflect the opinion of Ezras Kohanim that the Chambers of the Knives are only as tall as the tauim, so I indented the sides of the Antechamber inward by 15 amos on each side. However, I then added the missing parts of the wall back in using a slightly transparent material (which casts a lighter shadow) to represent what I believe is the view of Tiferes Yisrael that the Antechamber was not indented at all. With this model the shadows of both views can be studied at the same time.

In the morning there is no difference, since the only consideration is the shadow of the eastern Courtyard wall. As can be seen below, after the sun clears the wall and casts it light onto the rings of column A, it is ring A5 which is closest to the Altar and still in direct sunlight.
Morning: the sun has just passed over the eastern Courtyard wall.
In the afternoon, the shadow of the Sanctuary Building sweeps across the rings starting from D1 and moving down towards D6. When the Antechamber walls are not indented inward (lighter shadow in the image below) the very last ring to be left in direct sunlight is D5, as the Mishnah had stated.
Afternoon: ring D5 is the last to remain in direct sunlight
when the Antechamber walls are not indented inward.
However, when the walls are indented inward (darker shadow), it takes longer for the shadow of the building to reach the last column of rings, and during that time the Altar's shadow has been creeping upward as well. At the end of the day, it emerges that the last ring to be left in direct sunlight is no longer D5 (which has been swallowed by the Altar shadow) but D4, contrary to what the Mishnah states.
Afternoon: ring D4 is the last to remain in direct sunlight
when the Antechamber walls are indented inward.
This is not to say that the Mishnah is incompatible with the view that the Antechamber walls were indented inward. The way to solve this is to rearrange the 24 rings according to the alternative opinion given in Middos 3:5 where instead of having 4 columns containing 6 rings each, there are 6 columns containing 4 rings each. In this other arrangement there is more space (north to south) between the rows, and thus ring D5 is slightly more to the north than it would be in the arrangement I have shown above, and although I do not show it here, a sun study of this other arrangement reveals that it is indeed ring D5 which is the last to remain in direct sunlight. Tiferes Yisrael, though, clearly states (in Tamid loc. cit.) that the original arrangement is his preferred choice, and according to this approach the walls of the Antechamber could not have been indented.


  1. I think it difficult to base the structure of the Heichal on the location of the rings for the simple fact that the rings were added by R. Yochonon Cohen Gadol at the time of the Chashmonaim, whereas the Heichal's dimensions were in place at the beginning of at least the 2nd temple period, if not earlier.

  2. Granted that the structure of the Heichal came first, but the Mishnah describing the interaction between the shadows and the rings was composed later. The Tanna of the Mishnah made the simple observation that the Tamid had to be slaughtered in certain rings in order to fulfill the Biblical requirement of being "opposite the sun" and from this observation we may work back to deduce the shape of the Heichal.

  3. Thank you very much for another amazing post.
    [I would like to add that according to the Rambam's opinion (that the Beis Hachalifos ran along the southern and northern sides of the Heichal), it would seemingly be very difficult to say that the Beis Hachalifos were 100 amos tall.]

    1. according to the Rambam, just like he says that 100 amos wide and long is the whole building's length and width, so to by the height he would probably say that the whole thing was 100 amos tall

  4. The question then is how were they able to be 100 Amos tall if they were 120 in Bayis Rishon and the dimensions weren’t really able to change (הכל בכתב). Maybe this change was alluded to in Yechezkel?

    1. The change in the height was based on a verse (Chaggai 2:9) and this change presumably applied to the whole building (see Bava Basra 3a), so the Beis Hachalifos would have been lower as well.

    2. But if the pasuk means that Bayis Sheni should be taller, shouldn’t it be at least 120 Amos tall? Or does making the kodesh 40 Amos means they had to make the whole building shorter in order not to fall, similar to the amah traksin issue? (from the Gemara it seems that Bayis sheni have been something like 130 Amos tall)

    3. If I remember correctly, the increase in height refers to the interior of the Kodesh being taller than it was in Bayis Rishon.


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