Monday, January 19, 2015

Two Views of the Chamber of the Stone House

Finding a red cow that meets all the halachic requirements of a parah adumah was a rare event in Temple times. In fact, from the construction of the Tabernacle through the era of the Second Temple — a period of over 1000 years — only nine such cows were found (Parah 3:5). Since this opportunity came along so infrequently, extreme care was taken to ensure that it was prepared in the utmost sanctity. One of these requirements is that the Kohen who would handle the ashes of the cow must be quarantined within a dedicated chamber in the Temple, and denied all human contact for fear of contracting tumah, for seven days.

The Kohen's living quarters was called the Chamber of the Stone House. It was located near the northeast corner of the Courtyard, although it did not possess Courtyard sanctity since he did have to sleep there. In an earlier post I discussed the exact placement of this room and its size, which came to 12 amos long and 5 amos wide.

What we know about the use of this chamber is found in the Mishnah (Parah 3:1) which states that seven days before the burning of the parah adumah we remove the Kohen who will be burning the cow from his house and put him in the Chamber of the Stone House. The Gemara (Yoma 2a) explains that this chamber derived its name from the fact that all the utensils contained there were made of stone (or other types of materials which cannot contract tumah). It was necessary to take such precautions in order to impress upon the public the great lengths to which the Kohanim went to make sure that the procedure was carried out in purity.

After reading this description I downloaded a bunch of marble textures and set out to design the room. Initially, I imagined this chamber primarily as a "clean room" where the ashes of the parah adumah would be further prepared before use. There is a large sorting tub for spreading out the ashes and removing foreign objects, as well as a mortar for grinding larger chunks into fine powder. A variety of urns fill the shelves for storage of the ashes, and the walls also feature a motivational poster encouraging constant vigilance, and a handy calendar to mark the days. The Kohen has a bedroll for sleeping in, as it was not permitted to bring actual beds into the Temple (see Tamid 26b).
Initial view of the interior of the Stone House.

Well, it did not take long to discover that this design for the room (based on the simple reading of Yoma 2a with Rashi ad loc.) is completely unfounded. Looking through the commentators to the Mishnah in Parah reveals that the sole purpose of the room was to house the Kohen prior to the service of the parah adumah and that all the precautions of taharah were only needed during that week of sequestration (since the utensils used in the actual handling of the ashes could be made of material which is susceptible to tumah). With this new perspective, I gave the room a makeover and turned it into a cozy living space. Note the presence of two chairs: the denial of human contact I mentioned earlier is only meant literally (i.e., no one may physically touch him), but the Kohen could certainly have company (or a chavrusa) while he was in the Stone House. I did take out the window in the northern wall for privacy (it looks into the Chamber of Hewn Stone) but the room would still receive plenty of natural light from a window in its southern wall (not shown in the picture) which opens to the Women's Courtyard (high above floor level).
Revised view of the Stone House, looking north.

N.B. The bound book, or codex, of the type shown in the above pictures was a format already in use by the end of the Second Temple period.

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