A Tour of Jerusalem's Second Temple
Return to Mikdash home page



We begin our actual "tour" of the Temple from the eastern gate of the Temple Mount (Har Habayis). But first, something of an overview of the mountain's general layout might be helpful.

As you will probably have figured out on your own, the Temple was built at the top (although not necessarily the center) of a mountain - specifically, Mt. Moriah. A square area at the top of the mountain was largely leveled out and had built into it hollow domes (for both support and protection from any ritually impure objects that might have lain underground). The total walled-in area was 500 x 500 amos (Middos 2:1).

What are amos (singular: amah)? Since the amah (also known as a cubit or, for some unknown reason, an ell) is the single most common unit of measurement in the Temple literature, that will be the unit with which we will measure "our" Temple. How big is an amah? Anywhere between one and a half and two feet (that's somewhere between 45 and 60 centimeters for those of you who care). The total Temple area, then, which is 500 by 500 amos, would be between 750 x 750 and 1000 x 1000 feet.

To the south and west of the mountain was the city of Jerusalem. Despite the fact that the two southern entrances to the Temple Mount were the most frequently used (being closest to the city proper), the "main" entrance was to the east - Sha'ar Shushan (the Shushan gate).

Within the walls, and a little bit off-center to the north and west, lay the main courtyard, the Azarah. The floor of this rectangular area was elevated as much as 22 amos from the floor at the outer wall to allow for the natural elevation of the mountain.

According to Rashi (BT Yoma 16a), the Azarah itself was encircled by a clear area ten amos wide (called "the cheil") and, at its outer edge, a low fence (called "the soreg"). It was from the cheil that stairs rose to the gates of the Azarah.

According to the Rambam (Commentary to Middos 1:5), however, the fence marked the beginning of an elevated platform. Access from the Temple Mount to the top of this platform, therefore, was by way of stairs.

Contrary to what you might think, the floor of Har Habayis outside of the Azarah wasn't simply empty space, but was crowded with at least forty-five buildings (See Tosafos YomTov to Middos 2; 1, quoting the Shiltay Giborim). Some of the buildings were used for storage, some as living quarters for Temple functionaries and one - just inside the Shushan gate - was a meeting chamber for a small Sanhedrin of twenty-three judges.

In the images of the Temple included in this book, there are none of the buildings which really filled Har Habayis (except the Sanhedrin). These were left out (1) for simplicity's sake, and (2) in the interest of accuracy - I don't really know how these buildings would have looked and didn't want to include pictures which were almost certainly wrong!


What does Shushan, the name of Persia's capital city (made famous through its role in the Esther story), have to do with the eastern gate of the Temple? We're told that when the Persian king Cyrus (Koresh) allowed Ezra to rebuild both the Temple and Jerusalem, he was worried about the possibility of a Jewish rebellion. To remind his Jewish subjects who was boss, Koresh instructed the builders to carve a picture of the Shushan skyline over the main entrance (BT Middos 1:3, Bartenura).

Since the eastern gate was directly opposite the entrance to the Women's Courtyard (Ezras Nashim), which in turn sat right before the heichal itself, it could have been considered the main entrance even though most people entered and left from the south.

From Sha'ar Shushan, there was a bridge leading out across the valley, connecting the Temple to Mount of Olives. It was across this bridge that the para aduma (red heifer) was led before being burned for its purifying ashes (see Numbers, 19).

The priest (kohen) who burned the heifer had to have the main Temple building clearly in his line of sight (Numbers 19, 4), therefore the bridges and gates between the Mount of Olives and the heichal had to be built so that his vision would not be obstructed. In fact, according to Rashi, the whole eastern wall of the Temple Mount was only six amos high (as opposed to the three other walls which were as high as seventy amos) so the kohen could see over (Rashi to Ezekiel 40:5).

Other opinions shortened the eastern wall to 26 amos, and some only above the gate itself, but not along the wall's whole length (Tavnis Heichal brought by Ezras Kohanim to Middos 2; 4. See the Ezras Kohanim further for a full discussion of this wall).

Of note: Rashi's eastern wall of six amos partly reflected the prophecy of Ezekial (Ch. 40) that all four of the third Temple's walls would be only six amos high.


Just inside the eastern gate (Sha'ar Shushan) was the first of the Temple Mount's three courthouses (according to Rashi - BT Sanhedrin 86a - this first chamber was just inside the soreg; the small fence that surrounded the Courtyard). This one (like its twin inside the Women's Courtyard) housed a Sanhedrin of twenty-three judges. In a large basilica-like building (called the Lishkas Hagazis) in the Jews' Courtyard (Ezras Yisroel), was a chamber for the Sanhedrin of seventy-one (BT Sanhedrin 86b).

When you consider that the city of Jerusalem itself had its own courts, and that any fair-sized city throughout the country could also boast of one, you might think of the Jews as a nation overrun by its judicial system.

It wasn't quite so bad. All these courts were part of a pyramid-like organization, with the lower, provincial courts sending appeals and particularly hard cases to higher courts...and eventually to the Lishkas Hagazis itself.

Some types of cases - like Zaken Mamre (Deut. 17; 8-13) and Sota (Numbers 5, 15) - needed to travel through the whole court system to be legally valid. Consider also, that these courts did not meet every day. Rather, some only met on Mondays and Thursdays, and others only when called into session for a particular reason.

Finally, we should realize that Jewish courts deal with more than civil ("He owes me money") and capital ("off with his head") cases. Questions of the laws of the Sabbath, kosher food and even proper festival observance were all brought to the courts. The High Court was also ultimately responsible for foreign affairs and Temple procedures.

Every area of Torah law is complicated enough to need clarification once in a while. And often the only place to go for a good answer was to the leading Torah scholars - who could usually be found on one of the country's Sanhedrins...


You might visualize Temple Mount as a series of rectangles built one atop the other - each smaller than the one below. But a picture is worth...you know...so before you plow through this chapter, sneak a quick glance at a thousand words...

The Temple Mount (everything within the outer 500 x 500 amos walls) we'll assign an elevation of 0 amos. Slightly to the north and west of center, was a large, walled courtyard which contained both the Women's Courtyard to the east and the Jews' Courtyard to the west. Together they measured 322 x 135 amos. As you know, this too was entirely surrounded by the cheil (an empty area ten amos wide) and its outer fence (the soreg).

The floor of the Temple Mount was six amos lower than the floor of the Ezras Nashim. There were twelve steps from one to the other (as each stair was one-half an amah high, and one--half an amah deep). From the square Women's Courtyard, one climbed fifteen semi-circular steps (seven-and-one-half amos) to the Jews' Courtyard.

Between there and the Priest's Courtyard (Ezras Kohanim - which began just 11 amos east of the main altar, and 11 amos west of the Jews Courtyard wall), were four more steps rising two and one half amos (yes, two and a half - one of these steps was actually one full amah high). West of the altar were twelve steps (six amos) leading into the Antechamber and from there it was a short (but rare) walk to the Holy of Holies.

Now these divisions were not simply a product of some architect's fancy, they were reminders that the further "in" you went, the greater the sanctity. Each wall and fence acted as a warning, asking us: "Are you ready to go further?"

People affected by certain types of ritual contamination were not allowed past the outer walls of the Temple Mount (in fact, a metzorah - see Levit. 13 etc. - wasn't even allowed into Jerusalem); those who had been in contact with dead bodies weren't let past the soreg (fence); People of lighter degrees of impurity were kept from the Ezras Nashim; a regular Jew (i.e., a non-priest) was normally advised (or according to some, required) not to come within eleven amos of the altar; a priest who was not currently needed for the Temple service was not allowed into the heichal; and the Holy of Holies was out of bounds all the time except Yom Kippur (BT Mishnayos Keilim; end of first chapter - and even then, entrance was only allowed the high priest).


Aside from the eastern wall (which, according to Rashi, rose to a height of only six amos), the outer walls of the Temple Mount were impressively high. Different accounts place the height anywhere between forty and seventy amos - that's well over one hundred feet up!

The walls were five amos thick at their base, but narrower towards the top. It might have been more aesthetically pleasing to build the walls with a consistent thickness (from top to bottom), but they needed a five-amah base for support.

A surprise: We're used to visualizing the Temple walls as layers of stones (as indeed they were). However, according to the book Ezras Kohanim (4:1), while the structure stood, the stones weren't visible from beneath a layer of white lime plaster. As a matter of fact, nearly all the walls on the Temple Mount were covered in this lime, giving the building the appearance of snowy white mountains, glistening in the sun.


As the main part of the city of Jerusalem lay to the south of the Temple, there were two entrance ways along that wall: Chulda's Gates (Sha'arei Chulda). It was through these gates that most of the pedestrian traffic to and from the Temple passed.

In fact, during the later years of the First Temple, Chulda the prophetess stood near this wall and urged the people of her city to return to the elevated spiritual level on which they belonged. Hence, she was remembered through the names of two of the Second Temple's gates.

Some (Tosafos Yom Tov Middos 1:3) say, in addition, that the tomb of Chulda was located in front of these gates (although not in a way that would cause problems for passing priests).


The Women's Courtyard (Ezras Nashim) was so named, not because it was used by women any more than by men, but because under normal circumstances, this was as far west (i.e. as close to the heichal) as a woman would go.

The courtyard (whose walls enclosed an area 135 x 135 amos) had a chamber built into each of its four corners (Middos 2:5) and contained the second building of the three set aside for a Sanhedrin (this one of twenty-three judges).

The south-east chamber was called the Office of the Nazirim. There, nazirites (Jews who had accepted on themselves temporary vows to abstain from wine, haircuts and contact with the dead - see Numbers ch. 5) would come at the end of their nazir period to cut their hair, have it burnt and cook the meat of their Temple offering.

The room to the north-east was used by priests for making sure that no wood destined for the fires of the altar was wormy (and hence, unfit).

To the north-west was the chamber of metzorayim (see Leviticus ch. 12 etc. for the explanation of a metzora). Here, metzorayim at the end of their period of impurity would immerse in a mikvah and prepare themselves for the final stage of their purification.

Finally there was the storehouse of wine and oils in the south-west corner (against the east wall of the Jews' Courtyard). There was a small flight of stairs and a door connecting this room to the courtyard above it.

Projecting from the inner walls of the courtyard were beams, built to support temporary balconies. It was during the festival of Succos (celebrated in the autumn, see Deut. ch. 17; 13 - 15) that the balconies were actually erected because it was then that thousands of Jews of Jerusalem joined with countless visitors from around the country, and, by torch-light, danced, juggled and sang in appreciation of God's kindness to His people (Succah 51a).

Originally, the men would dance out on the Temple Mount while the women watched from inside the Women's Courtyard. The sages saw that the intermingling could distract the participants from the seriousness of the event, so they switched it around (the men inside and the women outside - presumably so that the women could arrive after the men and leave earlier so as not to actually pass each other).

This, too, caused problems, so the sages finally decided to build balconies along the inside walls of the Women's Courtyard (or according to the Rambam, build the walls - as the Rambam held that originally there were no walls, just a small railing to prevent people from falling over onto the floor far below).

The women stood (or sat) on top, the men below and only the greatest sages and priests danced. (incidentally, this is one of the earliest sources implying the need for a mechitza - a divider between men and women in a synagogue. See Igros Moshe Orech Chaim I 39.)

There were stairs leading up to the balconies (like the balconies themselves, these were temporary) and special doors on the north and south walls of the Women's Courtyard (called Women's Gates) through which the women could come and go.



There were seven entrances to the Jews' Courtyard (see Mishna Middos, ch. 1, Mishna 4). On the other hand, Mishna 6 in the second chapter of Middos tells us that there were thirteen entrances. So what do you do? Which do you believe?

As usual, there are various approaches to choose from, but we will stick with that of Rebbainu Tam (Kesuvos 106a) who says that, counting the major gates (those measuring ten amos wide by twenty amos tall) there were only seven, but there were also six minor entrances. The Mishna at the beginning of Middos is concerned only with the big ones...

What were the gates? Here we go:

Along the northern side of the courtyard, the westernmost gate was sha'ar hanitzotz (gate of the spark). To its east was the sha'ar hakorbon through which were brought most of the animals to be used in the Temple service. There were at least 32 steps leading up to this gate (just imagine dragging all those cows and sheep up the stairs!). Further east was the sha'ar hanashim (women's gate - one of the smaller gates) and finally, the Bais Hamoked.

Now, to the south side: From the west, there was the sha'ar ha-eliyon (another small gate). Eastward was the sha'ar hadelek. East again was the sha'ar habechoros and finally the sha'ar hamayim.

Ok. That's eight. Now there was the main entrance on the eastern wall, the Sha'ar Nikanor and two smaller entrances - one on either side of nikonar. Eleven.

On the west wall of the Azarah, were two small unnamed gates. Thirteen - seven large and six small.


This gate had two names (just to confuse you). The name, the Gate of the Spark (Sha'ar Hanitzotz) refers to the twenty-four hour flame that was kept burning in the gateway should the eternal flame of the main altar have needed replacing.

The other name, is Sha'ar Yechaniya, named after the great Judean king, Yechaniya. Now, of course, Yechaniya also had two names: Yechaniya and Yehoyachin (but if you think this is bad, the main altar had at least four names and the smaller altar in the heichal had at least four more!)

Why was this particular gate named after this particular king? Because it was through this gate that Yechaniya, in the last years of the first Temple period, was led into captivity at the hands of Nevuchadnezzer. Our people chose to remember Yechaniya for his final acts of courage and heroism during this terrible captivity (Middos 2:6).

Outside the gate, overlooking the Temple Mount, was a balcony built on two pillars. Priests regularly stood in this attic keeping watch over the Temple (it wasn't that the Temple needed watching - they weren't usually afraid of attack - but ceremonial guards lend a place an aura of importance). There were three places where priests kept this honor guard: here, in Bais Avtinus (see below) and in the Bais Hamoked. Many other places were guarded by levites (Middos 1:1).


This gate, like the Sha'ar Hanitzotz, had more than one purpose.

It, too, had a balcony on the outside from which a priest stood guard over the Temple Mount. Above the gate itself were two rooms. One, Bais Avtinus, was used by members of the Avtinus family who were expert at preparing the ingredients for the incense (ketorus). The second room contained the mikvah (pool) used by the high priest for the first of his five Yom Kippur immersions.

If the room next to Bais Avtinus contained a mikvah used by the high priest on Yom Kippur (see Leviticus, ch. 16; 4 etc.), where, you might ask, did all the water come from? (We're referring to the drawn water in which the kohen actually immersed - but the 40 seah of the mikvah itself was most likely rainwater).

Even modern plumbing often requires pumps to raise water to upper levels of a building against the force of gravity and this mikvah in particular had to be at least 23 amos (about four stories) above the floor of the Azarah (twenty amos of the gate itself and three amos of height to contain enough water for a kosher mikvah suitable for immersion). What pushed the water up that great height?

The rabbis (BT Yoma 31a) tell us that the water for the mikvah (as well as much of the water used in the Temple) came from a well (called Eyn Eitom) that sat at the top of a neighboring mountain, some miles away. The water was brought by way of underground pipes. Since this other mountain was slightly higher than the Temple Mount, it produced just enough pressure (thanks to gravity) to force the water to rise to the top of the mikvah.


To the west of the Women's Courtyard lay the Azarah (main courtyard). This courtyard's forty-amah-high walls enclosed the Temple's main buildings.

The most noticeable structure in the Azarah was the Antechamber (Ulam) and behind that, the heichal (known, for some reason, as the Hearth). These two adjoining buildings towered over the rest of the Temple - being more than twice the height of anything else in sight.

We'll get to all that, but right now we're interested in the courtyard's general layout. In amongst all the confusion of the Azarah, lay the Jews' Courtyard. Rectangular, the Jews' Courtyard was bounded from the outside by the outer walls of the Azarah and on its inside by the walls of the heichal. In all, the Azarah measured 187 amos from east to west and 135 from north to south.

Technically, the area whose sanctity was only that of the Ezras Yisroel filled only the first eleven amos to the west of the Women's Courtyard wall and the areas to the north, south and west of the heichal. The Priest's Courtyard - a space stretching eleven amos from the Jews' Courtyard to the main altar along with the space of the altar itself (from its south-facing ramp all the way to the northern wall of the Azarah) were normally off limits to "common" Jews (but then, who's a common Jew?).

It was in this space (in particular the easternmost strip) that much of the business of the Temple was done. The area boasted seven major buildings (or, to be more precise, two clusters of three buildings each and the Bais Hamoked further west along the northern wall - Middos 5:3).

The cluster in the Jews' Courtyard's south-east corner consisted of the Salt Chamber (for storing the salt used in the Temple service), the Parve Chamber (no, it had nothing to do with milk-free diets) and the Washing Chamber (for cleaning out the innards of slaughtered animals). Each of these chambers was (according to Tosafos Yoma 31a) built underground with stairways leading down from the floor of the courtyard.

On the roof of the Parve chamber was a mikvah used by the high priest on Yom Kippur (for his final four immersions). There were curtains all around for privacy.

The north-east corner of the Azarah contained the Chamber of Hewn Stone (the Lishkas Hagazis - the supreme court chamber), the Wood Chamber (so named, according to some, because of the wood used to build it - it was also called the Palhedrin and served as the high priest's private chamber), and the Exiles' Chamber, which housed a water well built by the returning exiles.

Separating the eastern section of the Jews Courtyard from the Priests' Courtyard to its west were three steps. It was on these steps (called the duchan) that an overflow crowd of levites would stand while involved in their musical service. The main body of levites were located on the twelve stairs between the altar and the antechamber.

By the way, in your own travels through the tractates of Middos and Tamid you might have noticed a different version of the above layout. The northern cluster is often placed in the south and vice versa. We had to choose one of the two for our explanation, but nevertheless, it's important to be aware of the other possibility.


At the top end of the Jewish legal system lay the supreme court building in the Jews' Courtyard. Here, when the need arose, the Sanhedrin of seventy-one judges met and dealt with the most serious and difficult cases. Among other things, it was this body which gave final approval for a Jewish king to go to war.

The building itself was divided into two parts: the half which lay inside the wall of the Azarah was used as, among other things, a synagogue for the priests during their morning service. The half that was built outside the wall was the meeting place of the Sanhedrin (Middos 5:4 - see R' O. Bartenura). Why outside? Since the Sanhedrin met seated it was only appropriate to sit outside the Azarah proper).


The Fireplace Chamber (Bais Hamoked), was one of the three locations in the Temple guarded by priests (the other two were above the Water Gate and above the Gate of the Spark - besides these, there were many levites on guard throughout the area). The guard would stand on the building's roof, next to its huge dome and watch over the northern half of the Temple Mount.

At night, in the building below, the priests of that day's duty were sleeping, some on the floor of the main hallway and some on large slabs of stone that stuck out from the northern wall. At the southern end of the hallway was a huge door leading into the Azarah. Built into the door was a smaller opening that allowed priests in and out in the early morning with a minimum of noise and fuss. At the northern end of the hall was another door which led to a staircase down to the Temple Mount.

Off to either side of the hall were entrances to smaller rooms. The south-western room was a holding pen for the animals which would most likely be needed for the coming days' sacrifices. To the south-east was the chamber used for baking the lechem hapanim (the show breads, see Exodus, 25; 30).

Inside the north-east chamber were the remains of the original altar, dismantled after having suffered Greek misuse at the time of the Chanuka story (Middos 1:6). The north-west was home to a small fire for warming cold priests and from it a tunnel stretched under the floor of the Temple to a mikvah and bathroom. Priests who became impure at night would immediately go to that mikvah, then wait for the opening of the outer gates in the morning and then leave Temple Mount.


This one takes the prize as the most interesting name in the entire Temple literature! It seems there was a fellow named Parve who had an unhealthy interest in witchcraft (he also had some unsavory friends - like Bilaam and his two sons).

Parve picked up a desire to get in to see the high priest at work on Yom Kippur. One version has him using witchcraft to build the room that bears his name, then tunneling underground into the Holy of Holies. Another version sees Parve climbing to the roof of his room to watch the high priest in the mikvah.

The priests seem to have been tipped off about the plot and managed to catch the culprit in the act, killing him for his trouble. To express thanks to God for having saved us from whatever scheme Parve had had in mind, the sages named the room Parve.


Of all the objects in the courtyard, the altar (mizbayach) commanded more than its share of attention. The whole structure including its ramp stretched across sixty amos from north to south and thirty-two from east to west. When a priest walked along the outer rim of the altar's roof, his feet were ten amos above the floor (in other words, his head was nearly four body lengths up).

If the purpose of the Temple as a whole was to provide a place for bringing sacrifices, then the altar was the activity center: (see Mishna Menachos 5:5-6)

  • Blood from newly slaughtered animals was sprinkled on the altar - either above or below the bright red line (the chut hasikra) painted half-way up the side.
  • Entrails were often burned on one of the wood piles on the roof.
  • Offerings of wine and water were poured down one of the two drains built on the south west corner of the roof.
  • meal offerings (menachos) were touched to the side of the altar to attain the proper sanctity.
  • Those sacrifices which required burning were placed on the fires of this altar.
  • Even the ashes from the fires were packed into a ball (called "the tafuach") in the middle of the roof (Tamid 2:2).

Just a quick rundown (see Middos 3:1): From floor level to the height of one amah was the base of the altar (called the yesod). The yesod was not a perfect square as a strip one amah thick on the south and east sides was left out.

From above the yesod until the height of six amos was the sovev (lit. "surround"). The top of the sovev was an amah wider in every direction than the level above it, so it formed a walking ledge. It was below this ledge that the red "chut hasikra" was drawn to separate between blood that had to be thrown "above" and blood thrown "below."

The final section was the maracha (top - lit. "arrangement"). It's roof rested three amos above the sovev. At the corners of the roof were one amah cubes called the keranos (corners).


The main ramp to the top of the altar was as long as the altar itself (thirty-two amos). Since the height to which it rose was ten amos, the ratio of elevation must have been about one to three. Not such a steep climb.

And it couldn't have taken much time to walk up either (thirty seconds, let's say). Nevertheless, to the west of the main ramp, was a smaller ramp leading back down to the south west corner of the altar itself.

Why? For no other reason than to speed up a priest's trip from the top. If, while carrying a vessel of blood in his hands, he could arrive more directly at the bottom corner, he would save around thirty seconds.

Why should we care? Because the blood he was carrying had to be poured over the corner of the altar before it coagulated (solidified). Apparently, blood, when exposed to air, will coagulate quite quickly. Hence, the concern for speed (Shita M'kubetzas to BT Zevachim 62b note 12).

Besides the main ramp and its small companion, there were two others leading from the top of the sovev (ledge) to mid-way down the main ramp - one on each side of the altar. Why two? So that a priest who had to walk around the ledge to place blood on the keronos (corners) wouldn't have to turn around and retrace his steps in such a narrow space; instead, he could keep going and descend on the other side.

Just think of it: these priests had to walk at considerable heights (six to ten amos) along ledges less than two feet wide - all while balancing bowls filled with blood. It must have taken some skill - and nerve.

As you might have noticed from the picture, at the point where the main ramp met the top of the altar, there was (according to some opinions) a wide gap. The gap was eight amos long (from north to south), more than one amah wide (east to west) and quite deep. What a place to stick a trench!

Its real purpose, we are told, was to allow a priest to throw sacrificial limbs from the ramp onto the top (the roof) of the altar. "Throwing" requires empty space above which to throw. The empty space had to descend all the way to the yesod. If the gap was any narrower, the ledge of the sovev below would get in the way (BT Zevachim 104a).

According to Tosafos (BT Pesachim 77a) the gap was not actually needed to fulfill the mitzva of "throwing" the sacrifices, but rather as a reminder to throw...


Even though at its base, the altar was thirty-two by thirty-two amos, the actual distance, edge to edge, at the roof level was twenty-eight by twenty-eight (this, because the sovev was one amah smaller in every direction, and the top portion another amah narrower).

The outer two amos along each edge of the roof were taken up by a slightly depressed walkway for the priests and by one-amah cubes at each corner (the keronos). That left twenty-four by twenty-four amos for real busines. In that space were (during the year) three wood piles. One, the biggest, was for the actual burning of sacrifices. Coals from the second pile were used for the incense and the third was an eternal flame.

In the center of the roof area, rising above the woodpiles, was the huge tafuach - a smooth hemisphere of ash. The ashes from burnt offerings were packed into this round shape after a day's service; the size of the pile giving witness to the willingness of the Jewish people to give of themselves and their possessions for their God (Tamid 2:2).

It was from this tafuach that the priest would take a small shovel-full of ash every morning, as part of the mitzva of "trumos hadeshen" (see Levit. 6; 3). He would dig into the pile, choosing ash from its center, then take his now-full shovel to deposit its contents on floor next to the main ramp.

On Hoshana Raba (the last day of the festival of Succos), giant aravos (willow branches) were brought into the courtyard and, while resting on the floor, were draped over the top of the altar's roof. These branches had to have measured close to twenty-five feet long (BT Succah 45a)!

Our custom of buying and later carrying bunches of willows on Hoshana Raba (the seventh day of Succos) is a reflection of this ancient Temple practice.

Return to Mikdash home page


Between the western edge of the altar and the door to the Antechamber to the heichal lay a flight of stairs stretching 22 amos from east to west and rising six amos from the floor. These stairs spanned the whole eastern face of the heichal (Tiferes Yisroel to Middos 3:6; note 61). In fact, level floor only stretched for one amah west of the mizbayach. After that, the first of the twelve stairs rose its half amah and pushed west a full amah. Each of the stairs in the Temple, the Mishna tells us, was half an amah high and half an amah deep...except for these. Here, there were four flights of three stairs each with a landing of either three or four (or, according to some, five) amos between each flight. Built into one of the landings was the laver (kiyur - but more about that later).

On the top landing (which was on the same level as the floor of the heichal), were two eighteen-amah high columns, one on each side of the huge door to the Ulam. One was called Yachin and the other Boaz. Yachin, after the Davidic dynasty which is constantly "prepared" (muchan) to return, and Boaz, after David's great-grandfather, Ruth's husband.


Stretching from the northern wall of the altar to within a few amos of the northern wall of the courtyard, was an open area known as the bais hamitpachayaim (slaughterhouse). This was the main (for want of a better expression) meat processing center of the Temple.

It was here that most of the animals destined for the altar were slaughtered (kodshei kedoshim - the sacrifices whose sanctity were highest - could be slaughtered only in this area). And it was in this open space that most animals were skinned and prepared for fulfilling their sacrificial function.

Twenty-four metal rings through which the heads of live animals could be drawn and secured for slaughter were anchored in the floor. Beyond the rings were eight marble tables on which carcasses were slit open and their fats and entrails removed. Beyond these tables were eight marble pillars with cubes of wood on top. Protruding from the cubes on three sides were nine pegs used for hanging carcasses for particularly busy days (when the tables were full).

The Mishna in Avos (5, 5) mentions one of the miracles of the Temple: Despite the raw meat lying in the hot, Israeli sun and the gallons of blood spilled all over the floor, no fly was ever seen in the area of the slaughterhouse. This, we are told, was in honor of the holy work of the altar!


The kiyur (laver) was the water vessel from which priests washed their hands and feet each time before they would participate in the Temple service. You might remember Rashi (Exodus 38; 8) telling us how the kiyur in the Mishkan was made of the mirrors used by our holy mothers while enslaved in Egypt.

Originally, the kiyur was built with two spigots - one from the top half and one from the bottom (for use later in the day when the water level was lower). As the demand grew, ten more spigots were added on the bottom.

Predictably, at the end of an average day, there would be some water left over. If left out in the kiyur overnight, this water would become unfit for its holy use, leaving no choice but to throw it out. As that would have involved a perceived indignity, a man named Ben Katin (BT Yoma 37a) invented the muchani (water well) into which the kiyur was lowered nightly. Being submerged overnight in ground water, the water in the kiyur was just as fit for use the next morning as it had been the day before.



Rising far above the rest of the Temple site was the heichal complex. The heichal and its antechamber, the Ulam, formed a massive "T", with the top bar lying to the east and following a north-south plane. The Ulam was long (one hundred amos) and very narrow (from the east wall to the west wall was only eleven amos).

As antechambers go, the Ulam boasted its fair share of attractions: While its main purpose was preparation for entry into the heichal, there were sights a-plenty to hold the interest of someone with time on his hands.

To begin with, the entrance itself was massive. The opening leading in from the top of the stairs (there was no door, but a curtain) measured twenty amos wide by forty amos high (Middos 3:7)! That's double the size of any other door in the Temple.

Above the opening were five graduated ceder beams, built both for their beauty and to support the enormous weight of the wall above - a wall that measured five amos thick!

Just inside the opening were two tables. It was on the one to the right - made of marble - where the priests used to lay the loaves of the lechem hapanim (show bread) on their way into the heichal on the Sabbath. To the left was a golden table upon which lay the lechem hapanim on their way out (after their week of sitting on the golden show bread table in the heichal).

Incidentally, the priests who happened to be on duty each week were treated to the tasty mitzva of eating the week-old bread - still miraculously warm and fresh.

At either end of the Ulam (that is to say, to the south and north ends) were chambers called the batai chaliphos. Along the walls of these rooms were cubbies used to store either the knives used in the Temple service (each watch of priests had its own cubby) or, according to some opinions, the priestly garments.

There were ceder beams connecting the wall of the Ulam with its twin, the outer wall of the heichal (the Ulam was not actually joined to the heichal, but their walls did rest on each other at the north-west and south-west corners). You can understand the need for extra support when you think about the sizes involved: Two walls, one hundred amos high, one hundred across and five thick might otherwise have trouble standing up.

On the other side - the heichal side - was the entrance to the heichal itself (ten amos wide by twenty high) and to each side of the main door, smaller doors leading into side offices.


From the Ulam into the heichal were three doors. The main passageway was through the double doors in the middle. The entrance measured ten amos wide, twenty amos high and six amos deep (that is to say, the six-amah thickness of the heichal wall left a short corridor in the doorway).

To either of the main door's sides were smaller doors. These both led into the first of rows of offices or storage rooms. We are told by the prophet Ezekiel that only one of these doors was ever used. The door to the south of the main entrance was for God's "use" alone - priests never even opened it (Middos 4:2). At sunset every Sabbath and at every new month the doors would, however, open by themselves (Ezras Kohanim to Middos 4:2).

There is an ancient argument (Middos 4:1) concerning the actual appearance of the (main) doors. Rabbi Yehuda envisioned two sets of articulated doors (doors that fold over each other), one at the "Ulam" end of the corridor and the other at the heichal end.

The Rabbis, however, saw the doors as doubled, each five amos wide and meeting in the middle of the corridor. When opened, the outer doors would fold back into the corridor and cover its wall. The inner doors would fold back to cover five amos of the inner wall of the heichal.

Aside from these short stretches, the entire inner wall of the heichal was covered with golden tiles.

Although the Mishna in Middos (3:4) describes how once every year (before Passover) the walls of the heichal were re-plastered with white lime, from a later Mishna (4:1) we see that the inside of the heichal was covered from top to bottom in gold. We must, therefore, assume that only the outer walls (those visible from outside the building) were covered in lime, while the inside was all gold.

When Ezra first began rebuilding the Temple, he didn't have the means to splash gold and silver around the way he might have liked. From where, then, did is all come? It seems there were some priests who had more than a healthy appetite for the finer things in life. And some of the finer things in life came their way in the form of the skins of olah (burnt) offerings. The skins of these offerings were meant to be shared among the priests of whichever watch happened to be on duty. However, the more ambitious priests managed to muscle their way to the front of the line and usually got the best pick.

The Talmud (BT Pesachim 57a) tells us that those officials in charge of the priests subsequently decreed that the hides would only be distributed at the end of the week's watch, when everyone would be there together and things could be better controlled. Still, however, the priests with "connections" would consistently come out ahead. So all the priests, making full use of peer pressure, agreed to dedicate their shares - wherever they might be - to the Temple treasury.

It wasn't long, the Talmud continues, before there was enough money from sales of the hides to cover the whole heichal with tablets of gold.

That's where all the money came from.

And just so people shouldn't think that the Temple treasury was mismanaged, or that the workmanship of the heichal was in any way inferior, these golden tiles were removed from the walls of the heichal every festival and piled up on the Temple Mount for everyone to see.


And finally we arrive at the center of it all; the building towards which we face every day in our prayers. As we imagine ourselves passing through the Ulam, through the double golden doors and into the huge, silent, gold-covered hall, how can we not suck in our breath from sheer awe?

Forty amos ahead hangs the first of two plush curtains. The beautifully woven material measuring nearly forty amos wide by forty high - along with its twin hanging just one amah behind it - divides the sixty amah chamber into two. The section in which we now stand - the heichal, or Kodesh - takes up forty of those amos. Beyond the curtain-wall lie the twenty amos of the Kodesh Hakedoshim (the Holy of Holies).


In the Kodesh there are three golden objects. In the center (twenty amos from each of the east and west ends, and ten amos from both the northern and southern walls) sits the golden altar (mizbach hazahav). Not imposing by virtue of its size, the altar rises only two amos from the ground and is only one and a half long and wide. It was to this altar that the morning and afternoon ketoros (incense offerings) were brought and burnt daily.

To the right and further back (to the west) than the altar, is the table (shulchan). It too, isn't enormous, but it, too, is crafted of fine wood and completely covered with gold. The table itself is only one and a half amos high, two amos long and one and a half wide. Poles, rising from the table-top, provide support for two "stacks" of golden trays. On each tray is one of the twelve loaves of the lechem hapanim (show bread). Before each Sabbath, new loaves were baked and, on Sabbath morning, brought into the heichal to replace the old ones.

To the left (the south) is the golden menorah. Each of the seven branches (not eight the way our Chanuka menoras are made...those commemorate the eight day miracle) is topped with a cup. The purest olive oil is poured into the menorah each evening and its wick is expected to burn through 'till the morning.

This holy room was the domain of only those priests directly involved with their work. One couldn't just walk in on a whim.

But this room, too, was just a pathway to the Temple's real heart; to the chamber where Israel's greatest treasure lay, where the Divine Presence rested - the Kodesh Hakedoshim. The Holy of Holies.


The curtains separating the Kodesh from the Kodesh Hakedoshim were a feature unique to the Second Temple.

When King Solomon built the First Temple, the Heichal stood only thirty amos high. It was possible to support a one amah wide wall of thirty amos. However the ceiling of the second Temple was ten amos higher, and that was more than the builders were willing to take on. Therefore, two curtains - one just behind the other - were hung from the ceiling.

Why two? Because the area of the original wall had technically belonged either to the side of the Heichal (Kodesh) or to the Holy of Holies. They weren't sure which. So to avoid the problem (because they couldn't take away from one at the expense of the other) they built the Kodesh a full forty amos long and the Holy of Holies twenty amos, with the amah between the curtains filling an extra amah above and beyond the dimensions used in the first Temple.

The curtains did not completely fill the width of the room: The outer curtain (the one to the east) was flush with the wall at its northern end and to the south was rolled back over itself a bit, leaving a space through which one could gain entrance. The western curtain was the opposite; its opening was to the north. Thus there was a way for the high priest to enter, yet those standing outside in the Heichal were unable to see the room itself.


After all the build up, you're perhaps a little unsure what to expect in the Kodesh Hakedoshim. But in light of all the wonders we've seen until now, perhaps it's the simplicity of this room which stands out more than anything else.

While it's true that the walls were coated with golden tiles (even the ceiling and floor), still, there was precious little else in the way of furniture. In the Second Temple there wasn't even a holy ark on the floor, just an empty room with carvings or paintings of ceruvim (cherubim) on the wall and the small tip of a rock (called the "even shesia") projecting out a few inches from the floor.

In the First Temple, the ark sat in the middle, its length stretched north/south and its carrying poles east/west. The two sets of tablets of the covenant (on which were carved the Ten Commandments) given to Moses by God, the staff of Aaron, a complete scroll of the Torah written why Moses himself and one jar of mon (manna) from the generation of the desert also found their place here.

Though it's impossible for us to understand how, nevertheless, for all the room's simplicity, the Divine Presence rested here. It was here that the Eternal met This World such that the greatest achievements of man could evoke as great a Divine inspiration as is possible.

Above the Kodesh Hakedoshim (and indeed, above the heichal as well) was an attic, nearly identical to the rooms below it. The space might have been used for storage of things of great value (some say that the beams and curtains of the original tabernacle from the forty wilderness years were kept there).

The part of the aliya (attic) that was directly above the Kodesh Hakedoshim had a pattern of holes in the floor. If repairs to the walls of the Kodesh Hakedoshim below were ever needed, elevator-like boxes with workers inside were lowered through these holes.


The aron hakodesh (the holy ark - remember, the ark wasn't present through the Second Temple era) was actually a small golden box (two and a half amos long, one and a half wide and one and a half high). More accurately, it was three small boxes, one inside the other. The outer and inner layers were solid gold and the middle layer was wood. covering the top opening of the box was a golden board called the kaporos.

Built over the kaporos (all from one piece of gold), were two winged figures with baby-like faces - the ceruvim. In Solomon's Temple, there were also ceruvime standing on the floor at each end of the aron, their wings stretched behind and above them, filling the room.

Miraculously, although the aron and the ceruvim above it were very large, from the perspective of an observer standing in the room, they took up no space (in other words, you could walk through the space where the figures were supposed to be).

Next to the aron on the floor (again, of the first Temple) lay Aaron the priest's staff (see Numbers 17:16-26) and a jar of mon (mana) left over from the Jews' sojourn in the desert (see Exodus 16:32 and Rashi).

Rashi tells us that in the time of the prophet Jeremiah this jar was taken out and shown to the nation. It seems that their struggle for physical survival didn't leave them enough time for Torah study, so the man of God pointed to the jar of manna, saying:

"Your fathers were sustained in the desert for forty years through the miracle of the manna. Just as their food was provided then, so now are there many ways for God to send your needs..."


Hidden behind the golden walls of the heichal was a whole complex of offices, storage rooms, building structural support and drainage systems. The offices were reached through the small door to the right (north) of the main door to the heichal.

First thing each morning, a priest would use two keys and a lot of stretching to open this small door. Entering, he would find himself in a small room with three more doors leading in new directions. One door led into the space between the two sets of heichal doors. Once there, the priest would open the inside doors, then the outer doors from the inside. Another door led to the first of the offices and a third led outside to a spiral staircase.

In all, there were thirty-eight offices forming a "u" shape around the bottom twenty amos of the heichal. On the heichal's north and south sides were three levels of five offices each (totaling fifteen to a side). To the west, the bottom two levels boasted three offices each, with two more above those.

Doors opened from each of the offices to those on either side, and those furthest east were open to the Ulam. Not only were there doors from one office to its neighbors to each side, but there were staircases from one level to the next. Each office also had a window for light. The opinion of the Rambam is quite different. In his model, there are six east-west strips of offices lying one next to the other - three to the south of the heichal complex and three to the north. The remaining eight offices lay to the west.

We don't really know what each of the offices was used for, but we can assume that some were for storage and others were for administrative purposes.

Return to Mikdash home page

Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada). You may reach him here with comments and questions

The complete "Mikdash - A Tour of Jerusalem's Second Temple" can be purchased here.

Rabbi Clinton's essays on a wide range of Torah-related subjects can be found at marbitz.com.

Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Boruch Clinton