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A Day In The Temple by Rev. A.J. Maas S.J.

There was a gentle rap at the door of the sleeping apartment in the House of Stoves or the Beth-Moked. Matthiah the prefect of the lots was at the door. Standing in the dining room, he was surrounded by ten priests of the course of Abijah who had been on duty as watchmen during the night. For though the Hebrews divided the night into three, and later into four night-watches, lasting four and three hours respectively, they did not change the nightly Temple-guard. No sooner has Matthiah knocked, than the door is opened to him. Did Jesus allude to this custom, when He said: “Watch therefore; for ye know not when the Lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning?” The words of the Rabbis render such an allusion very probable: “Sometimes he came at the cockcrowing, sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later,” is the Rabbinic formula regarding the arrival of the prefect of the lots.

“All ye who have washed, come and cast lots,” says Matthiah glancing rapidly through the sleeping apartment. And a strange spectacle it presents, a sight more amusing than interesting to a western observer. The scanty yellow light of a solitary lamp hanging from the ceiling reveals to us, at first, a mass of stalwart men, thirty or more in number, all clad in white close-fitting tunics of linen, or byssus, reaching down to their heels, all wearing a kind of turban of the same material, and all girded with a broad byssus sash, having ornaments of purple, scarlet and blue embroidered upon it. The strict uniformity in all particulars, down to the narrow sleeves, shows us immediately that we have before us the pattern of the priestly attire.

Allowing the men to pass, for they seem eager to begin their daily round of duties, we enter a moment and examine the sleeping apartment. The ceiling, we notice at once, is part of a vaulted roof, which must cover the whole one-storied building. The sides of the room are not perpendicular, as they seemed at first, but they are merely sets of stone-stairs leading up almost to the very ceiling. The lowest step, broader than the succeeding ones, apparently serves as a bench. But the uppermost step is broadest of all. The tall figures which now begin to stir on it, show that it is a recess rather than a mere step or shelf. Abiathar the head of that division of Abijah’s course, which will be on duty to-day, and a number of ancients belonging to the same division, descend from the top of the stone-stairs and proceed to a door in the northeastern corner of the sleeping apartment.

But what is moving in front of us, on the very floor? We cannot be deceived; there are more human forms stretched out at full length, and covered with their simlahs, their heads resting on pillows. Near the head of every one, there lies a small bundle of clothing which he snatches up as he rises and moves like the rest towards the door in the northeastern corner. If we may believe Matthiah, the little parcel contains the four pieces of priestly apparel; the short breeches covering merely the hips and thighs, the alb, the girdle and the cap or turban. They are given by Pinchas the wardrobe-keeper to every priest, when he comes to the Temple on the eve of his daily ministry.

And here rises Ben Gabar the chief door-keeper from his undignified place of nightly rest. Instead of going immediately to the door in the northeastern corner, he takes hold of a stout iron ring on which he has been lying, and assisted by Matthiah he lifts up a thick marble slab, one cubit square, under which the Temple-keys are fastened to an iron chain. The keys are unfastened and then Ben Gabar follows his colleagues to the mysterious northeastern corner, where he disappears like the rest.

We easily understand the reason why all the late risers pass through this same door. Descending a spiral stairway, and passing through a long vaulted corridor, they come to their well appointed bathrooms. For no priest may enter upon his sacred services without having taken a bath in the morning. As soon as one has performed his legal ablution, he vacates the room for his successor and goes to the furnace, where he dries himself before the fire and then puts on his priestly apparel. After this he may return through the same vaulted passage, lit up at both ends, and join his fellow-priests in the ministry.

The morning bath renders the priest fit for a whole day’s service; but it must be renewed after every occasion of doing his needs. Moses’s precept, however, that “if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall bathe all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even” is rigorously observed in the Temple. In such a case, the priest rises at night, takes his bath and returns to rest until the morning. Instead of joining the other priests in the sacred ministry, he must, in the morning, leave the Beth-Moked by its northern door—the others passing through the southern gate into the Court of Priests—and remain the whole day at the eastern entrance to the Court of Women in order to show the passers-by that he is excluded from the ministry on account of some Levitical uncleanness.

Leaving the late sleepers at their ablutions, we return to the crowd of eager men whom we met on entering with Matthiah the sleeping apartment of the Beth-Moked. They had risen early enough to perform their ablutions before the arrival of the prefect of the lots. In spite of his advanced age, Zachary was of their number. Long ago should his nightly resting place have been among the elders on the uppermost shelf of Beth-Moked. But Abiathar has long been accustomed to neglect Zachary, because he has not raised seed in Israel. And again, Zachary is a good and contented old man who may be overlooked with impunity. For even in the Temple-courts of Jehovah the maxim that a contented man is happy anywhere, and that it would be a pity to disturb him, being happy where and as he is, makes itself felt. Zachary’s pillow has, therefore, these many years remained on the floor among the very youngest of the officiating priesthood, while the discontented and the loud have obtained more than their rights.

Matthiah opens the wicket in the large door which leads from the dining room into the Court of Priests, and all who are ready follow him into the outer darkness. Here they divide into two companies, each carrying a torch. For the Temple is lit up only on the Sabbath, when the torches may, therefore, be dispensed with. One company passes eastwards, the other westwards, to make the circuit of inspection. In order to follow them more intelligently, we must remember that the Temple-court is a rectangle, one hundred and eighty-seven cubits in length and a hundred and thirty-five cubits in width. A wall, twenty-five cubits high from the level of the Court of Priests, surrounds the whole, extending on the east side a hundred and thirty-five cubits beyond the Court of Israel, so as to inclose the Court of Women. A single porch, resting on a double row of columns, the height of which is forty cubits from their base, but only twenty-five cubits from the level of the Court of Priests, runs around the in closed space in such a manner that the last row of columns is built into the wall. A balustrade, three cubits high, divides, on the east side, the Court of Priests from the Court of Israel. Both are one hundred and thirty-five cubits wide; but the former is a hundred and seventy-six cubits in length, while the latter is only eleven cubits long.

The Beth-Moked from which the two companies of priests start on their circuit of inspection, is situated in the northeastern corner of the Court of Priests. The company proceeding eastwards, along the northern wall, soon passes the Gate of Sacrifices and the Chamber Parvah. Here the skins of the sacrificed animals are salted, and the upper story contains the high-priest’s bathrooms, Proceeding a little further, they pass the chamber containing the store of the sacrificial salt, and, close by, the Gate Nitzutz or Sparkgate, in the northeast corner of the Priests’ Court. In the room above Nitzutz, ten more priests are preparing to join their companions in their ministerial duties, though they have been watching all night. For we must keep in mind that three of the twenty-four night-guards of the Temple, must be supplied from the ranks of the priests: that in Beth-Moked, that in Nitzutz, and that in the Chamber Abtinas. Thirty priests and two hundred and ten Levites are, therefore, on duty every night.

Leaving Nitzutz to the left, the company of patroling priests turns to the south, passing along the balustrade which separates, at its eastern extremity, the Priests’ Court from that of the Israelites. The scanty light of the solitary torch does not reveal the boundary-line of the Court of Women to our left or the Temple proper and the altar of burnt-offerings to our right. The dull footfall of the bare-footed priests on the marble flooring is the only sound perceptible throughout the vast expanse of the Temple buildings. Hence the Rabinnic answer to the question: “What is the nightly cry in the Temple court?” points to only one possible explanation: “It is the cry of the Levite who is beaten and has his clothes burned.” For, according to rule, the guard who does not rise at the approach of the Temple-captain and salute in the proper manner, or who is found asleep when on duty, is beaten and has his garments set on fire. Does St. John allude to this rule when he says: “Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments?”

The second company of patroling priests has, meanwhile, passed from Beth-Moked along the western wall to its southern extremity, and there, turning to the east, has followed the southern boundary-line of the Priests’ Court. In the southwestern corner they passed the Wood-Gate; through this the altar-wood is carried into its proper room. Above and beyond it, are the apartments of the high priest and the assembly chamber of the honorable members of the “Priestly-Council” for affairs strictly connected with the Temple. Further east, Matthiah and his band passed the Gate of Firstlings through which the first-born fit for sacrifice were brought; there was also the Chamber Golah with the water apparatus which filled and emptied the laver. And finally, in the southeastern corner of the court, Matthiah’s torch revealed the Water-Gate through which the water was brought on the Feast of Tabernacles, and near by, the Gazith, or hall of square polished stones, where the Sanhedrin assembled. Matthiah here repeated: “All ye who have washed, come and cast lots.” At the sound of these words, ten more young men, clad in Sacerdotal attire, descended from the Chamber Abtinas above the Water-Gate, and joined the priestly patrol. They had been on guard during the night, and since there was a bathroom connected with the chamber, they could join the ministering priests without first going to the Beth-Moked for their morning bath.

Matthiah’s band now turns northwards, following the balustrade at the eastern extremity of the court and after a few seconds it meets the first company coming southward, along the same balustrade. Those who are not too near the torches, or too much occupied with the cares of the new day, enjoy a most sublime spectacle. The sky overhead reminds one forcibly of the promise Abraham received, when he was told to look up to the stars, which, innumerable as they seemed, his posterity was to outnumber. The heavenly bodies do not merely shine afar, like gems inlaid in the firmament, but they seem to hang down like lamps radiant with unspeakable splendor, and beyond them one looks away into the infinite. That the stars should be adored as so many divinities in the countries neighboring on Palestine, in Syria and Mesopotamia, at a time when God’s revelation had grown dim, and religious error was rampant among most nations of the earth, seems as natural as the admiration of the child at the whirl of a leaf and at the flow of water. For it is not the lot of unassisted human nature to rise through nature up to nature’s God, like David does in his royal psalms: “O Jehovah, our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens. When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained—what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” And what weight of meaning do not the words of Balaam the son of Beor, acquire under such circumstances: “I see him, but not now: I behold him, but not nigh: there shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab.”

The two companies stand face to face. “Peace,” the first salutes. “All in peace,” the second answers. “It is well! all is well!” perhaps gives the meaning of these reports more accurately. Then three priests are deputed to prepare the high priest’s meat-offering. They pass through the wide opening in the middle of the balustrade, descend two or three steps, each of which is half a cubit high, and crossing the Court of the Israelites, eleven cubits in width, they stand opposite the Nicanor Gate. Instead of passing through its heavy double doors, they turn to the right, and enter the chamber of the high priest’s meat-offering. Here they mix one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour with oil. This mixture is then kneaded and baked in a flat pan, the Machabath, whence the whole, at a later period, will be known simply as the “baked” or the Chabitim.

Matthiah, with his two companies of priests, turns to the Hall of Polished Stones or the Gazith, in the southeastern corner of the court, in order to determine by lot who is to cleanse and prepare the altar of burnt-offerings. In former times, this office was not so determined, but was decided by a kind of running match. The priest who first reached the altar had a right to perform this duty. For many years was this primitive way of determining the proper person found sufficient, till on a certain day two priests claimed to have reached the altar at the same moment. A painful scene followed, and we are told that one of the rivals fell headlong on the marble floor from the circuit which ran around the altar of burnt-offerings, a height of six cubits.

Arrived at the Gazith, all the priests stand in a circle around Matthiah, and the latter seizes the cap of the one most convenient to his reach. By doing so, he binds himself to begin his count from the priest whose head he has uncovered. But is it not unlawful to count persons in Israel? For this very reason, every one present lifts up one, two or three fingers to serve as the object of the count. Matthiah loudly and distinctly says “seventy-two”—he might have named any other number as the decisive one—and then counts the uplifted fingers till he reaches seventy-two. The lot falls on him whose fingers are counted last. A simpler way of determining by lot can hardly be imagined.

Zachary and a few of his most elderly companions approach Abdiah on whom the lot has fallen, and tell him that the silver chafing-dish is deposited in the western corner between the altar and its inclined access, warning him at the same time not to touch it or any other sacred vessel before having washed his hands and feet. For the hands and feet must be washed each time, however often, the priests come for service into the Temple or its courts. Abdiah leaves Gazith immediately, and proceeds in the dark, without taking a light with him. The fire of the altar is supposed to give light sufficient for his purpose. As to the washing of hands and feet, the laver of brass is huge enough to be found without difficulty, even in the dark of night. Situated between the altar and the porch of the Temple, a little to the south, it rests on twelve colossal lions; it has been altered by Ben Catin so as to enable twelve priests to perform their ablutions at the same time. Drained every evening, because the water standing in the laver overnight would be legally unclean, it is filled in the morning by machinery, constructed by the same Ben Catin. Rabbinic fable has it that the sound of the machinery as it fills the laver, can be heard as far as Jericho. Whatever truth there may be in this, the sound certainly admonishes the priests collected in the Gazith as well as those who are still in the Beth-Moked to keep themselves in readiness. Abdiah at the laver, laying the right hand on the right foot and the left hand on the left foot, allows the thin stream of water flowing from the nearest faucet to run over them successively. A turn of the spigot, and the ablution is performed. “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean wholly.”

In order to understand the further course of Abdiah, we have to keep in mind the peculiar construction of the altar of holocausts to which he proceeds. It forms, indeed, the most prominent object in the Court of Priests. A square of thirty-two cubits, built of unhewn stones, it rises one cubit, and then narrows one cubit all around, so as to form a square of thirty cubits; again it rises five cubits, and contracts another cubit all around, thus presenting the appearance of an outer circuit. Finally, it rises three more cubits, a pile twenty-eight cubits in length and twenty-eight cubits in breadth, after which it seems to form a level surface. Its four corners, however, bear each a prominence, called horn, a cubit long, a cubit broad, a cubit high. Not including the marginal spaces, the corners of which are occupied by the horns, the upper surface of the altar is a square of twenty-six cubits. But not even this space is wholly reserved for sacrificial purposes. A sunken footway, one cubit wide and two cubits deep, runs at the distance of one cubit from the sides all around the altar, giving the ministering priests a suitable circuit to walk in The actual surface of the altar is, therefore, a square of twenty-four cubits.

To sum up, the altar appears to consist of three parts: the base, thirty-two cubits square and one cubit high; the middle part, thirty cubits square and five cubits high; the top, twenty-eight cubits square and three cubits high. A look at the surface of the altar reveals three other characteristic features: the main part of the altar, a square of twenty-four cubits; the footway surrounding the main part on all sides, one cubit wide and two cubits deep; the external wall of the depressed circuit, one cubit thick and two cubits high, bearing on each of the four corners a horn, one cubit high, one cubit wide, one cubit long, and surrounding the whole altar except on the southern side where the inclined plane leads up to the altar. Here the wall of the groove is omitted, so as to give free access to the sacerdotal circuit.

But to return to Abdiah. No sooner has he washed his hands and feet, than he goes towards the southern part of the altar. Here he meets the inclined plane, thirty-two cubits long and sixteen cubits wide, which leads up to the priests’ circuit. He first turns to the left and takes the silver chafing-dish which stands in the corner between the inclined ascent and the altar, and then rapidly walks up to the fire place on the altar. Scraping the fire, he removes the burnt coals and deposits them, three palms east of the inclined plane and twelve yards north of its rise. Finally, without turning in the narrow circuit—he had entered it by the right side—he walks around the sacrificial square and regains the inclined plane by the left opening of the circuit.

Abdiah’s first service over, all the other priests advance from the Gazith to the laver to wash their hands and feet. Then taking shovels and three-pronged forks, they ascend the altar, move aside whatever remains of yesterday’s sacrifices, and place the pieces on the sides of the altar. When the number of sacrifices offered on the previous day has been very great, the remaining pieces are deposited on the inclined plane. Next, the ashes are cleaned out and partly piled up on the round ash-heap in the middle of the altar, called “apple” from its spherical form. If to-day were a great feast-day, the ashes would remain on the altar, being reputed both an ornament and a certain sign that a great many sacrifices have been offered on the day preceding. As it is, part of the ashes is deposited in a place whence it will be removed during the course of the day.

Before parting, look once more at the “apple.” It presents a very ordinary appearance, rendered still less remarkable by the little light thrown on it from the gleaming coals of the altar. Zachary too considers it very carefully. He has read in the Midrash that this diminutive looking heap holds, at times, upwards of three hundred cors of ashes. Measuring with his eye the whole surface of the altar, he cannot understand how even the square of twenty-four cubits can hold that amount. For he has never realized that the Rabbinic Doctors avowedly exaggerate in three points: regarding the quantity of ashes contained in the “apple,” the size of the grapes in the Temple-porch, and the precious veil.

All the priests now descend from the altar, retiring by the left, and proceed to the Wood-Chamber, in the southwestern corner of the Temple-court. They return without delay, carrying each a certain amount of fuel. Abdiah, the foremost of all, bearing on his shoulder a log, is followed by Zachary and several other priests, all burdened with logs. The pieces on the shoulders and in the arms of the priests following these, are of a more diminutive size. Were it daylight, we should perceive that all the wood looks remarkably healthy; it shows no trace of corruption, no mark of the woodworm. In fact, before it is brought to the Wood-Chamber, a number of priests not actually engaged in the ministry of the altar, examine it piece by piece, and reject everything infected with any sign of legal impurity.

Abdiah places the great logs on the fire of holocausts at the eastern side of the altar, while the other priests deposit their smaller pieces either on the same fire or on another at the northern side of the altar; the latter is constantly kept up to supply the means for kindling the fire of sacrifices and the fire of incense, in case they should be extinguished. The fire of incense, kept on the south side of the altar, supplies the coals for the burning of incense in the inner Temple. Any kind of wood, excepting the vine and the cultivated olive, may serve as fuel for the eastern and the northern fires, though the wood of the fig, the nut and the wild olive is especially sought. Later Rabbis have given various reasons for the exclusion of the cultivated olive and the vine from the use of the altar. R. Papa says that they turn too soon into ashes; others think that the many knurs and knarls found in them, would prevent their smoke from ascending perpendicularly; Rabbi Acha, with a number of others, supposes that the vine and olive were excluded from this use, because they are the principal food-furnishing woods, and their sacrificial use would have proved very detrimental to the community. The fuel for the fire of incense is the wood of the fig-tree, or according to some, of the wild fig-tree, because this kind of wood gives very solid and durable coals, such as are needed on the altar of incense.

The three woodpiles, built in furnace-shape, being completed, the priests gather up the pieces of unburnt sacrifice, on the sides of the altar, and place them alongside the wood on the fire of burnt-offerings, set the three piles on fire, and leaving the altar by the left, return to the Gazith.

Meanwhile, a singular conversation took place in the furnace room of the Beth-Moked. Abiathar had taken his morning bath in the most leisurely way possible. Before he completed his dress, all the priests had left the lower part of the House of Stoves, excepting Obed, his life-long companion, a Herodian and scribe by profession.

“Didst thou see the son of the cursed Babylonian?” Abiathar addresses his friend.

“Thou sayest it,” Obed replies in his dignified and calm manner. There is silence for several minutes, Obed looking abstractedly into the glowing fire, and Abiathar arranging his gray and venerable beard.

“Why dost thou try my patience?” resumes Abiathar, when he perceives that his companion will not continue his report without further inquiry. “What thinkest thou of our plan?”

“It has failed, Abiathar,” laconically answers Obed.

“Thy speech is a sore trial for my soul,” angrily says Abiathar. “Hast thou seen Salome, and informed her that Josiah’s offspring is returned?”

“I have spoken to the king’s sister, Abiathar,” answers Obed; “I have heard from her own lips that Herod has given full permission for the restoration of Josiah’s family.”

“Canst thou tell me this in cold blood?” Abiathar rather hisses than speaks. “Rememberest thou not that through thy exertions Josiah was condemned to death with the other members of the Sanhedrin, was discovered in his safe hiding-place and dragged to the place of execution? Hast thou forgotten that thy own hand has blotted Josiah’s and Ananiah’s names from the priestly registers, and has forged the legal transfer of his family estate to thy own name?”

“Abiathar,” contemptuously answers Obed, “if I have shed blood once, I may shed it again; what my hand has done in Josiah’s case, it can do in thine own. Hast thou not trained me well in all the arts of deceit and cunning? Is it not for thee that I have exchanged the way of righteousness and the law of Jehovah with the crooked paths of sin and the tyranny of Herod? Thou holdest the office that belonged to Josiah’s family for ages, presidest in his place over the course of Abijah, sittest in his chair in the council of the Sanhedrin. My fortune will follow me to Rome, Antioch or Babylon; if thou leavest Jerusalem, thou leavest all thy possession.”

“Let not thy mouth speak foolishness,” soothingly whispers Abiathar; “Josiah’s family is not yet restored. Its registers are destroyed, and as to Ananiah’s wife, I have taken care not to have her name entered on the list of Israelites.”

“All thy care has been vain,” simply retorts Obed. “Matthiah has procured Ismeria’s genealogical record from Babylon.”

“This must not be,” excitedly exclaims Abiathar.

“The walls hear thee, friend,” coolly remarks Obed. “It shall not be, if I can obtain possession of the document for a single moment.”

“Knowest thou who keeps the record?” anxiously questions Abiathar.

“That is my secret,” replies Obed. “Keep thou Zachary from the room of Pinchas, when the priests change dress.”

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