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

From May till October rain is unknown in Palestine; the sun shines with unclouded brightness day after day. Not even the coolness of the night finds enough of moisture in the hot summer air to chill into dew-drops. The heat becomes intense, the ground is hard, and vegetation would perish but for the moist west winds that blow every night from the sea. In spite of the growing heat, for the sun is now approaching the highest point in the heavens, there is a remarkable stir in and near the Hall of Polished Stones. Great numbers enter by the Wood Gate so as to approach the Gazith without passing through the Court of Women or the Court of Israel.

The arrival of the high priest in the assembly causes a sudden lull in the noisy conversation, and the underhand canvassing that has been going on for the last hour. The members of the Sanhedrin sit in a form like the half of a threshing floor. Matthiah the high priest and his assistant, the Sagan Joseph ben Ellem, walk up to the farthest end of the semicircular row of seats, and there Matthiah occupies the place of the president or Nasi, while Joseph ben Ellem is seated at his right, being the vice-president or Ab-beth-din for the time. The total number of the members, including the president and the vice-president, is seventy-one. At the two ends of the semicircle, facing the assembled Sanhedrin, are seated the two clerks of the court, one at the right extremity, and the other at the left. It is their duty to record the votes of the fathers. There also, in front of the court, sit three rows of disciples of the learned men, each of whom has his own special seat assigned to him.

Whenever a disciple is called to fill a vacant office of judge, one of those in the foremost row is chosen. His place is supplied by one from the second row, and a member from the third line is advanced to the second. Some one from the congregation is then chosen to fill the vacancy thus created in the third row. The newly chosen member does not, however, step directly into the place occupied by the one last promoted from the third row, but he is seated according to his condition. That all the members of the Sanhedrin are Jews of pure blood, is a matter of course. But the criminal judge above all must prove his legal extraction by the most trustworthy evidence. For the received maxim has it: “Any one is qualified to act as judge in civil causes. But none are competent to deal with criminal cases except priests, Levites and Israelites whose daughters it is lawful for priests to marry.”

But it must not be imagined that by means of these provisions the Sanhedrin has been kept entirely free from corruption. Even the people’s voice loudly attests the contrary. “What a scourge is the family of Boëthus,” they say; “may their lances perish!” “What a scourge is the family of Annas,” will soon be added. “May their viper’s hissing perish!” And another few years later it will be said: “What a scourge is the family of Ismael ben Phabi; may their fists perish! They themselves are high priests, their sons are treasurers, their sons-in-law are captains, their servants strike the people with rods,”

According to the same testimony, the Temple court sent forth a loud cry on four different occasions. First it exclaimed: “Depart from hence, descendants of Heli; you sully the Temple of the Eternal.” Then: “Depart from hence, Issachar of Kefar Barkai, who dost not respect any one but thyself, and profanest what is consecrated unto heaven.” Thirdly: “Open wide, ye gates of the sanctuary! give access to Ismael ben Phabi, the disciple of the whimsical, that he may officiate in his functions.” The fourth cry of the Temple sounded: “Expand, ye gates, and admit Ananias the son of Nebedaios, the disciple of the glutton, that he may sate himself with sacrificial meat.”

In that august assembly, as it sits before us, we recognize three constituent elements, the college of priests, the college of scribes and the college of elders. Among the first class is, besides the high priest Matthiah and his assistant the Sagan Joseph ben Ellen, Abiathar the chief of Abijah’s course. There, too, sits Matthiah the prefect of lots, and Joazar son of Simon Boëthus, and Eleazar another son of Simon, and Annas who is so well known to us from the Gospels. Among his contemporaries, the latter passed as the most happy of men, though he earned also the name of a cruel and proud pontiff.

Among the scribes we recognize the famous Hillel and several of his pupils, such as Onkelos, Jonathan ben Uzziel, and Hillel’s son Simeon. Joseph of Arimathea among the ancients will make himself renowned in the history of Jesus.

But it is especially among the disciples that we find a great number of members who will enter into close relation, friendly or hostile, with Jesus. Not to mention Joseph Caiphas, the principal agent in the judicial murder of Jesus, not to speak of the five sons of Annas and Simon Cantheras, we see there Gamaliel, Samuel Hakkaton, Chananias ben Chiskia, Jochanan ben Zaccai, the youthful Nicodemus and Ismael ben Phabi.

It must not astonish us to find so many members of the same family holding rank in this body of Jewish officials. For practically, the high priesthood at this period is vested in a few privileged families. Within the years 37 B. C. to 68 A. D. three of the high priests belonged to the family of Phabi, six to that of Boëthus, eight to that of Annas, and three to the family of Kamith. Leaving Ananel a Babylonian of humble origin, Aristobulus the last of the Asmonæans, and Phannias the high priest of the revolution period, out of account, there remain only five who cannot be proved to have belonged to one or another of those families, though they may have done so.

It must also be kept in mind that all the principal priestly families belong to the Sadducees, while most of the scribes and elders are Pharisees. The former acknowledge only the written Thorah as binding, and reject the entire traditionary interpretation and further development of the law by the scribes. For “only what is written, is to be esteemed as legal. What has come down by the tradition of the fathers needs not be observed.”

The specific legal differences between the two parties are of minor interest. In penal legislation the Sadducees are more severe than the Pharisees. The former always strictly adhere to the letter of the law, while the latter mitigate its severity by interpretation. The same is the case in questions of ritual.

The dogmatic tenets of the Sadducees are of greater consequence. They do not believe in the resurrection of the body, retribution in a future life, and any personal continuity of the individual after death. The existence of angels and spirits they entirely deny, and according to them “good and evil are at the choice of man, who can do the one or the other at his discretion.”

But though the Sadducean high priests are at the head of the Sanhedrin, the decisive influence in public affairs is in the hands of the Pharisees. The latter have the bulk of the nation on their side, they exercise the greatest influence on the congregations, so that all the acts of public worship, prayers and sacrifices are performed according to their injunctions. Even the Sadducees, in their public acts, adhere to the regulations of the Pharisees, because otherwise the multitude would not tolerate them.

These different parties constituting the Sanhedrin, it cannot surprise us that precisely those questions are decided before it, which the scribes believe to belong to that body. A tribe charged with idolatry, a false prophet, or a high priest are to be tried only before the Court of the Seventy-one. A voluntary war is to be commenced only after the decision of the Seventy-one has been given in regard to it. There is to be no. enlargement of the city or of the Temple courts, till after the Court of the Seventy-one has decided the matter. Superior courts for the tribes are to be instituted only when sanctioned by the Sanhedrin. A town that has been seduced into idolatry is to be dealt with only by the Court of the Seventy-one.

Accordingly the high priest may be tried by the Sanhedrin, though the king is as little amenable to its authority as he is at liberty to become one of its members. The New Testament gives us several particular instances of trials before the Sanhedrin. Here Jesus appears on the charge of blasphemy, Sts. Peter and John on the charges of being false prophets and deceivers of the people; St. Stephen is accused before this tribunal of being a blasphemer, and St. Paul of transgressing the Mosaic law.

To-day’s business involves no criminal matter; it is rather sacred and inquisitive in its nature. A number of candidates have presented themselves for the priesthood, and their genealogies as well as their other qualifications must first be approved of by the Court of the Seventy-one. The high priest opens the meeting with a few words concerning the special business of the day.

“Our forefathers,” he says, “made provision that the priestly families should continue unmixed and pure. For he who is a member of the priesthood must propagate of a wife of our nation, without having any regard to money or dignities. He must make scrutiny, and take his wife’s genealogy from the ancient tables, and procure many witnesses to it. This is our law and practice not only in Judea, but wheresoever there lives anybody of our nation. For in Egypt, and at Babylon, and whithersoever our priests are scattered, exact catalogues of their marriages are kept. To Jerusalem they send the ancient names of their parents in writing, as well as those of their remoter ancestors, and signify also who are the witnesses. And if any war falls out, such as have fallen out a great many times, as when Antiochus Epiphanes made an invasion upon our country, or when Pompey the Great did so, those priests that survive him, compose new tables of genealogy out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain. Those that have been captives are not admitted to the priests’ marriage, because they may have had intercourse with Gentiles. For the space of two thousand years we possess the names of our high priests from father to son, set down in our records, and if any of these have been trangressors of the rules, they have been prohibited to present themselves at the altar, and to be partakers of any of our purifications. To-day we are called upon to do according to the manner of our ancestors. Let the records of genealogy be inspected, and a worthy priesthood be prepared unto Jehovah.”

“The law of God is clear and plain to every one: Whoever of thy seed throughout their families, hath a blemish, he shall not offer bread to his God, neither shall he approach to minister to him. If he be blind, if he be lame, if he have a little or a great or a crooked nose, if his foot or his hand be broken, if he be crook-backed or blear-eyed, or have a pearl in his eye, or a continual scab, or a dry scurf in his body, or a rupture. Whoever of the seed of Aaron the priest hath a blemish, he shall not approach to offer sacrifices to the Lord, nor bread to his God; he shall eat nevertheless of the loaves, that are offered in the sanctuary, yet so that he enter not within the veil, nor approach to the altar, because he hath a blemish, and he must not defile my sanctuary. I am the Lord who sanctify them.”

Matthiah is evidently fatigued by his speech. Never before has he delivered so long an oration in public. Well satisfied with the performance of his arduous duty, he commands the secretaries to proceed with the list of candidates’ names. So many as eighteen young men are about to undergo the double trial of their fitness for the sacerdotal office, the scrutiny into their genealogy and into their bodily qualifications for the ministry of the altar. Regarding seventeen of them there is no difficulty as to the first-point to be established. Their fathers’ names are inscribed in the archives of Jeshana at Zipporim, so that no further inquiry is needed, or their mothers are the daughters of priests who have ministered at the altar, or of Levites who have sung in the choir, or of members of the Sanhedrin. For it is a general rule that those whose ancestors have been public officials or almoners, are at liberty to marry one belonging to the priesthood without further inquiry. Samuel’s case is not so clear; hence his genealogical register will be investigated, after it has been established whether the other seventeen are free from bodily blemish.

Had the Sadducees alone been in the Sanhedrin, this investigation would have been extremely simple. A look at the candidate’s eye, nose, hand, foot and back, together with a general investigation into his health, would have sufficed to settle the question beyond all reasonable doubt. But as things now stand, the minute regulations of the scribes must be followed. There are more than one hundred and forty physical defects which disqualify the candidate permanently for the priestly office, and twenty-two which do so temporarily. If any one has a pointed skull, or is radish-headed, or has no occiput, or has a humpback with a bone in the hump, or is so bald as not to have any hair between his ears, or if he has no eyelashes or only one eyebrow, or if his eyebrows hang down over his eyelashes, or if he has double eyelashes, or has not enough of an elevation between his eyes to prevent their being blackened at the same time, if his eyes are higher or lower, or either of them is higher or lower than their ordinary place, or if he is squint-eyed, or cannot bear the light in his eyes, or if his eyes are of a different color, or if they are constantly running, or if the eyelashes have fallen off, or if he is ox-eyed, or goose-eyed, or if his body bears no proportion to his members, or if his nose is too long, or too small, or if his eyes are small, or spongelike, if his upper lip is larger than his lower lip, or vice versa, if he has no teeth, if his belly protrudes, or his navel stands out, if he be epileptic, or melancholy, or bowlegged, or knock-kneed, or if he be goose-footed, or left-handed, or have six fingers, or six toes, or is black, or red, or white, or deaf, or foolish, or a giant, or a dwarf, in all these cases he cannot minister at the altar. Other impediments we cannot here state, either because they refer to parts of the body which we may not mention, or because they are already comprised in the general irregularities thus far stated. The nose, e.g., must be of the length of the small finger; the degree of baldness too is accurately determined and a superfluous member always must be examined whether it is merely a fleshy excrescence or has a bone in it.

Besides these irregularities which prevent priests’ sons forever from offering sacrifices or entering into the Holy Place, there are twenty-two temporary impediments. If any one has, e.g., married a slave or a captive, or one who gets her living by cheating trades, or by keeping inns, or a divorced woman, he cannot ascend the altar till he has bound himself by vow not to profit by such a marriage. With all these restrictions, it is easily understood why five of the seventeen candidates are declared unfit for the ministry of the altar. The emoluments of the priesthood they will indeed share—for they belong to the sacerdotal clan—but its highest and proper duties they cannot ever hope to fulfill. Most of their life will be spent in the Wood Chamber situated in the Court of Women. There they will pick out the worm-eaten pieces of wood from among those that are sound and fit for the service of the altar of burnt-offering.

Finally, Samuel is called upon to undergo the twofold scrutiny. The secretary reads his name and the name of his father Ananiah the son of Josiah, who was slain by Herod together with forty-four other members of the Sanhedrin, the very year in which the king conquered the Holy City. They had been the most faithful adherents of Antigonus’ party, and their fidelity was revenged even on their families; their wives and children. Had not Ananiah been accidentally out of the city at that time, he too would have been slain without mercy. It was only Zachary’s generosity that prevented Ananiah’s death and helped him in his flight to Babylon. During the reading of these brief items, the scribes and elders in the Sanhedrin show a considerable amount of anger and passion, while the Sadducean and Herodian members of the body are overawed by sentiments of fear and anxiety.

Matthiah the high priest even proposes to omit the investigation of Samuel’s case fraught as it is with danger not only for himself but also for the august Council of the nation. Or is it not always expedient to sacrifice the welfare of the individual for that of the body? But the scribes and the Pharisees cry out against such a mode of proceeding, and unanimously insist on having Samuel’s case examined. Abiathar suggests that the scrutiny might be undertaken at any rate, and if Samuel proves all necessary conditions satisfactorily, it must be left to his own discretion whether he will exercise the priestly functions. Herod may, in the meantime, be informed of all that has been done by the Seventy-one.

Though Abiathar does not speak through real sympathy for Samuel, but only to remove his youthful rival forever from the priestly functions and from the dignity of the Council, his advice pleases every one. For the scribes and Pharisees believe that they will be able to influence Herod in favor of Samuel, so that the latter will be allowed to perform the duties of his calling in safety. Regarding Samuel’s genealogy down to his father there is no difficulty, his grandfather Josiah having ministered at the altar and having been a member of the Sanhedrin. Hence the only question to be discussed regards his mother’s genealogy.

For “when a priest wants to marry the daughter of a priest, he must go back and find evidence with regard to four generations of mothers, and therefore, strictly speaking, with regard to eight mothers. These are, her own mother and her mother’s mother; the mother of her maternal grandfather and her mother again; the mother of her father and her mother; the mother of her paternal grandfather and her mother again. If on the other hand, the woman he wants to marry, be simply a daughter of Levi or of Israel, he must go back a step farther.”

Ananiah had married at Babylon, and had not been able to enter the genealogy of his wife in the registers at Jerusalm on account of Herod’s persecution. Hence Samuel must now prove that his mother is of the race of Israel. He produces the document duly signed and formally credited by the Resh Gelutha of Babylon. The seals and signatures are examined by the leading members of the Sanhedrin, and the document is passed over to the secretary to be read aloud.

A great number of the members hardly pay attention to the reader; for them it is only a repetition of the legal formulas which they hear almost daily. Then, there is a sudden halt in the reading; the secretary nervously looks up and down the page, then reads again from the beginning, till he comes to the fatal place where the name of Ismeria, Samuel’s mother, should be mentioned. But he has not been deceived. A blank space is all he can see. There may have been letters, in all probability there have been. But it is beyond the power of anyone to tell precisely what word occupied the blank space.

Samuel and Zachary look anxiously at the reader; the high priest demands an explanation. In answer the document is presented, and attention is drawn to the vacancy. There is a stir in the august assembly. Never before has a case of this kind occurred in the Hall of Polished Stones. Then Matthiah calls the assembly to order, and asks what should be done in this case.

Abiathar and the men of his party are of opinion that Samuel has attempted to deceive the Council and gain admission to the sacerdotal ranks by means of mutilated genealogical records. But this conjecture is so improbable that the whole college of scribes and elders protest against it unanimously.

Hillel rises and proposes that the question of forgery be deferred to another day. “To-day,” he says, “it is our object to examine the genealogical records of the candidates for the priesthood. Our business is well-nigh concluded, excepting the case of Samuel. Since he has failed to prove the pure Jewish descent of his mother by means of written documents, he must prove the same by oral testimony. As for me, I have known not only Samuel’s mother but also her ancestors for four generations. All of them were sons and daughters of Abraham, all were faithful followers of the law of Moses, all distinguished for their piety and reverence for Jehovah.”

The assembly is highly impressed by Hillel’s words, but the testimony of one witness, even of Hillel, is not valid in Jewish jurisprudence. Besides Hillel no one is old enough to testify from his personal knowledge of Samuel’s ancestral line. There is a general call upon any one willing to render a testimony similar to Hillel’s. Samuel’s case is lost; no one rises, and the high priest, to Abiathar’s delight, is about to call for the votes of the Seventy-one. Two young priests leave the hall and return immediately with a black garment. For if a candidate fails to prove his geneology, he is dressed in black and dismissed from the assembly, being at the same time for ever excluded from the ranks of the priesthood. If the candidate proves his geneology, but is excluded for any other irregularity, there is hope, at least, for his descendants to be admitted to the service of the altar. Before the votes are taken, Gamaliel rises among the scribes’ disciples, and asks leave to suggest another means of proof. “If Samuel proves that his mother’s mother or sister or brother occupies, or has occupied, a position which requires a legal purity of descent, his mother’s genealogy too is sufficiently established.”

Zachary has up to this time kept absolute silence. He now advances, pale as death, and the muscles of his face slightly quiver with excitement. Many thoughts and suspicions have passed through his mind, while the discussion has gone on. He could have pointed out the man who had tampered with the document, though Samuel has not yet told him that it has been in Obed’s hands.

“Ananiah,” he says, “married Ismeria the younger sister of my wife Elizabeth. Since I have been admitted to the service of the altar, having proved to the satisfaction of this assembly my wife’s Israelitish origin, Samuel too must be received.”

“We all know Elizabeth and Zachary,” answers Abiathar. “In Elizabeth has been verified what the prophet Osee wrote of Ephraim: ‘Give them, O Lord! What wilt thou give them? Give them a womb without children, and dry breasts. For the wickedness of their devices I will cast them forth out of my house, I will love them no more.’ The husband is deprived of the creator’s blessing, as he has failed to comply with the creator’s precept. Our doctors tell us that the childless, the blind and the poor must be regarded as dead, like the lepers. What then availeth the testimony of the dead among the living, of the accursed of God in Jehovah’s own council?”

Matthiah the prefect of lots, noticing Zachary’s intense suffering, would have gladly defended the honor and good name of his friend. But for the present, Samuel’s interest demands a different course of action.

“Whatever value we may set on Zachary’s testimony,” he says, “it is well known to most of us that Elizabeth and Ismeria are sisters, and that Elizabeth’s genealogical record is above suspicion. In our votes we should, therefore, consider the truth of the fact rather than the channel through which its knowledge has come to us.”

After Hillel has pointed out to the assembly that even a woman’s testimony is valid, in case it is nothing else than an unmistakable evidence of a fact, the high priest calls for the votes of the members. Sanhedrist after Sanhedrist rises, beginning from the most dignified, and gives his vote in clear and precise terms, the secretaries keeping faithful record of the single votes.

All the scribes and ancients vote in favor of Samuel, while nearly all the priests’ votes are against him. Abiathar has not even selfcontrol enough to hide his annoyance and his fear. No sooner has he heard the result of the proceeding than he leaves the Hall of Polished Stones, to avoid the looks of the sympathetic and the questions of the curious. With eager steps he strides across the Court of Priests to find Obed in the Beth-Moked and profit by his counsel.

No one doubts as to the result of the second examination regarding Samuel’s bodily qualifications. He is not only well proportioned, but surpasses in beauty of form all those who have been admitted to the priestly service for many years past.

So soon as Samuel’s case is decided Zachary addresses him in the words of Jesus the son of Sirach: “He exalted Aaron his brother, and like to himself of the tribe of Levi; he made an everlasting covenant with him, and gave him the priesthood of the nation, and made him blessed in glory.”

Samuel on recovering from his state of bewilderment and anxiety, answers in the words of the same inspired writer: “And he girded him about with a glorious girdle, and clothed him with a robe of glory, and crowned him with majestic attire.”

Then, presenting the first two articles of the priestly dress to Samuel, Zachary still continues: “He put upon him a garment to the feet, and breeches, and an ephod, and he compassed him with many little bells of gold all round about.”

At this moment Matthiah ends his undertone conversation with a venerable looking scribe, and approaches Samuel and Zachary. Handing the sacerdotal girdle to the happy youth, he continues in Zachary’s strain: “He gave him a holy robe of gold, and blue, and purple, a woven work of a wise man, endued with judgment and truth: of twisted scarlet the work of an artist, with precious stones cut and set in gold, and graven by the work of a lapidary for a memorial, according to the number of the tribes of Israel.”

Finally, Zachary presents the priestly cap with the words: “And a crown of gold upon his mitre wherein was engraved Holiness, an ornament of honor: a work of power and lovely to the eyes for its beauty.”

All the candidates who have stood the double test are dressed like Samuel and their names are properly inscribed in the priestly records. “He that overcometh the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life.”

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