Shiur #02: The Absence of the Mikdash (Part II) -Torah, Service and Acts of Loving-Kindness

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service [of God] and on acts of loving-kindness. (Avot 1:2)


            According to this mishna, three important values serve as the foundation of the world and sustain it. It is not by chance, then, that these three values are prominently represented on the Temple Mount and in the Temple itself.






In the previous shiur, we mentioned the idea that the Mishkan served as a direct continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai; we pointed out that the hakhel assembly serves as a sort of renewal of that revelation once every seven years with the participation of the entire Jewish people – men, women and children.


While the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was the initial revelation of God to all of Israel, that revelation continued in the Mishkan, and afterwards in the Mikdash.


This explains why the tablets of the Law were placed in the ark, which was later placed in the Holy of Holies, following Moshe's descent from Mount Sinai (Devarim 10:1-5). The Mikdash perpetuates the Sinaitic revelation for all generations.




The keruvim on top of the kaporet symbolize God's royal throne; they rest upon the tablets of the Law and the broken tablets in the ark, which symbolize the Torah and God's covenant with His people.[1] From this very place, "from upon the kaporet from between the keruvim, Moshe heard the voice speaking to him;" (Bamidbar 7:89) it was from between the keruvim that Moshe received the ever-renewing Torah the Oral Law. This Torah is found above the Written Torah that rests in the ark.


Another expression of the Mikdash as the center of Torah is the Torah scroll that was kept in the Temple courtyard. This was the most authoritative and precise copy of the Torah, from which all other Torah scrolls were corrected.[2]




The gemara relates that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would sit in the shade of the sanctuary (Pesachim 26a) and that Rabban Gamliel would sit on a step on the Temple Mount (Sanhedrin 11b). One of the objectives of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the Pilgrimage Festivals was to meet great Torah scholars who sat on the Temple Mount and disseminated Torah to all of Israel.


Another aspect of the connection between the Mikdash and the Torah is the relationship between the Mikdash and the Sanhedrin.[3] Chazal learned (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro, Masekhta de-be-Chodesh, parasha 11; Yerushalmi, Makkot 2:6) that the Sanhedrin convened alongside the altar. The mishna in Sanhedrin (11:2) states:


Three courts were there – one used to sit at the entrance to the Temple Mount, and one used to sit at the entrance to the Temple courtyard, and one used to sit in Lishkat ha-Gazit (Chamber of Hewn Stone).


The Sanhedrin was located in Lishkat ha-Gazit, half in a sanctified zone, the Temple courtyard, and half in an unsanctified zone, the cheil (see Ma'aser Sheni 3:8; Yoma 25a). The location of the Sanhedrin was not by chance. Chazal expressed this by asserting "that the place matters" (Sota 55a; Sanhedrin 14b; ibid. 87a; Avoda Zara 8b); the supreme court enjoys its high status because of its location. The practical significance of this principle is that several laws relating to the Sanhedrin do not apply when it convenes anywhere other than in its designated place. We will suffice with a single example: From the time that the Sanhedrin was exiled from its permanent seat forty years prior to the destruction, capital cases were no longer judged (Avoda Zara, ibid.). The fact that the possibility of judging capital cases in courts across the country depends on the Sanhedrin convening in its permanent seat demonstrates the essential connection between the Sanhedrin (and justice in general) and the Mikdash, as it is written: "For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem"(Yeshayahu 2:3; Mikha 4:2).


The proximity of the nation's highest court to the Temple allows the judges (who hail from all sectors of society – priests, Levites and Israelites) to decide issues and play a role in many diverse halakhic, spiritual, communal, social, and political matters (e.g., going out to an optional war, expanding the boundaries of Jerusalem [Sanhedrin 1:5], examining the lineage and physical defects of priests, creating laws, and disseminating Torah to all of Israel).The source of the Torah and the location of the supreme judicial authority adjoined the Temple – the source of the validity of the Written and Oral Law.




Both the Mikdash and the Torah express the connection between the people of Israel and God. The well-known midrash in Shemot Rabba (33, 1) notes the relationship between the two:


It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, he [the father] said to him: "My daughter, whose hand I have given you, is my only child. I cannot part with her. Neither can I say to you: 'Do not take her,' for she is now your wife. This favor, however, I would request of you: wherever you go to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter." Thus God said to Israel: "I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it; but this I would request: wherever you go make Me a house wherein I may sojourn." As it says: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8).


            The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, end of chap. 8; Ner Mitzva, p. 24) explains that just as the heart is the source of man's vitality and the brain is the source of his intelligence, so, too, the Temple is the heart of the world, and the Torah its intelligence.


            The Zohar (Teruma 161a) states that the Holy One, blessed be He, "looked into the Torah and created the world;" God created the world through contemplation of the Torah – the world reflects the Torah, and the Torah is the world's blueprint. It is interesting and significant that the Torah embodied by the Mikdash rests precisely upon the place from which the world was created, the even ha-shetiya, the foundation stone (Yoma 54b). In that way, as it were, the Mikdash preserves in its heart – its innermost, most sanctified, and most concealed area - both the place where the physical world began and the Torah, the world's blueprint.


Various sources indicate that the Mikdash and the Torah complement each other, each one filling in what is missing in the other. Herod, who killed the Torah authorities of his day, extinguished the light of the world, and his repentance involved the construction of the light of the world – the Mikdash (Bava Batra 4a). On the other hand, Chazal assert in various places that today, when there is no Mikdash, the Torah substitutes for the Temple service. For example:


Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in His world but the four cubits of Halakha alone (Berakhot 8a).[4]


This refers to the scholars who devote themselves to the study of the Torah in whatever place they are: [God says] I account it unto them as though they burnt and presented offerings to My name… This refers to the scholars who devote themselves to the study of the Torah at nights; Scripture accounts it to them as though they were occupied with the Temple service… Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as though he were offering a burnt-offering, a meal-offering, a sin-offering, and a guilt-offering(Menachot 110a).


As the Maharal says (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 70: "The Torah in our exile is the place of the Temple."


What better way is there to end this section with the short prayer that we customarily add at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei (based on Avot 5:20):


May it be your will… that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant us a share in Your Torah




There are many aspects to the "divine service" that took place in the Mikdash. First of all, the Mikdash served as a place of prayer. Another specific service that took place in the Temple courtyard and on the Temple Mount in various situations was bowing, which implies total self-effacement before God and the recognition that we absolutely belong to Him.


The most obvious form of divine service that took place in the Mikdash, however, was the sacrificial order. The sacrifices united a Jew together with God not only at designated times – the three Festivals – but also in various situations connected to his personal life:  in the aftermath of sin, or as an offer of thanksgiving, or after a birth, whether in the wake of the birth of a firstborn in his flock or when bringing the animal-tithe. In all these situations, man is required to stand before God and offer a sacrifice.[5]


One of the unique characteristics of the sacrificial order is the disqualification of an offering stemming from the improper thoughts of the person bringing the sacrifice. For example, if his intention is to offer the sacrifice outside of its proper time or proper space, the sacrifice is disqualified. In order to achieve intimacy with God, one who brings a sacrifice must achieve purity of thought and focused action. Thus, man's thought in its purest form reveals itself in the Mikdash.


1.         "A LIFE FOR A LIFE"


The story of the Akeida – the first incident in the Torah that explicitly took place on Mount Moriya – ends with a ram being sacrificed in place of Yitzchak. The conclusion derived from the Akeida seems to be that God is not interested in human sacrifices. What, then, was the meaning of God's initial command?


It seems to be highly significant that psychological readiness to offer one's own son was demanded already at the first sacrifice that God commanded to be brought on an altar on Mount Moriya. The level of closeness to God that was required through sacrifice reached the point of readiness to offer the life of one's child. When God saw that Avraham was prepared to make this sacrifice, He then commanded that a ram be offered in place of Yitzchak.[6] This, indeed, is how the Ramban understands the rationale for sacrifices in general (commentary to Vayikra 1:9):


All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against his God with his body and his soul, and that his blood should really be spilled and his body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body.


Man's sin dictates that he be burnt upon the altar, but in place of man's own body, God accepts the body of an animal. One who brings a sacrifice must therefore pronounce his confession over the animal, fully repent, and repair his desires and actions so that he will achieve atonement. It is also possible that the slaughter of the animal, the sprinkling of its blood, and the burning of its flesh represent the total change of the person, and his connection, together with the rest of creation, to God who created them.




The sprinkling of an animal's blood and the burning of its flesh on the altar constitute, in a certain sense, the highest intimacy that can possibly be achieved between an animal – having the spirit of a beast, lacking intelligence, and void of the image of God – and God, Master of the universe. The Midrash states that in the future animals will stand in line at the altar asking to be sacrificed upon it.


A fine illustration of this idea of the elevation of animals brought as offerings is found in a midrash concerning the two bullocks brought on Mount Carmelin the context of Eliyahu's war against the worship of the Ba'al (I Melakhim 18). In that event, one bullock was offered to God and one to the Ba'al:


This bears on what Scripture says: "Who teaches us by means of the beasts of the earth, and makes us wise by means of the fowls of heaven" (Iyyov 35:11)… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Learn a lesson from the bullock of Eliyahu. When Eliyahu said to the worshippers of Ba'al, "Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first, for you are many" (I Melakhim 18:25), the four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba'al and the four hundred prophets of the Ashera gathered round but could not move the bullock's feet from the ground… What did Eliyahu do? He said to them: "Select two bullocks, equal in all respects, coming from the same mother and reared on the same pasture, then cast lots for them, one to be for the Lord and one for Ba'al, and choose for yourselves one bullock." Eliyahu's bullock followed him immediately, while as regards the bullock assigned for Ba'al, though all the prophets of Ba'al and the prophets of Ashera gathered round it, they could not move its foot. At last Eliyahu began to speak to it and said to it: "Go with them!" The bullock replied by saying to him in the presence of all the people: "My fellow and I have both come from the same womb, from the same cow, and have grown up on the same pasture, yet he has fallen to the lot of the Omnipresent, and the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is sanctified by him, while I have fallen to the lot of the Ba'al and shall have to provoke my Creator!" Eliyahu said to it: "Bullock, bullock, fear not! Go with them and let them not find any excuse for their failure. Indeed, even as the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, shall be sanctified by means of the bullock that is with me, so will it be sanctified by means of you!" The bullock answered him: "Seeing that you give me such advice, I swear that I will not budge from this spot until you hand me over into their hand!" As it says: "And they took the bullock which he gave them" (ibid. 26). Who gave it to them? Eliyahu (Bamidbar Rabba 23:9).


It is difficult to say that we are capable today of understanding, feeling, and sensing the loss of the sacrifices as a means of coming closer to God.[7] A sacrifice brings its owner to intimacy with God and to a feeling of devotion to an extent that is unknown today. By adding salt with every sacrifice, all parts of creation – mineral, vegetable, animal, and human – are raised to their source. By his choice and through his actions, man – the only creature that was created in the image of God – is capable of raising all of creation to its source. This he can do in the Temple, the royal palace of the King, King of kings.


When the Temple stood, the sacrificial order allowed for the revelation of Israel's love for God in its full intensity. This revelation expresses various human faculties: emotions, imagination, and all the base natural faculties that are found in the world (occupation with animals, slaughter, and blood). In this sense, the importance of the sacrifices lies in the fact that they embrace all the vital forces of creation, even the basest. In this way, all of these forces find expression in the Mikdash.




Paralleling the view that "the prayers were instituted in correspondence to the daily offerings" (Berakhot 26b), Chazal describe the prayers as a substitute for the sacrifices (Bamidbar Rabba 18:21 and elsewhere). Without a doubt, one of the most important services performed in the Mikdash was prayer: personal prayer and communal prayer, prayer in times of trouble and prayer in times of calm, as described in King Shlomo's prayer at the dedication of the Mikdash (I Melakhim 8).


In this context it is important to mention the law that states that one who is engaged in prayer anywhere in the world must direct himself in the direction of Eretz Israel, Jerusalem, and the Mikdash. This law clearly illustrates the Temple's centrality as the place through which prayers are channeled to God:


When one proceeds to pray, if he is standing outside the Land of Israel, he should turn toward the Land of Israel, and aim also at Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Holy of Holies. If he is standing in the Land of Israel, he should turn toward Jerusalem, and aim also at the Temple and the Holy of Holies. If he is standing in Jerusalem, he should turn toward the Temple, and aim also at the Holy of Holies. If he is standing behind the kaporet, he should turn toward the kaporet (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 94:1, based on Berakhot 30a).


The Mishna Berura (ad loc.) explains:


He must think in his heart and in his mind as if he were standing in the Mikdash in Jerusalem in the place of the Holy of Holies… and he should view himself as if he were standing before the kaporet.


            In addition to directing one's body, it is also necessary to direct one's thoughts and intentions toward the Holy of Holies. A person praying three times a day anywhere in the world is expected to direct his thoughts and think in his heart as if he were standing in the Holy of Holies itself, before the kaporet, in the most intimate section of the Mikdash, where only the High Priest is permitted to enter, and only on Yom Kippur. This is one of the clearest expressions of the experience of prayer as standing before God. Were we able to imagine this in our prayers today, it is quite possible that the memory of the Temple would be much more alive within us.


            Before we conclude this section, it should be noted that while we have focused here on the sacrificial service, the term "service" clearly includes a variety of mitzvot and actions that were not mentioned here (some of these – for example, pilgrimages on the Festivals and the service on special Festivals – we shall discuss in the next shiur).






            The Baraita in tractate Smakhot (6:11-12) describes how visitors would approach the Temple Mount:


On the first and second day [of mourning, the mourner] may not enter the Temple Mount; on the third day he may enter but must go around to the left. These are the ones who must go around to the left: a mourner, an excommunicated person, one who has a sick person in his house, and one who lost an object. [When asked,] "Why do you go round to the left?" [he answers,] "Because I am a mourner." They reply, "May He who dwells in this house comfort you." [If he says,] "Because I am under a ban," [they reply,] "May He who dwells in this house put it into their heart to draw you near." So said Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yose said to him: "You make it as if they [who banned] passed a wrong judgment on him; rather [what they say is], "May He who dwells in this house put it into your heart to hearken to the words of your colleagues so that they may draw you near." To one who has a sick person in his house they say, "May He who dwells in this house have mercy upon him;" and if he is barely living, [they say,] "May He have mercy upon him immediately." … To one who lost some object they say, "May He who dwells in this house put it into the heart of the finder to return it to you at once." … From the beginning Shlomo built the Temple only on condition that anyone in trouble would come there and pray.


            Chazal describe here a simple but ingenious enactment. Whenever a person walks against the direction of traffic,[8] it is a sign that his situation is exceptional, and that he must be related to in a special fashion. One must console the mourner, pray that one placed under a ban should mend his ways, pray for the recovery of a sick person in his house, thus strengthening and encouraging his family, and one must help recover lost property to its owner.  This enactment demands sensitivity, caring, and paying attention to anyone whose exceptional behavior (moving counterclockwise) testifies to distress; it brings the community to pray for its individual members and offer them help.


            A similar idea appears in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chap. 17):


Shlomo saw that the observance of loving-kindness was great before the Holy One, blessed be He. When He built the Temple he erected two gates, one for the bridegrooms and the other for the mourners and the excommunicated. On Shabbat, the Israelites went and sat between those two gates. They knew that anyone who entered through the gate of the bridegrooms was a bridegroom, and they said to him: "May He who dwells in this house cause you to rejoice with sons and daughters." If one entered through the gate of the mourners with his upper lip covered, then they knew that he was a mourner, and they would say to him: "May He who dwells in this house comfort you." If one entered through the gate of the mourners without having his upper lip covered, then they knew that he was excommunicated, and they would say to him: "May He who dwells in this house put into your heart [the desire] to listen to the words of your colleagues, and may He put into the hearts of your colleagues that they may draw you near." [This was done] so that all Israel may discharge their duty by rendering the service of loving-kindness.


            The Midrash presents Shlomo's action as an opportunity given to Israel to fulfill the obligation of performing acts of loving-kindness in the Temple – in the place that joins all of Israel to one another.




The mishna states:


There were two treasury-chambers in the Temple… the devout would contribute to the Chamber of Secrets secretly, and the poor of good family were supported from it  in secret. (Shekalim 5:6)


In this way, the mitzva of giving charity was fulfilled in the Temple in the best manner possible, as described by the Rambam (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 10:8): He who gives - gives in secret, and he who receives – receives in secret.


Moreover, whoever comes to appear before God is obligated to give charity, as Chazal say about the verse: "And they shall not appear before the Lord empty" (Devarim 16:16):


"And they shall not appear before the Lord empty" – empty of charity." (Sifrei Devarim, piska 143)


            A person appears before God by way of charity, and this giving allows him to see the inside of the Temple courtyard.




            In his blessing to Levi, Moshe says of Aharon: "Let your Urim and your Tumim be with your pious one" (Devarim 33:8).The famous mishna in tractate Avot notes that loving-kindness is the quality of Aharon:


Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving [your fellow] creatures and bringing them nearer to the Torah. (Avot 1:12)


            The Zohar states in various places (see, for example, Zohar Bamidbar 145b) that the priests come from the emanation of loving-kindness.


            The idea of the centrality of loving-kindness to the priesthood finds expression in many ways. Aharon bears the names of the tribes of Israel on the breastplate when he enters the Temple, so as to always have them in mind. Someone who inadvertently killed another person can only leave his city of refuge upon the death of the High Priest, because the priest should have prayed for mercy for his generation, but failed to do so. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest atones for himself and for his household and for all of Israel. The High Priest's elevation from his standing as a private person to one who is connected to all of Israel is rooted in loving-kindness; it is for that reason that the blessing of "His people Israel with love" can be given through him.


            Like the priests, the Mikdash is also the center of the unity of the people, of peace, and of justice, as is stated in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (4:5):


It happened once that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, followed by Rabbi Yehoshua, and he beheld the Temple in ruins. "Woe to us," cried Rabbi Yehoshua, "for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel!" Rabbi Yochanan said to him, "My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of loving-kindness. As it is stated: 'For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice' (Hoshea 6:6)."


            In this shiur we examined various aspects of the Mikdash through the perspective of the mishna in Avot: "The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service [of God] and on acts of loving-kindness." We saw that in the Temple, located upon the place where the world was created, we find important expressions of these three values, which serve as both the foundations as well as the objectives of the world. This understanding helps us to understand to a greater extent what we are missing in the absence of the Mikdash.


            In the next shiur, we will continue to discuss the absence of the Mikdash. We shall consider the significance of the pilgrimages undertaken on the Festivals and focus on two Festivals on which the experience of the Mikdash is especially strongly felt: Pesach and Yom Kippur.


(Translated by David Strauss)



Click here for a link to the 4-part series on The Absence of the Mikdash.


[1] Similarly, Moshe was commanded with the completion of the Torah to place the Torah scroll on the side of ark (Devarim 31:25-26). See the disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir in Bava Batra 14a as to whether the Torah scroll rested inside the ark, alongside the tablets, or on a shelf that jutted out from the ark.

[2] Mo'ed Katan 18b, and Rashi, ad loc., s.v. afilu. See alsoKetubot 106a: "Book readers [checking for errors] in Jerusalem received their fees from the Temple funds;" Soferim 6:4 – "Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: Three scrolls were found in the Temple courtyard;" Yerushalmi, Shekalim 4:2, and commentators, ad loc.; Yefe Einayim on Mo'ed Katan, ibid.

Much has been written on this topic in contemporary scholarship. See, for example, R. Saul Lieberman, Yevanit ve-Yevanut be-Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 165-166; Shemaryahu Talmon, "Shelosha Sefarim Matz'u ba-Azara, in Sefer Segel, 1965, pp. 252-254. My thanks to my colleague Prof. Menachem Kahana, who referred me to these sources.

[3] The essential connection between Jerusalem and the Mikdash, on the one hand, and Jerusalem and justice and judgment, on the other, as well as the idea that justice serves as a condition for the continued existence of Jerusalem and the Mikdash, were dealt with at length in our shiurim on biblical Jerusalem. See especially Year 1, Shiur 6, and Year 2, Shiurim 23-24.

[4] This statement has practical significance, as the Gemara learns from it that Torah scholars should pray in the place where they study, and not in a synagogue.

[5] In peace-offerings of every type (thanksgiving, peace-offering, firstborn, and animal-tithe), part of the animal is burnt on the altar, part is given to the priests, and part is left to the owners; thus, the person who brings the offering feels that he eats his portion by virtue of the altar's consumption of its part. We see an expression of this feeling in the practice observed by certain Perushim in the aftermath of the destruction to abstain from eating meat and drinking wine, as was noted in the previous shiur.

[6] The Akeida also underlies other mitzvot in the Mikdash, e.g., bowing, fear of the Mikdash, and others.

[7] Several times I have gone to watch the slaughtering process in order to try and imagine, to the extent possible, how a person feels when he slaughters an animal in the aftermath of sin or in gratitude for God's lovingkindness, when he rests his hands on its head, confesses (if the sacrifice is offered for a sin), and then sprinkles the blood, the life force, on the altar. How a person feels when he is actually in such a situation is difficult to imagine, but it stands to reason that bringing a sacrifice allows a person to feel much closer to God than he does in today's day and age.

[8] The description relates to entry onto the Temple Mount from the east, that is, from the Chulda Gate. The standard course is to turn right immediately upon entering, circle the Temple Mount, and exit on the left side of the gates. The people mentioned here turn upon entry to the left; as they circle the Temple Mount, they therefore meet people who are circling from the right. Since they are moving in the opposite direction of the flow of traffic, the people who are circling from the right ask them why they are moving as they do, and each person answers in accordance with his particular situation.