Shiur #03: The Absence of the Mikdash (Part III) - Pilgrimages, Pesach and Yom Kippur

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #03: The Absence of the Mikdash (Part III)

Pilgrimages, Pesach and Yom Kippur


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In this shiur, we will examine additional aspects of the issue of the absence of the Mikdash. We will focus on the pilgrimage undertaken on the three Pilgrim Festivals, and we will discuss Pesach and Yom Kippur in the Temple as well.


I.          PILGRIMAGE


The Torah commands:


Three times a year shall all your males appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of booths: and they shall not appear before the Lord empty. (Devarim 16:16)


            In this chapter, we will try to concretize for ourselves how the mitzva of pilgrimage was observed. We will first discuss the significance of the journey to the Mikdash, and then deal with the significance of reaching the Temple itself.



a.                  Leaving one's home: For those who lived at a great distance from Jerusalem,  in the Upper Galilee or in the Golan, for example, and all the more so in Babylonia, undertaking a pilgrimage meant leaving one's home, one's fields, and one's flocks for about a month.


b.                  Difficulty of the journey: Those who lived far from Jerusalem had to travel seven to ten days from their homes to reach the city, and endured a similar journey on the return trip. They passed their nights on the streets of the cities along the way. This involved a considerable physical effort; try to imagine a family with a grandfather and grandmother, a father and mother, and six to eight children, some of them very young. This undoubtedly was a mission that required both practical organization and persistence, based on recognition of the importance and significance of the objective.[1]


c.                   Living quarters in Jerusalem: Where did the people stay in Jerusalem? Aside from members of certain wealthy communities abroad that built hostels for their members in Jerusalem,[2] the pilgrims were put up for free in the homes of the city's residents. The gemara in tractate Yoma (12b) explains that since Jerusalem was not assigned to any tribe, its inhabitants didn't actually own their homes and were therefore not authorized to rent them out. The baraita in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (35:2) adds that the hosts did not even accept pay in exchange for the beds and linens provided to their guests; when there were a large number of guests, the hosts would sleep outside and the guests would sleep in the house itself. In return for the hospitality, the guests would customarily leave the skins of the animals that they had offered on the altar for their hosts.


The hospitality of the people of Jerusalem clearly contributed significantly to each individual's feeling of belonging to his people. The verse states:"O Jerusalem, built as a city that is compact (chubera) together, there the tribes used to go up' (Tehillim 122:3)," and our Rabbis explained that Jerusalem is a city that turns all of Israel into friends (chaverim) (Yerushalmi, Chagiga 3:6), particularly during Festival season.


d.                  Purity and its Meaning: Every member of Israel wished to go up to the Temple Mount and visit the Temple in order to watch the sacrificial order, to pray, to bring his offerings (the re'iya, simcha, and chagiga  offerings), to see and to be seen. To accomplish this end, each person had to purify himself from the impurity of death, which is contracted by coming into contact with a corpse. This purification is accomplished through the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer on the third and the seventh days.[3] Each man also had to purify himself from impurity stemming from bodily emissions by immersing himself in a ritual bath.[4] The purification process was a fitting preparation for the pilgrimage to the Temple,[5]  as there was constant concern to maintain the  purity of the Temple.[6]


It stands to reason that Jews who lived far away from Jerusalem did not make the pilgrimage to the holy city three times a year every year. Clearly, however, the purification process was important for those who did make the pilgrimage. What is the meaning of this process?


There is no mitzva obligating an ordinary Jew to be ritually pure at all times. One is obligated to purify himself only when he wishes to go to the Mikdash or eat the meat of sacrifices.[7] The entire Temple Mount, and especially the Mikdash itself, was among the purest places in the world.[8] Only pure people entered therein and the purity of the place was meticulously preserved; in case impurity somehow entered the area despite all precautions, atonement was achieved through the additional sacrifices that were brought on Rosh Chodesh and the Festivals (Shevu'ot 1:4). The insistence on absolute purity may be connected to the fact that the Temple is located on the place from which the world was created and where the initial connection between God and creation is impressed.  In this primal spot, which represents the continuous connection between the creation and the Creator, everything is pure.[9]


Immersion in water expresses man's entry into the inner primal world, just as at the beginning of creation the water preceded the rest of creation; this affords him the possibility of renewal, a sort of return to the amniotic fluids in the womb.


Whenever a person comes into contact with the inanimate world that is meant to serve him, when he walks, sits down, or goes to sleep, when he touches some object, dons some garment, or the like, he must first clarify whether the object is pure or impure. He thereby remembers at all times that he is standing before God.


It is important to understand the central role played by the laws of ritual purity and impurity at the end of the Second Temple period.[10] A clear example to illustrate the matter is the division of the streets of Jerusalem into lanes; the sides of the street were meant for those who were meticulous about ritual purity, while the center of the street was used by those who were ritually impure. During Festivals, when most of the people were ritually pure, the situation was reversed - the center of the street was used by the ritually pure, the impure being relegated to the sides (Shekalim 8:1; Rambam, Hilkhot She'ar Avot ha-Tum'a 13:8).


The homiletic interpretation of the Yerushalmi cited above – "a city that turns all of Israel into friends" – refers specifically to the time of a festival (see also Bavli, Chagiga 26a). These were times of unity and removal of barriers, when even the ignorant and the careless purify themselves in order to enter the Mikdash.


It is fitting to conclude this section with the marvelous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilkhot Mikva'ot:


It is plain and manifest that the laws about uncleanness and cleanness are decrees laid down by Scripture and not matters about which human understanding is capable of forming a judgment; for behold, they are included among the Divine statutes. So, too, immersion as a means of freeing oneself from uncleanness is included among the Divine statutes. Now "uncleanness" is not mud or filth that water can remove, but is a matter of scriptural decree and dependent on the intention of the heart. Therefore, the Sages have said that if a man immerses himself without special intention, it is as though he has not immersed himself at all.

Nevertheless, we may find some indication [for the moral basis] of this: just as one who sets his heart on becoming clean becomes clean as soon as he has immersed himself although nothing new has befallen his body, so too, one who sets his heart on cleansing himself from the uncleanness that besets men's souls – namely, wrongful thoughts and false convictions – becomes clean as soon as he consents in his heart to shun those counsels and brings his soul into the waters of pure reason. Behold, Scripture says, "And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean; from all your uncleanness and from all your idols will I cleans you (Yechezkel 36:25).May God, in His great mercy, cleanse us from every sin, iniquity and guilt. Amen. (Hilkhot Mikva'ot 11:12)




The Torah commands:


Three times in the year all your males shall appear (yera'e) before the Lord God. (Shemot 23:17)


Chazal interpreted the keri and the ketiv ­– the way the word is read and the way it is written – of the word yera'e as follows:


Yir'e – Yera'e: As he comes to see, so he comes to be seen. (Chagiga 2a)


And Rashi explains:


The word is written yir'e, but we read it as yera'e. "All your males shall see (yir'e) the Lord God" - implying that man sees the Shekhina. "[All your males] shall appear (yera'e) before the Lord God" – implying that the Lord comes to see you.


a.                  Lehera'ot – to be seen: According to the simple understanding, the mitzva of the pilgrimage is to be seen, that is to say, that God should see us. The basis for this – and apparently the basis for the aforementioned derasha in Chagiga – is what is stated in the Akeida story:


And Avraham called the name of that place Ad-onai-Yir'e: as it is said to this day, In the mount the Lord will appear (yera'e). (Bereishit 22:14)


            Avraham's intention in calling the place Ad-onai Yir'e was "God will choose this place," as the Torah states:


But to the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, there shall you seek Him, at His dwelling, and there shall you come. (Devarim 12:5)[11]


            According to this, it is possible that the objective of the mitzva of making a pilgrimage is to be appear before God three times a year in order to be chosen by Him anew, that is, in order that He reconfirm His choosing of us.


            Even though the primary mitzva is man's very appearance before God in the Temple courtyard, this pilgrimage is connected to three obligations, his purification, his actions, and his bringing of sacrifices – a re'iya burnt offering, a simcha peace-offering and a chagiga peace-offering.


            The Torah's demand, "and they shall not appear before the Lord empty," is generally interpreted according to its plain sense: each person must bring the aforementioned sacrifices. However, the Sifrei (Sifrei Devarim, piska 143) also offers the following interpretation: "'And they shall not appear before the Lord empty' – empty of charity." In order to appear before God in the Temple, in which the practice of loving-kindness is a central focus, a person must first fulfill his responsibilities to others (as we saw in the previous shiur).


b.                  Lir'ot – to see: Chazal offer several practical examples of what one can see on a pilgrimage to the Temple:


"Upon the pure table" (Vayikra 24:6)… This teaches that they used to lift the table and show the showbread to the Festival pilgrims and say to them: Behold the love which the Omnipresent has for you; [the bread] is taken away [as fresh] as it is set down. (Chagiga 26b)[12]


… It did not take long before they covered the whole Temple with gold plaques a cubit square and of the thickness of a gold dinar. And on festivals they used to lay them together and place them on a high eminence on the Temple Mount, so that the Festival pilgrims might see that their workmanship was beautiful, and that there was no imperfection in them. (Pesachim 57a)


Whenever Israel came up for the Festival, the curtain [of the Holy of Holies] would be removed for them and the keruvim were shown to them, [and they would see that the bodies of the keruvim were intertwined with one another, and they would be thus addressed: "Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman." (Yoma 54a)


            On the festivals, the people saw the majesty of the Sanctuary and its vessels, as well as the pictures on the curtains and the keruvim, which illustrate the mutuality, love and endearment between God and the Jewish people.


c. Being seen and seeing – fear and love? Being seen and seeing may represent two aspects of our relationship with God in general, and how that relationship manifests itself in the Temple in particular.


A person who makes a pilgrimage in order to be seen by God must be worthy of being seen by God. If we assume that the entire nation did not go up to the Temple every festival, the pilgrimage was very meaningful for the pilgrim –because of the purity required, because of the emotional preparations for the encounter with God in the Temple courtyard, and because of the sacrifices that he offered. One of the most important components of this pilgrimage is the fear connected to standing before God, the preparedness to stand before God and be seen by Him.


On the other hand, it is precisely on the Festivals that the love between God and the Jewish people finds strongest expression. The obligation of "seeing" defines the relationship between God and Israel, the closeness to Him, and the desire to encounter and be with Him. From this perspective, the revelation of the keruvim and the comparison of the love between God and His nation to the love between a man and a woman sharpened the mutuality between the people and God, and the feeling that in the Temple, the principle "As in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man" (Mishlei 27:19) expresses itself between Israel and God as well. The more that Israel ascends and draws near to God out of love, the more God's love for Israel becomes manifest.


            Thus, the Mikdash allows for an encounter with God both out of fear and out of love. The Mikdash is the seat of God's kingship in the world, where man appears before God in a state of fear. But it is also the place that symbolizes the connection between the people of Israel and God, where man is privileged to see the face of God in a state of love.




An examination of the difference between our contemporary celebration of Pesach and the way it was celebrated during the time of the Mikdash will help sharpen the significance of the absence of the Mikdash. In our day and age, the night of the seder is a family celebration with beautiful dishes and tableware and many guests sitting around the table. Weeks before the holiday, we teach the children to ask, "How is this night different from all other nights?" We will use this question to try and understand the essence of Pesach during the time of the Temple.


After the family arrived in Jerusalem and found lodging in one of the houses in the city, a representative of the group went on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nissan to offer the paschal lamb,[13] and then returned to the group with the meat of the sacrifice.


That night, the balconies, the roofs, the courtyards, and the houses of Jerusalem were all filled with different groups roasting their paschal lambs. At that point, the son would ask his father in the most natural manner: "Father, why is this night different from all other nights? I see everybody here: the family, the neighborhood, the community. Why have they all come here? What did they come to do here in Jerusalem on this night?" And the father would answer: "On this night, God took us out of Egypt to bring us to this land and to this city and this Temple, and we are now eating from God's table at the foot of God's house."


Eating in a group emphasizes mutual responsibility and the fact that everyone belongs to the nation that was born at this very time and, through God's loving-kindness, was privileged to come to Eretz Israel and God's courtyards.


All its beauty notwithstanding, a contemporary seder does not allow us to experience these feelings of closeness to all of the Jewish people and to God on this night.




            Nowadays, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, at the center of which stands our supplications for God's mercy. When the Temple stood, the multi-faceted nature of this day was very different.


            The erection of the Mishkan is connected to Yom Kippur, when the sin of the golden calf was pardoned and the nearness between God and the people of Israel was reestablished. The correspondence between Yom Kippur and the eighth day of the milu'im, when the Mishkan was dedicated, teaches us that Yom Kippur is the annual day of dedication of the Mikdash and those serving therein. On the day of Yom Kippur, the High Priest performs many forms of service, in addition to the fixed service performed all year round: he burns incense inside the Holy of Holies, sprinkles the blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat, sends the goat to Azazel, and the like.


            Here we wish to emphasize one particular aspect of Yom Kippur: it is a day of great intimacy between the people of Israel and God.


            On the part of Israel, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, the most intimate chamber of the house; God, as it were, invites the High Priest, as the nation's representative, to come all the way into His home. On the part of God, there is one day a year on which God announces to Israel, by way of the crimson-colored strap turning white, that their sins have achieved atonement. This, too, was a direct continuation of the pardon granted for the sin of the golden calf and the command to build the Mishkan.


            The mutuality in the connection with God that finds expression on Yom Kippur characterizes the essence of the entire Temple. The Mikdash expresses the connection between man's turning to God with sacrifices, prayer and all the other forms of service and God's answer and revelation to man.


            It is difficult for us to imagine this feeling. What elevation of spirit would we feel if at the end of the Ne'ila service, after reciting the thirteen attributes of mercy and accepting the yoke of God's kingdom, a heavenly voice would issue forth and proclaim: "Israel's sins have been forgiven!" What power, hope, and strength could this tiding – that God has forgiven all the sins of Israel that were committed during the previous year and has completely wiped their slate clean of sins – stir up in the hearts of the entire nation!


            The miracle of the crimson-colored strap turning white is one of the greatest miracles performed in the Mikdash, the Shekhina revealing itself to all of Israel when they were worthy of such revelation. This was a manifest response to the wishes and hopes of the day on which the eyes of all of Israel were lifted up to God, waiting for an answer. On the other hand, there were years during which the crimson-colored strap did not whiten; this situation was certainly not easy to accept. In any event, today we have no idea whether or not our crimson-colored strap has whitened, because we live in a state of hester panim, the Shekhina in hiding.


            The fundamental idea underlying all that we have seen above is that the Mikdash allows for mutuality in the relationship between God and Israel: Not only does man turn to God, but God also turns to man and answers him. How happy we would be to know God's desire on political, social, spiritual and economic issues, but we have no access to such knowledge.[14] With such a revelation of God's will, and such mutuality in our relationship with Him, it would be possible to feel His presence in the world in an entirely different manner, but today all this is lost, and we have nothing of this intimacy.


            Needless to say, despite all the splendor and majesty that we see on Yom Kippur in today's synagogues, they cannot bring us to the feeling of God's closeness and to the sense of mutuality in our relationship with Him that we had when the Temple was standing.




            In this shiur, we touched upon the Mikdash experience in three areas: pilgrimage, Pesach, and Yom Kippur.


            In the next shiur, we will complete our discussion of the absence of the Mikdash. We will relate to the question of what we can do and what we are obligated to do in order to hasten the rebuilding of the Mikdash. We will also touch upon the issue of seeking out the place of the Mikdash and our relationship to the Temple Mount.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Let us ask ourselves: To what extent would an average family today be prepared to invest the required time, money, and physical effort in order to participate in a pilgrimage to the Temple?

[2] Indication of such hostels is found  in the inscription of Theodotus ben Vatnus discovered in the southern part of the City of David. This is also confirmed by archeological findings.

[3] The ashes of the red heifer were divided among all the mishamarot across the country, except for the ashes that were placed for safekeeping on the Mount of Olives and in the Cheil. See Para 3:11.

[4] This purification process could be performed in the person's home, provided that he was meticulous about staying in a state of purity until he arrived in Jerusalem and to the Mikdash. In any event, he had to immerse himself once again before entering the Temple Mount in one of the ritual baths that surrounded the Mount, as is stated in Yoma 3:3: "Even if a person is ritually pure, he may not enter the Temple courtyard for service unless he immerses himself." Rashi comments (ad loc. 30a): "For service – this is imprecise, for a person must never enter the Temple courtyard unless he immerses himself." See also Tosafot, ad loc.

[5] There are many spiritual connotations to the process of immersion in water, among them entry into a primal creation in which a person can live for only a very short time, removal of all intervening matter, indicating absolute dedication, and others.

[6] See Rambam, More Nevukhim (III, 46), who strongly emphasizes the importance of renewal and being affected by the pilgrimage. It is in that light that he explains the obligation of purification, as the process creates a lasting impression of standing before God.

[7] There were groups of chaverim in Jerusalem who were careful to eat even their regular unconsecrated food in a state of ritual purity, but this was certainly a level of "going beyond the letter of the law." These people accepted upon themselves to relate to all of their eating as eating from God's table, similar to the Jews in the wilderness, who did not eat unconsecrated meat, but only the meat of peace offerings (according to Rabbi Yishma'el, Chullin 15b).

[8] There is room to distinguish between the Temple Mount – the Levite camp – which is a place of purity (the opposite of impurity), and the Mikdash – the camp of the Shekhina and the site of the priestly service – which is a place of sanctity (the opposite of mundaneness). Thus purity serves as preparation for sanctity.

[9] According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Bet ha-Bechira 6:15-16) and those Rishonim who maintain that the original sanctification of Eretz Yisrael was meant to last forever in regard to Jerusalem and the Mikdash, the connection between creation and Creator embodied by the place of the Mikdash  impressed itself upon the place forever, in the sense of: "For the Lord has chosen Zion: He has desired it for His habitation. This is My resting place forever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it" (Tehilim 132:13-14).

[10] As the Baraita states in Shabbat (13a): "Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Come and see the extent to which purity has breached forth into Israel." The issue of the centrality of the laws of purity during this time is very broad, and it also has certain negative dimensions. First, this "breaching forth" of purity in Israel at the end of the second Temple period was strongly connected to the growth of sects at that time. Moreover, the purification process is liable to turn into a rote, technical act, in the sense of "immersing with a creeping creature in one's hand:" a person totally immerses his body in water, but continues to hold on to his abominable actions. An extreme example of a perverted scale of values in this context is brought in a baraita in tractate Yoma (23a): "It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart… The father of the young man came and found his son still in convulsions. He said: 'May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.' [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood!"

[11] This interpretation is supported by the wording found later in the passage: "Take heed to yourself that you offer not your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but only in the place which the Lord shall choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings" (Devarim 12:13).

[12] In his book, "Ha-Aliya le-Regel bi-Yemei Bayit Sheni," Tel Aviv 1965, pp. 179-180, S. Safrai argues on the basis of Christian sources that the holy vessels were brought out to the Temple courtyard in order to allow the people to see them. It should be noted that this argument does not accord with the understanding of Rashi and Tosafot. See Tosafot, Chagiga 26b, s.v. shelo tig'u ba-shulchan.

[13] Joining a group for the offering and eating of the paschal lamb is of great significance, for the paschal lamb symbolizes the bond between every individual Jew and the people of Israel, and that between the entire people of Israel and God. Pesach is essentially a day of renewing the covenant between the people of Israel and God; in this context, we find a number of very important celebrations of Pesach- the Pesach that was celebrated in the wilderness in the second year of the exodus from Egypt (Bamidbar 9), the Pesach celebrated in Gilgal, following Israel's entry into the Land of Israel (Yehoshua 5), the Pesach celebrated in the time of Shemu'el (II Divrei ha-Yamim 35:18), the Pesach celebrated in the time of Chizkiyahu (ibid. 30:2), the Pesach celebrated in the time of Yoshiyahu (ibid. 35:1), and apparently the Pesach celebrated by those who returned from Babylonia (Ezra 6:19 and on). Some of these celebrations of Pesach follow a campaign dedicated to the wiping out of idolatry.

[14] The clearest and most detailed revelation of God's will is through a prophet who speaks God's word. But the whitening of the crimson-colored strap is also a general revelation of God's will to all of Israel. The Gemara in Yoma (21b) states that the Shekhina did not rest in the second Temple, and there was no ark, kaporet, keruvim or Holy Spirit. But the revelation by way of the crimson-colored strap was still found there.