Shiur #1: The Absence of the Mikdash (Part I): Communal Worship and Mitzvot of the Land of Israel

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            It is exceedingly difficult to consider the issue of the absence of the Mikdash from an experiential perspective, as we lack a tradition, passed down from one generation to the next, regarding the nature of the service there in all of its details.  Our grandparents cannot tell us what they felt when the crimson strip of wool turned white on Yom Kippur or when they brought the bikkurim (first fruits) to the Mikdash between Shavuot and Sukkot.  There is no one living to describe what it was like to lay hands on the head of a sin-offering and confess one's sin prior to the animal's slaughter.  All that we can do is attempt to understand the Mikdash service from the written sources that are available to us.


            In the next four shiurim, we will select several topics connected to the Mikdash and through them try to appreciate the significance of its absence.  In this shiur, we will open the discussion by reflecting upon the Mikdash as the site of communal worship and upon its connection to the mitzvot that apply only in the Land of Israel.  In the second shiur, we will relate to the Mikdash as the site of Torah, worship and acts of lovingkindness; we will also attempt to explain how the Sanhedrin and the world of justice are connected to the Mikdash.  In the third shiur, we will discuss the mitzva of going up to Jerusalem on the three pilgrimage festivals, as well as the experience of Pesach and Yom Kippur in the Mikdash.  We will conclude this part of the series in the fourth shiur with an attempt to answer the question how each one of us can contribute to the rebuilding of the Mikdash.




            After almost two thousand years without the Mikdash, it is exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to feel and appreciate its absence.


            The most important reason is habit: two thousand years without the Mikdash have made the Jewish people accustomed to life without it, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora.  Immediately following the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted a series of ordinances in Yavneh that were meant to deal with this new reality.[1]  In recent generations, especially in the Diaspora, the Jewish people have felt no need whatsoever for a Mikdash, because they have no longer lived as a nation in their own land, but rather in independent communities, which for the most part are detached from the land and from statehood.


            Another important reason that we may not feel that something is missing is that it is very difficult to yearn for the unfamiliar.  The only way for us to know about the Mikdash today is through serious and comprehensive analysis of the sources that describe it.  Generally speaking, we fail to engage in such study, because, among other reasons, there is no practical need that forces us to deal with matters relating to the Mikdash on a regular basis.[2]


            With the destruction of the Mikdash, we lost more than two hundred mitzvot!  Assuming that mitzvot are mechanisms through which we can draw near to God, this fact highlights the great extent to which our connection to God has been constricted as a result of the destruction.


            More than anything else, however, a live and dynamic Mikdash service greatly impacted on day-to-day life.  This finds striking expression in the far-reaching decrees that certain groups of Perushim (Pharisees) tried to impose in the aftermath of the destruction.  A baraita relates:


When the Mikdash was destroyed for the second time, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, forbidding themselves to eat meat or to drink wine. 

Rabbi Yehoshua got into conversation with them and said to them: "My sons, why do you neither eat meat nor drink wine?"

They replied: "Shall we eat meat which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that it is void? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, now that it is void?"

He said to them: "If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the flour-offerings are void."

They said: "[That is so, and] we can manage with fruit."

"We should not eat fruit either," [he said,] "because there is no longer an offering of bikkurim."

"Then we can manage with other fruits,"[3] [they said]. 

"But," [he said,] "we should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water."  To this they could find no answer, so he said to them: "My sons, come and listen to me.  Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen.  To mourn too much is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure, as it is written: '...even this whole nation' (Malakhi 3:9).  The Sages therefore have ordained thus: A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare…  A man can prepare a full-course banquet, but he should leave out an item or two…  A woman can put on all her ornaments, but leave off one or two… 

As it says: "If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget.  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not, if I do not put Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Tehillim 137:5-6). What is meant by "my chief joy"? Rav Yitzchak said: This is symbolized by the ashes which we place on the head of a bridegroom… 

Whoever mourns for Zion will be privileged to behold its joy, as it says: "Rejoice you with Jerusalem [all who mourn for it]" (Yeshayahu 66:10).

It has been taught: "Rabbi Yishma'el ben Elisha said, 'Since the day of the destruction of the Mikdash, we should by rights prohibit ourselves from eating meat or drinking wine; however, we do not lay a hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it.  Similarly, from the day that the evil government spread, issuing cruel and harsh decrees, abrogating for us the Torah and mitzvot... we ought by rights to bind ourselves not to marry and beget children, and the seed of Avraham our father would come to an end of itself.  However, let Israel go their way; it is better that they do so out of ignorance than knowingly.'"  (Bava Batra 60b)[4]


            The Perushim who lived through the destruction of the Mikdash saw God's table reflected in their own; therefore, in the aftermath of the destruction, it should no longer be permissible to eat meat or drink wine that had once been offered on the altar.  We must note that even though Rabbi Yehoshua responds to those Perushim by demonstrating the absurdities of carrying their argument to its logical conclusion and by proposing more practical ways to commemorate the destruction, his primary argument is that we cannot impose such a harsh decree upon the entire community.  On the fundamental level, however, he does not deny the essential connection between certain foods and their ceremonial role on the altar!


            We ourselves are very far removed from the feelings experienced by these Perushim who survived the destruction of the Mikdash, and we find it difficult to understand even the very natural and self-evident connection that they saw between their own tables and the altar, God's table on earth.[5]


            In order to try and appreciate the significance of a standing Temple, we will relate to various aspects of life in its shadow.[6]  As we will explain later in the series, the Mikdash was meant to actualize two main objectives (each of which having many practical expressions): to serve as the resting-place of God's Shekhina (Presence) and to function as the place where humanity serves God.  Here we will focus on man's loss of his place of worship.




The existence of the Mikdash – especially the first Mikdash, in which the Shekhina rested – is one of the most important expressions of the highest level of Jewish life.  The elements of statehood and service monarchy, priesthood, prophecy, and the Sanhedrin convening in Lishkat Ha-gazit – constitute the full spiritual and national expression of the Jewish people.  The combined effect of these forces allowed for the realization of the highest level of the Jewish people's relationship with God in the Mikdash.


In this part of the shiur, we will bring several examples of the Mikdash serving as the site of communal worship, that which represented all of Israel.




We learn in tractate Ta'anit (4:2):


What are the ma'amadot (convocations)?

As it says: "Command the children of Israel, and say to them, 'My food that is presented to Me'" (Bamidbar 28:2) – how can a person's offering be brought if he is not present?  The earlier prophets instituted twenty-four mishmarot (watches); each mishmar was represented in Jerusalem by its own ma'amad of priests, Levites and Israelites.  When the time came for the mishmar to go up, the priests and Levites went up to Jerusalem, and the Israelites of that mishmar assembled in their cities and read [from the Torah] the story of Creation.


            Rashi explains (Ta'anit 26a, s.v. Al kol mishmar):


There were twenty-four mishmarot of priests, instituted by Shemuel and David.  For each mishmar, there was a ma'amad in Jerusalem, [the members of which] were stationed in the city, standing by the sacrifice brought by their brethren.  In addition to those living in Jerusalem there were ma'amadot in every city, for Israel was divided into twenty-four ma'amadot corresponding to the twenty-four mishmarot… This is what we have learned: "There was a ma'amad in Jerusalem of priests, of Levites and of Israelites." 

"The priests and the Levites" went up to Jerusalem, the priests for service and the Levites for song.  From among each of the ma'amadot there were those who were stationed in Jerusalem to stand over the sacrifices of their brethren. 

"And the rest would assemble in their cities” to pray that the sacrifices of their brethren be favorably accepted.


            Twice a year each mishmar and ma'amad would assemble in Jerusalem for a total of two weeks of holy "reserve duty," during which time they would serve in the Mikdash as the representatives of the people of Israel.




The half-shekel contributed by each and every member of Israel turns him into a full fiscal partner, a co-owner in the regular Temple service.  The half-shekel levy financed the entire Temple service: the communal offerings, the red cows and the scapegoat and crimson strip of Yom Kippur (Shekalim 4:1).  Any funds that were left over were used to cover the communal expenses of Jerusalem – the aqueduct, the city walls and towers, and other municipal needs (ibid. 2) – and thus all of Israel participated in the support and upkeep of the city.  The financial responsibility for the Temple service and the beautification and strengthening of Jerusalem fell not only upon those living in the capital, but upon all of Israel.  This responsibility allowed them to feel connected to and a part of the city and the Mikdash.


Today it is customary to collect money on the day before Purim "in remembrance of the half-shekel."  Every year the synagogues are filled with more and more plates through which one can contribute to charity, free-loan societies, yeshivot, settlement activity, and other projects.  Let us try to imagine all of those plates, without exception, in all of the synagogues in every town and village, in Israel and throughout the world, being sent off to a single address: the Mikdash.  What a great feeling of belonging and unity, of every member of Israel being an equal partner, this would generate!  "The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel" (Shemot 30:15).


3.         HAKHEL


Once every seven years, at the conclusion of the sabbatical year, the entire nation – men, women and children – would assemble on the Temple Mount to hear the king read from the Torah (Devarim 31:10-13).  Following a full year of resting from agricultural work and in its place engaging in Torah study, this assembly served as sort of a reenactment of the Mount Sinai experience on the Temple Mount.[7]  As the Rambam (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6) writes:


As for proselytes who do not know the Law, they must ready their hearts and prepare their ears to listen in awe and reverence and trembling joy, as on the day when the Torah was given on Sinai.


The hakhel assembly is the climax of the many public gatherings that regularly take place in the Mikdash – first and foremost of which is the pilgrimage to Jerusalem observed three times annually, on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – which effectively unite the entire people around God in the place where He rests His Shekhina in this world.  Especially striking among the pilgrimages to Jerusalem is the assembly connected to the paschal offering, which would connect each individual member of Israel to the nation as a whole, and the entire nation to God.


During the three pilgrimage festivals the Mikdash itself, the Temple Mount, and the entire area were swarmed with Jews coming from all over the world, who assembled in the Mikdash to see and be seen by the Shekhina resting therein.  It is not by chance that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's interpretation of the passage, "Jerusalem, built as a city that is joined (chubera) together.  There the tribes would go up" (Tehillim 122:3-4) – a city that turns all of Israel into friends (chaverim) (Yerushalmi, Chagiga 3:6)[8] – relates specifically to the time of the pilgrimage festivals.




            We have briefly noted the dimension of community that finds expression in various aspects of the Mikdash service: the great communal assemblies, the full fiscal partnership of each and every member of Israel in the Mikdash service by way of the half-shekel, and representation of the entire nation in this service by way of the mishmarot and ma'amadot.


            Our worship of God today contains none of these elements: there is no all-inclusive mission in which each and every member of Israel participates on an equal financial basis, there is no service in which all of Israel is represented, and there are no communal assemblies in which the entire nation actively participates.[9]




In the Musaf prayers for the festivals we say: "Because of our sins we have been exiled from our country and banished far from our land:" we were punished not only with exile from our country, but also with banishment from the land, stemming from the transition to urban living.  Thus, it is difficult for us to understand the profundity of the expression of our connection to God through the bringing of bikkurim to the Mikdash.[10] We would like to bring here several examples that demonstrate the meaning of this connection.




When the Temple stood, the sixteenth of Nisan was a critical date for farmers and the entire people with respect to eating from the new grain (chadash).  Everybody waited for the moment that the omer would be waved in the Mikdash courtyard.  Every child understood in the simplest and most natural manner that the Mikdash was the source of blessing, and that before the sign was given in the Mikdash, one could not eat from the new crop.


The prohibition of chadash exists even today, and one is forbidden to eat of the new grain before the seventeenth of Nisan.  It seems, however, that the sixteenth of Nisan's place in the public consciousness with respect to using the new grain is much less significant, and that the primary contemporary meaning attached to the day is that the counting of the omer begins on the previous night.


2.         THE FIRST – TO GOD


And this shall be the priests' allotment… The first also of your grain, of your wine and of your oil… shall you give him.  For the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand to minister in the name of the Lord.  (Devarim 18:3-5)


            Nowadays, as well, we set aside terumot (the first of each crop) and ma'asrot (tithes).  But can anybody say that by laying aside these portions he gives the first of his crop to God?  It is very difficult to see in such action a remembrance of giving to a priest or Levite, the members of the tribe whose inheritance is God.




The three pilgrimage festivals are also days of judgment, each of them being connected to the produce of Israel – beginning with the time of reaping and ending with the time of ingathering.  Our Sages explained the festival mitzvot as follows:


It was taught: "Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Akiva, 'Why did the Torah say to bring the omer on Pesach?  Because Pesach is the time for [judgment on] produce.  The Holy One, Blessed be He, says, "Bring before Me the omer on Pesach, so that the produce in the fields be blessed for you.”  And why did the Torah say to bring the two loaves on Shavuot?  Because Shavuot is the time for [judgment on] fruits of the tree.  The Holy One, Blessed be He, says, "Bring before me the two loaves on Shavuot, so that the fruits of the tree be blessed for you.”  And why did the Torah say to pour water libations during the Festival [of Sukkot]?  The Holy One, Blessed be He, says: "Pour water before Me on the Festival, so that the annual rains be blessed for you.”'”  (Rosh Ha-shana 16a)


When we bring our grain, our fruit and our water to the Mikdash we express our profound recognition that God is the source of all our material blessings.  We thereby give two-fold hoda'a, in both senses of the word: thanksgiving for the good - the abundance of blessing that we receive on every festival; and admission of the truth - that God is the source of all good.


In the chapters dealing with the Temple, King David proclaims: "For all things come of You, and of Your own have we given You" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:14).  Everything comes from God, and what we bring Him is already His.  This statement captures the essence of the Mikdash: a central place where the people of Israel express in diverse ways (donating grain and fruit, offering sacrifices, praying, bowing, pilgrimage and judgment) that God is the source of all and where we give Him of what He gave us.  Thus we feel and express His lordship and kingship over us and over the entire world.  God provides us with material blessing; and we bring to the Temple a small portion of what He gave us, in order to express our gratitude and to ask Him to continue providing us with all good things in the future as well.


The offering of the omer allows the new crop of grain to be eaten throughout the country, and the two-loaves offering allows it to be used in the Mikdash.  These two offerings express thereby the nation's gratitude for the blessings of the land, and deepen the fundamental connection between the land and the Mikdash.[11]  On Sukkot, the people of Israel bring the last drops of water from their cisterns to the Mikdash, in order to beseech God to provide them with rains of blessing during the coming year.


The bringing of grain and fruit to the Mikdash is also connected to the fact that the creation of the world began at the Even Ha-shetiya (the Foundation Stone) in the Holy of Holies.  We are commanded to bring grain, fruit and water to the place where the world was established and where the connection between the Creator and His creation was first revealed, in order to emphasize that all blessings come from God, the source of all.


4.         BIKKURIM


Besides the thanksgiving offerings brought by the nation as a whole, individuals would bring their bikkurim between Shavuot and Sukkot.[12]  Thus they express their gratitude not only for the produce that they receive each year, but also for our very arrival in the country and settlement therein, which are acts of lovingkindness that are renewed each year. 


The bringing of the bikkurim to Jerusalem is described in detail in the third chapter of Bikkurim.  The bikkurim were brought up in convoys which would spend the night camped in the city streets and march on the next morning in a colorful procession.  When the pilgrims would approach Jerusalem, it would be greeted by the city's residents, who would accompany their guests until they reached the city's gates.  This was a very important public assembly which was held throughout the summer on all the roads in the country, and especially in Jerusalem.  It would connect the entire country to its ultimate focus: the seat of God's presence in this world.


The ceremony that was observed in the Temple courtyard – bringing the bikkurim in decorated baskets, reading the relevant Torah passage, resting the fruits at the foot of the altar, waving them, and bowing down before God – was the climax of bringing the bikkurim to Jerusalem, which began when the fruit was set aside and designated as bikkurim, continued with the mass and festive pilgrimage in convoys through the various cities, and ended with the reception in Jerusalem and the bringing of the bikkurim amid song and music to the Temple courtyard itself.


In his book Ner Le-ma'or,[13] Rav Neriya, zt"l, brings the words of the Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Ki Tavo (1):


Moshe, may he rest in peace, saw with the Holy Spirit that the Mikdash would eventually be destroyed and the bikkurim would eventually cease, [at which point] he stood up and enacted for Israel that they pray three times a day.


            How is the bringing of bikkurim once or twice a year equivalent to praying three times a day?  Rav Neriya explains that this is connected to the great intimacy with God that a Jew enjoys when he brings his bikkurim.  There is no other situation like it, when even one who is not a priest or Levite is given the opportunity to draw near to God and truly feel what it means to stand before Him: to draw so near to the altar, to stand so close to God and to bow down before Him.  Such an intimate experience is the essence of prayer, and therefore, according to the Midrash, the prayers were instituted to substitute for the bikkurim.


            It is hard for us today to imagine the significance of bringing bikkurim, first of all, because "we have been banished far from our land," and our basic relationship with the land has changed; secondly, because our worship of God embraces thought, desire, speech and action in the fulfillment of the various mitzvot, but today we do not take real fruit "belonging to us" to give to God.[14]


Bringing the fruit from our homes to the Temple courtyard demonstrates our love for God and our gratitude for all His acts of kindness toward us, on the one hand, and our recognition of His lordship over us, our land and our crops, on the other.[15]




            The overall meaning of the mitzvot that are dependent upon the land of Israel and are observed in the Mikdash is the fixed and unmediated encounter between man and God around the produce of his fields and orchards.  This is a live and continuous encounter between the physical and the spiritual, between earth and heaven.  When agricultural produce is brought to the Mikdash, the physical world rises to its highest spiritual level.


(Translated by David Strauss)


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



[1]   These enactments are brought in the Mishna, Rosh Ha-shana 4:1-4, and in the Talmud, Rosh Ha-shana 29b-31b.

[2]   The Machzor Ha-mikdash series for the festivals, published by Makhon Ha-mikdash, allows us to imagine the pilgrimages undertaken to the Mikdash in Jerusalem, the offering of the sacrifices, and the unique elements of each of the Festivals. One of the ways to recreate within us the consciousness of the Mikdash and its absence is by contrasting the holiday in the context of the Mikdash to its modern version.

[3]   Bikkurim are brought only from the seven species of the land of Israel, as listed in Devarim 8:8 (Bikkurim 1:3).

[4]  Like the baraitot cited here, other sources from the period of the destruction of the Mikdash express an extremely radical feeling of mourning, to the point of loathing life and refraining from bringing children into the world. In the Apocrypha, for example, Barukh the Syrian writes (Barukh 9:6-19):

Blessed is he who was not born,

Or he, who having been born, has died.

But as for us who live, woe unto us,

Because we see the afflictions of Zion,

And what has befallen Jerusalem

You farmers, sow not again;

And, earth, why give you your harvest fruits?

Keep within you the sweets of your sustenance.

And you, vine, why further do you give your wine;

No offering will be made therefrom in Zion.

Nor will the first-fruits again be offered…

And you, you bridegrooms, enter not in,

And let not the brides be adorned with garlands,

And, you women, pray not that you may bear.

For the barren shall above all rejoice,

And those who have no sons shall be glad,

And those who have sons shall have anguish.

For why should they bear in pain,

Only to bury in grief?

Or why, again, should mankind have sons?

Or why should the seed of their kind again be named, Where this mother is desolate,

And her sons are led into captivity?

[5]  Consider the following: can anyone honestly say that when he tells his children that a table is like an altar and therefore one should not sit on it, that he really feels that this is true, and that he is eating from God's table?

                We do, however, find a reminder of this idea in the Sefardi and Eastern rites, according to which it is customary to add the following at the end of the Retzei Ve-hachalitzeinu passage inserted into the Birkat Ha-mazon recited on Shabbat: "And even though we have eaten and drunk, we have not forgotten the destruction of your great and holy Mikdash.  Forget us not for eternity, and forsake us not forever, for You are a great and holy God and King." We testify, as it were, that our eating on Shabbat does not mean that we are ignoring the Temple's absence.

[6]  We do not pretend to encompass in the small space that has been allotted to us all the various areas connected to the Temple service, but only to present several examples, in an attempt to demonstrate the enormity of our loss.

[7]  This is based on the view that the Mikdash is a direct continuation of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as explained by the Ramban, Shemot 25:1. We shall address this point in the next shiur.

[8]  This parallels the interpretation of the Yerushalmi, Bava Kama 7:7: "A city that joins Israel one to the other."

[9]  An assembly was held at the end of Sukkot 5748 at the foot of the Temple Mount in remembrance of the hakhel ceremony. Many people participated in the event, but it was not celebrated by all of Israel.

[10]  This phenomenon has great spiritual significance irrespective of the Mikdash, but this is not the forum to discuss the matter at length.

[11]  Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook expands upon this idea in his article, "Ha-chadash Bi-mdina U-vamikdash" (Ma'amarei Ha-ra'aya, pp. 181-182), where he emphasizes that "there is no Mikdash without a state and no state without a Mikdash."  See also Rav Shelomo Fisher, Bet YishaiDerashot, Pt. 1, Derasha Le-shabbat Ha-gadol 1, p. 7 ff.

[12]  As for the ingathering of the oil which continues until Chanukka, the Tanna'im disagree whether from Sukkot to Chanuka one brings bikkurim and reads the mandated text (Devarim 26:5-10) or one brings them without reading that passage (Bikkurim 1:6).

[13]  Rav Moshe Tzevi Neriya, Ner Le-ma'or Al Chamisha Chumshei Torah, ed. by Rav Nachum Neriya, Merkaz Shapiro, 5761, pp. 459-460.

[14]  Bringing sacrifices to the Mikdash also involves giving to God of that which is most dear to man, especially in the case of sacrifices that are not brought in the wake of sin, but as free-will offerings.

[15]  There are other mitzvot that apply only in the Land of Israel and are connected to our discussion, e.g. clearing out tithes and making the declaration of tithes (Devarim 26:12-15).