Monday, January 10, 2011

What we don’t know could fill volumes

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

In preparing the Daf for last Friday, I saw an interesting discussion regarding the construction of the mizbeiach [altar] in the Beit haMikdash [Temple in Jerusalem].

Without going into great detail: We learn that the Temple Mount was constructed atop a set of hollow areas, for technical reasons. However, the altar would be disqualified if the space beneath it was hollow.

The Mishneh l’Melech (Hilchot Beit haBechirah 1:13) sought to prove that the altar stood on solid ground (based on an incident involving a skull unearthed from beneath it). As part of his discussion, he said that this altar was located beneath a roof.

I related this comment of the Mishneh l'Melech in my Daf shiur – and was challenged based on the fact that traditional pictures of the Beit haMikdash describe this altar as standing in the open air. Here's a sample photo of one model, from

And this from the Holy Land Hotel’s model:

And that’s what people assume. But the Rambam writes (Hilchot Beit haBechirah 5:1), as the Mishneh l'Melech understood, that the courtyard in which this altar stood was covered.

Then again, the Babylonian Talmud (such as Avos 5:7 and Yoma 21a) describes miracles regarding the smoke from the altar – that the winds never made the smoke sway, and that the rain never extinguished the fire on the altar. This leads the Rambam to write (commentary to that mishnah in Avos) that the altar stood in the open air. So which is it?

Rav Meshulam Roth (Kol Mevaser 2:39) compromises by saying that the entire yard was covered, other than the place of the altar, where the smoke rose.

But my point is not to resolve competing sources. My point is that there is so much we don’t know, so much information of which we are simply unaware.

For nearly two thousand years we’ve longed for the return of this Beit haMikdash; we have written and studied thousands of texts devoted to discussing its construction, describing its beauty, investigating its philosophical and mystical significance and so on; we’ve taught lectures and authored poetry and painted paintings and taught our children about it; we’ve fasted so many fasts, cried so many tears, sung so many songs about it-

-And we don’t even know whether the yard had a roof, or not.

It's like, רחמנא ליצלן, a child who has lost a parent, and after some years has difficulty remembering the parent's face.

What we have lost is staggering.


  1. Wow, it really is outstanding how we have forgotten.

    I always wonder about this when people don't know what Shevet they are from- why could each father have not simply have told their sons; why did it have to get lost over the generations?

  2. BY-
    You're welcome, thanks for doing HH!

    I suspect it simply wasn't information that was thought to be relevant. It is too bad, though.

  3. Is a roof or lack thereof a requirement? Maybe at times there was one, other times not?

  4. Marc-
    Are you thinking retractable dome? Seriously, though, I know of no requirement.

  5. yo propongo que el templo tendrá la siguiente forma: