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The Place of the Holy Temple Today

This week* the Samaritans (Shomronim in Hebrew or Kutim in the Mishna) celebrate Pesach, Passover. The Samaritans keep the laws of the Torah explicitly, without any reference to our Oral Law, the Talmud, the Mishnah and Gemara. As they intercalate independently, and are not restricted as to the day of the week on which a festivals falls, there is sometimes a disparity between their dates and ours.

Another important difference between the Samaritans and us is that, in addition to not accepting the Oral Law, they only possess the Torah plus the book of Joshua. As such they have no tradition of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yerushalayim is only "chosen" as the place of God's presence in our world in the Books of Samuel, revealed to King David. Whenever the Torah refers to the holy service, it is in "the place which God will select".

Considering that the Torah was given in the Sinai desert and on the plains of Moab, before the entry of the Children of Israel into western Israel, this is not unreasonable. No-one remembered the geography of the Promised Land, so specifying a particular place would be meaningless.

An amazing, though little known fact, is that when the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River, near Jericho, their first action was not the conquest of that city, though they did do that soon enough. Instead, the entire nation travelled westward, from the Jordan Valley into the Samarian mountains, to the twin peaks of Eval and Gerizim, the mountains of the Curses and Blessings respectively. The tribes were commanded to assemble at this location (interestingly the Torah names these mountains, though they are visible from Moab where the command was given) in two groups. One congregation stood on Har Grizim and the other on the facing Har Eval. In the valley in between (today the city of Shechem, Nabulus), stood the priests, reciting blessings and curses. As each blessing or curse was announced, the people answered Amen in unison.

At this time, Joshua built an altar and sacrificed to God on Har Eval. By this act, claim the Samaritans, Joshua revealed God's choice for the location of his "House".

The Samaritans' text of this episode relates the building of Yehoshua's altar on Har Grizim. Why the change? I can only assume it was inappropriate for the House of God to be built on the cursed mountain. For reasons which I won't detail here now, it is actually more likely that Har Grizim is the mountain we today call Har Kabir, on which the town of Alon Moreh located.

I asked the Samaritans why they do not rebuild their Temple now. The political problems we face over our site in Yerushalayim does not apply to them. They retort that, while they were once a nation of over a million souls, today they number less than eight hundred. They need to build up their population before they could undertake such a far-reaching project. I think that rebuilding would provide them a focus they now lack and afford them a rallying point.

The Torah teaches us diverse sacrifices. Broadly speaking, one aspect differentiating these is who eats from the offering. At the "highest" level, Olah, only the altar "benefits", namely the entire animal is burnt. The next level provides food, in addition to the altar, for the priests. Others offerings provide for the altar, the cohanim and the owners, those who bring the animal. The Pascal sacrifice falls into a category called shelamim, from the Hebrew root for both "peace" and "whole". The implication is that, as many people together benefit from the offering, peace is brought into the world.

Once a year, each Jew (and Samaritan) is commanded by the Torah to join a family group and "sacrifice" a lamb or kid, in commemoration of the events preceding our leaving bondage in Egypt. As in Egypt, each group ends the commemoration partaking of the meat.

According to our Talmudic tradition and also to that of the Samaritans, the Temple needs to be standing in order for altar offerings to be made. And no sacrifice may be performed outside the Temple.

The only exception is the Pascal Lamb. We do not need the built Temple, merely the location of the altar. We may build a temporary earthen structure for the purpose. And we know where our altar stood. The reason we do not carry out this part of Passover today is purely political. But the site of the Samaritan temple does not engender similar emotions. And they do perform the annual Pesach rite.

Many of us eagerly await the return, speedily in our days, to again sacrifice, first the Pascal Lamb, and soon after, with the rebuilding of our Temple, all the other rituals which were performed there. The Rambam, in his Yad Hazaka enumerates the biblical commandments that apply to all times. He includes all of the Temple Service.

Many of our prayers, especially the musaf supplications, focus on this reinstitution. "Our God, the God of our fathers, oh merciful King . . . build our House [Temple] as it was at first . . . return the priests to their work . . . where we will sacrifice with love."

Three times a day, we beseech God to "rebuild the Beth haMikdash speedily in our days . . . and there we will carry out the Temple service, in fear, as in the days of old."

But today it appears that most of our Jews do not care about rebuilding our Temple in Jerusalem nor about restoring animal sacrifices. Especially not restoring animal sacrifice! Why?

Let's first have a look at sacrificial process. A person who inadvertently commits a sin, or someone who wants to thank God for His goodness [there are other cases], selects an animal which he explicitly dedicates. The beast must be of high quality, without blemish. The owner brings it to Yerushalayim, to the Temple compound. Four acts are common to every type of sacrifice. The animal is slaughtered according to specific rules, designed to cause the animal minimum discomfort. This may be done either by the owner or by one of the priests. The next three steps must be carried out by priests. A side-effect of the slaughter process is that blood quickly exits the animal's jugular. A cohen catches some of this into a bowl, which he carries to the mizbe'ach, the outdoor altar. When close enough to the altar, he sprinkles some blood onto it. This sprinkling ends the process of atonement and allows the next stage to occur. This varies with each type of offering. With the pesach, it is eating. However not all the animal is eaten by the owners. Some portions portions are given to the priests and certain fats are burned on the altar. Eating too has restrictions, largely relating to ritual purity.

Each animal offering is accompanied by two "vegetable" based components, the mincha or meal offering (a mixture of fine flour and oil) and wine, poured onto the altar.

A look at the architecture of the Temple. It strongly resembles the structure of residential housing at the time. We can still view many examples of houses from this period in the mountain areas of Israel. Homes consisted of one or two chambers, a living room and perhaps an inner bedroom. The kitchen was not inside. Food was prepared in the courtyard, where the oven was located. Houses were generally simply furnished: in the living room, a table for eating, an oil lamp and perhaps an incense burner; in the bedroom, a sanctum, the bed.

In our region, the ideal direction for the opening of your dwelling is towards the east, the rising sun. You capture the beautiful morning light, and avoid the heat of the day.

The Temple is built on this architectural model. In the courtyard are the food preparation facilities. This has the lowest level of holiness. The cohanim performing their ritual tasks, the levi'im singing accompaniments to the Temple service and the owner of an animal during its offering, may be present here.

Holiness increases in the heichal, the main Temple building. Only cohanim with very specific tasks enter. The menorah is here. So is the table, on which bread is always present. The last heichal item is the golden altar, on which twice a day a cohen burns fine incense. At the far end of the heichal is a wall (or later, a pair of curtains), separating off a private area. This is the holiest place on the earth. Only the High Priest may enter, once a year. Inside this Holy of Holies is the ark, containing the stones of the ten commandments. On the lid of this ark are the figures of two cherubs, one male, the second, female.

I find it interesting that the Torah introduces us to sacrifice in the story of Cain and Abel. Both of them, after a productive year, offer a portion of their produce to the Lord. They were not commanded to do this -- it was, like natural justice and the language instinct, a built-in desire of man. It existed across the gamut of humanity. This "desire" seems to have dissipated around two thousand years, not long after the destruction of our Temple. In most societies, prayer and meditation took the place of animal sacrifice. Today, even prayer is disappearing.

Today's criticism of animal sacrifice is centred on the practice being primitive in today's modern world. Why?

Nearly all of us enjoy eating meat, but very few see animals other than on their plate. Some see it, sanitised, nicely shrink-wrapped in the supermarket refrigerator. Cruel factory farms are intentionally kept out of the sight of potential consumers. Almost no-one visits an abattoir. So no-one can be disgusted by the way animals are mistreated.

We don't think of any of this when we go out to a restaurant and order a rare sirloin steak, a thick piece of meat, the animal's juices oozing out onto your plate. Some love to soak their bread into the gravy mixture to fully appreciate their piece of animal -- and of course to wash it all down with a good glass of red wine.

Perhaps one of the "problems" with the use of animals in the Beth haMikdash is that the preparation of the food is carried out very publicly. First the owner pushes his hands down onto the cow's head and confesses his sins. Then the four stages of sacrifice I described above are carried out.

But the altar is merely a metaphor for our restaurant table. Meat, bread, wine. Man's meal corresponds closely to the Divine menu. Why do we enjoy eating this, but are uncomfortable watching it in front of our eyes in technicolor detail? Is it because in the Temple context it comes to represent our own frailty of life? Vibrantly full one moment -- suddenly ended with the flick of a blade? Our blood and fat, the same biological substance as the cow or sheep? I think that this is an important lesson that many choose to ignore. They fail to the see the eternity that the Temple teaches.

In sacrifices like the Pesach, most of the animal is eaten by us, the common people. Why is this different from the barbecues in which we, especially Israelis (c.f. mangal), love to partake? Because here the animal arrives nicely chopped and packaged? If it mooed all morning in your yard, awaiting the ritual slaughterer, how many would absent themselves from the following feast?

Only our intentions differentiate "holy eating" from "regular" meals.

To simplify matters further for the squeamish, only one member of the clan accompanies the Pascal Lamb to the Temple. The rest of the family eagerly waits at home. Then the meat can be barbecued. Who could have a problem with this?

I for one pray daily for the speedy rebuilding of the Beth haMikdash where we, all the Jews, and Gentiles too as prophesied by Isiah and Zecahriya, will be able to come close to God via the sharing of our food with Him.

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You are welcome to view my photographs and book of the Samaritans pascal rite.


* I wrote this article on 12th Iyar, 5770. The 14th Iyar is our Pesach Sheni, the day the Torah allotted to people unable to bring the Pesach a month earlier. This year the Samaritans' Pesach happened on the same date.

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