Seeing the Temple

The Levite statue at the entrance to Machon Hamikdash, the Temple Institute
The Levite and me

At the entrance to Machon HaMikdash, the Temple Institute, stands a statue of a Levite dressed in his work clothes—a white robe and head covering, red belt, and no shoes. He holds his long trumpet near his mouth, as if ready to provide the musical accompaniment to the next Psalm. As we entered the museum, several of us stopped to take pictures with him. It isn’t everyday you see a fully dressed Levite in the streets of Jerusalem.

In 1967, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel was a paratrooper, one of the first to pray at the liberated Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. He interpreted that experience as being the start of the Geula—the final redemption of the Jewish people that would be completed with the rebuilding of the Temple on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. If temple worship was to be reinstated, appropriate instruments and utensils would be needed. He and a group of like-minded people began to study the Bible, Mishna, and Gemara for descriptions of how these were originally made and what they looked like. And then they set out to make them.

It was a complicated process, requiring much study and interpretation of the original texts. Some of the details were argued over, back and forth among the scholars, until a final decision was made. And then they had to find craftsmen with the necessary skills to actually do the work. Many of Temple furnishings and tools were pure gold or silver.

My Tour with Text class on the Second Temple period spent an hour at the Temple Institute this week viewing these objects and learning about the Temple’s operation. It’s one thing to read about the Temple service in the Bible or Talmud. It’s another thing entirely to see the pitchers and bowls and spice altar in front of you, exactly as they looked in the Temple over 1900 years ago.  Every item in the museum is authentic, made to the original specifications.  As we walked through the museum, we saw silver trumpets, gold pitchers for olive oil, the copper washing station, a gold incense altar. They are all ready to be used tomorrow should the Moshiach arrive today. All authentic, except for two things that Shulie Mishkin, our guide, would be careful to point out.

Painting of Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem
King Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem, as the ark is carried in by Levites.

A large model of the Second Temple made of marble, copper, and gold, stands in the middle of the first room. It is surrounded of paintings depicting scenes in its history. The paintings are interesting because of their historical accuracy according to traditional commentators. They also show some creativity in their artistic interpretation of the events. It was easy to identify what each one depicted. One shows the tabernacle in the desert and at Shilo. King David dances in front of the ark as it enters into Jerusalem in another painting. A third shows King Solomon dedicating the Temple.

In the next three rooms, additional paintings depicted aspects of the Temple service. In the second room we saw paintings of them arrayed on fifteen steps as they would have been when playing and singing the Psalms of ascent. Two Cohen Gadol (High Priest) mannequins stood in a glass case near the entrance. One was dressed in the Cohen’s daily clothes and the other wore the all white Yom Kippur clothing. Shuli pointed out the small bells and pomegranates attached to the hem of the everyday blue tunic. “Just a few years ago,” she said, “we found a small bell in the old Roman sewer leading down from Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). So we know this is what they actually looked like.”

The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, at Temple Institute, Jerusalem
The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus

I examined the clothes carefully. My father was a Cohen, as were his father and grandfather before him. Had I been a boy, I too would have been a Cohen, and worn these linen clothes to work. In those days before bleach and washing machines, how would we have kept those robes, hats, and sashes so white? Linen wrinkles easily—would our clothes ever have looked as neat as those on the mannequins? I wondered if the families were responsible for care of the priestly garments, or was there a special laundry on the Temple Mount.

A related question came up when we entered the third room, the one devoted to the inner sanctuary, menorah, and the Holy of Holies. Here we saw models of two items: the menorah and the ark. The Temple Institute commissioned a Temple menorah, more than six feet tall made of 43 kilos of pure gold. It stands in a clear case on one of the landings of the long stairway leading from the Jewish Quarter down to the Kotel, where almost anyone who visits the Kotel can see it.

The simulated ark sits behind a red curtain designed to hang in the sanctuary, in

Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies in front of a model of what the ark looked like, at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem
Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies and the ark

front of the Holy of Holies. The Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, was the only person to ever walk into the Holy of Holies, which he did only on Yom Kippur. The Holy of Holies was a dangerous place; if the High Priest was not worthy of his office, he would die. There was a custom to tie a rope around the Cohen’s foot, so if he did die, the other priests would be able to pull him out. In the last years of the Second Temple, when the High Priesthood was often achieved by bribery or political machinations, this situation supposedly occurred regularly.

Which raises the question: How did they clean the Holy of Holies? Jerusalem is on the edge of the desert and experiences regular dust storms in addition to its normal dusty condition. If you fail to clean your house for a week, you’ll notice the dust. If the dust settles on our bookcases so quickly even when the windows are closed, it surely was filtering into the Temple. And that’s in addition to the smoke of the incense the High Priest brought in on Yom Kippur, and perhaps spilled bits of the incense itself.

Apparently, the holiness pertains only to the floor. If you could enter without walking through the doorway, you were safe. On the roof of the building were two trap doors. Young priests would sit on a platform that was lowered down into the Holy of Holies, and they would reach over and clean it. In the Temple as it was remodeled by Herod, the ceiling was very high. Cleaning it must have been a pretty scary job.

In the last room, where groups can sit to discuss what they’ve learned of the past and the future, one last painting hangs on the wall. The rebuilt Temple looks just like the models of the Second Temple, and the city behind is full of large buildings. In the lower right corner, a tram pulls into the Temple light rail station.

As we were leaving, a large group of boisterous five and six year olds came down the street and into the building. The Temple Institute is not only a museum, but an educational institution. It makes the Bible come alive. These school children were excited to be coming here to see it all as it was, and will be.

I overheard two little boys talking as they approached. “Look,” said one, pointing to the statue at the top of the entrance stairs, ”There’s a Cohen.”

His friend corrected him. ”No it’s not. That’s a Levi—a Cohen wouldn’t have a trumpet.”

These children, they already know.

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