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Guarding the Bait HaMikdash

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Devarim / Shabbat Chazon

When and Why was There a Mitzvah to Guard the Holy Temple

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This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, is known as Shabbat Chazon. The simple reason for this is that the first word of the Haftorah is Chazon. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov givesa deeper meaning as well. [1]  Chazon means a vision, the vision of the Bait HaMikdash which is shown to every Jew on this Shabbat. Some very righteous people merit to see this revelation while those who don’t see it consciously, their souls are aware of it. This vision awakens a yearning within us for the rebuilding of the holy Temple.
I therefore felt it was appropriate to write an article about the special mitzvah of guarding the Bait HaMikdash. Hopefully, this article, too, will add in our yearning towards the rebuilding of the Bait HaMikdash.
Guarding the Temple
The Tractates of Tamid and Middot begin with a discussion of where the Levites and Kohanim would stand while guarding the Bait HaMikdash. There was a total of 24 places, 21 of which were guarded by the Levites and 3 by the Kohanim.
Why Guard the Temple?
There are many reasons given as to why it was necessary to guard the Bait HaMikdash. The obvious reason is because it is a mitzvah, as the Torah says about the Levites, “They shall attend to the guarding of the Sanctuary and the guarding of the altar, so that there be no more wrath against the children of Israel.”[2] Several explanations are given to the underlying intention:
  • To Protect from Contamination
The most obvious reason, which is borne out by the verses in the Torah, is to ensure that those who are tamei (ritually impure) not contaminate the holy courtyards and sanctuary and that non-Kohanim be prevented from entering into areas where it is forbidden for them to go. As the verse says, “And they shall attend to the guarding of the Tent of Meeting… and no outsider (non-Kohen) shall come near you.”[3]In the words of Rashi,[4]  “I impose upon you (the Kohanim) the punishment of the outsiders who sin regarding the sacred objects entrusted to you… You shall sit and warn any unauthorized person who attempts to touch the sacred objects.” (The Levites are to help the Kohanim in this matter as stated in the next verse.) The Vilna Ga’on cites this reason in the beginning of his commentary on Tractate Tamid.
  • To Keep Our Mind on the Sanctuary
The Rosh[5] writes, “This guarding is not for fear of (the possibility) of stealing as there is no poverty in a place of wealth, i.e., it is beneath the dignity of the Bait HaMikdash, which is a place of wealth, to be concerned with small monetary losses that would occur through petty thievery. Rather it is a decree of the Torah as it says, ‘You shall guard.’ It is also honorable to the Mikdash (sanctuary) that we not remove our thoughts from it, neither by day nor by night, as Yehoyada, the Kohen Gadol, said to the Kohanim, “And you shall keep the watch of the palace without taking your mind off of it.”[6]
As to why it is important to not remove our thoughts from it, some say that the Levites (and the Kohanim) must constantly be paying attention that the Bait HaMikdash not become contaminated (tamei). In this sense, it is similar to the fact that one must always pay attention to a sacrifice and ensure that it does not become tamei.[7]
Some say[8] that the reason for not removing our thoughts from the Bait HaMikdash is to show our regard and reverence for this great house. In this sense, it is similar to Tefillin, which, due to their holiness, we are instructed to keep our minds on while wearing them.[9]
  • To Honor the Place
The Rambam says[10] that the purpose of the guards was to honor the holy place. In his words: “This mitzvah (of guarding the Temple) applies even though there is no fear of enemies or thieves, for the guarding of the Temple is an expression of respect for it. A palace with guards cannot be compared to a palace without guards, i.e., it is more impressive.”[11]
  • To Cut Off the Evil Forces
According to the Arizal, the purpose of the guarding was to ward off the negative energy (klipot). During the day, this was accomplished by the sacrifices which were offered. At night, when there were no sacrifices, the guards, who would not sleep but would speak words of Torah amongst themselves, would achieve this.[12]
When Did They Guard?
There are three opinions as to what time the guarding took place:
  • At Night
Many commentaries say that the Kohanim and Levites would only guard at night.[13]
Although the purpose of the guarding was to honor the Bait HaMikdash, during the day this was accomplished by all the sacrifices and ceremonies that took place.[14]
  • Day and Night
Some commentaries wrote that the guarding took place during the day and night.[15] Support for this opinion[16] can be brought from the verse, “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; all day and all night, they shall never be silent.”[17]
The guarding during both night and day was to honor the Bait HaMikdash. In addition, during the day it would ensure that non-Kohanim and those who were tamei (ritually impure) would not enter the areas forbidden to them.[18]
  • Some Areas by Night or Night and Some Day and Night
The Ra’avad’s opinion[19] is that there were some areas that were guarded only during the night while there were places that were guarded during the day and the night.[20] He bases this on the verse, “To the east, the Levites were six; to the north layom (for the day) four, to the south layom (for the day) four… to the west; four.”[21]
He interprets this verse in one of two ways: Either that in the north and south the Levites guarded throughout the entire day and night (understanding yom to be a 24-hour period), whereas in the east and west they only guarded during the night. The reason for the difference is that, during the day, the other areas had a lot of people there and did not need guarding.
Alternately, the Ra’avad interprets the word yom to mean daytime (only). This would mean that in the north and south, the guarding took place only during the day, whereas in the other areas the Levites guarded both by day and by night. It is possible that during the day more guards were needed to ensure that people did not enter the areas forbidden to them (as explained above), whereas at night, when the only reason for guarding was to honor the sanctuary, a smaller number of guards was sufficient.
How many Guarded?
The Rambam,[22] as well as the Sefer HaChinuch,[23] writes that there were 24 eidah (groups) that guarded the Bait HaMikdash. Although the word eidah can mean a group without a specific number, the later commentaries[24] understood that it refers to a minyan. Thus, in each of the 24 areas where the guards stood watch, there were 10 Levites or Kohanim. Thus, the total number of guards every night (or day, see above) was 240 (or 270).[25] The reason for this may have been that for many holy matters, one needs to have a minyan.[26] In addition, since one of the reasons of the guarding was to ward off the negative forces (see above), this was accomplished by having a minyan discussing Torah which reveals the Shechina (Divine presence).[27]
Some say that there was only one guard in each of the areas[28] and that the word eidah in the Rambam (and the Sefer HaChinuch) is a misprint.[29]
What Direction Did They Face?
The Rosh writes[30] that the guards would face east as the verse says, “To the east, the Levites were six; to the north layom (to the day) four, to the south layom (to the day) four… to the west; four.”[31] (He understands the word layom (to the day) to mean that they faced the direction of the rising sun which brings the day.) He writes that this may simply be a decree of G-d that we don’t understand (in which case it applied to all of the Levites), or it may be that this is referring only to the Levites who were near the east entrance. Since this was the main entrance, the Levites needed to be vigilant in preventing those who were ritually impure from entering. In that area, therefore, they would all face that entrance in order to survey the people.[32]
Some question this Rosh as there does not seem to be any (earlier) source stating that the Levites would face east.[33]
In the merit of studying about the Bait HaMikdash, may we soon see it with our own eyes with the imminent coming of Moshiach!

[1] Cited in Likutei Sichot vol. 29, Sicha on Shabbat Chazon, and in many places
[2] Numbers 18:5
[3] Ibid 4
[4] On ibid, 1. See also Rashi on 3:6.
[5] Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel of Cologne and Toledo (1250 – 1327). On the beginning of his commentary on Tamid.
[6] Kings II 11:6. In the context of that chapter it seems like Yehoyadah was instructing the Kohanim to pay attention to the “house” so that the followers of the wicked Queen Atalyah not kill the young Yoash whom they were readying to coronate as king who was hidden in the Bait HaMikdash at that time. The Rosh seems to understand the verse to mean that, although many of the Kohanim were assigned to protect the young (soon to be) king, some of them were supposed to continue doing their regular job of guarding the Sanctuary.
[7] Ezrat Kohanim on Midot 1:1 D.H. Bishlosha (3) paragraph beginning VeHaRav
[8] Likutei Sichot, vol. 13, pg. 61
[9] See Rambam, Hilchot Tefillin, 4:14
[10] Hilchot Bait HaBechirah, 8:1
[11] The comparison to palace guards can be found in the Sifri Zuta on Numbers 18:5
[12] Likutei Shas of the Arizal, end of Tractate Menachot, cited in Ezrat Kohanim D.H Ve’Esrim (1) paragraph Vegam Lashon.
[13] The following commentators held that the guarding was only done at night.
  • Rambam, ibid, halacha 2 “The mitzvah of guarding the Temple applies throughout the night.”
  • The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 388), “That the Kohanim and Levites were commanded to guard the Mikdash and go around it constantly every single night throughout the night.”
  • The Ramban (Numbers 1:53) “That they (the Levites) should guard at night and walk around the Mishkan.
  • Tosfot Yoma 10b D.H. Rabanan (the second) “There were many chambers that were only a temporary dwelling (and exempt from a Mezuzah) such as those that were guarded at the night and during the day.”
  • The Arizal (cited above) who explains that the purpose of guarding was to ward off the evil forces since there were no sacrifices at night.
  • The Tosfot Yom Tov (Middot, 1:1 D.H Shomrim).
[14] Likutei Sichot, vol. 13, pages 61 and 62
[15] This is the opinion of the Mefaresh on Tractate Tamid (25b D.H.  Hayu Aliyot). And the simple reading of the Rosh (cited above).
[16] See the Ra’avad quoted below that cites (in the name of Rabbi Shmuel HaChasid – father of Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid) this verse as a proof that the watching was constant. (The Ra’avad only understands this to be true about certain areas, see below).
[17] Isaiah 52:6
[18] Ezrat Kohanim page 152 (as printed by Mifal Torah HaMidash in Jerusalem in 2002), paragraph “Ve’im kein.”
[19] In his commentary on the first chapter of Tamid, page 29a in the Vilna publication of the Talmud
[20] Ra’avad on Tractate Tamid, 27a D.H. D.H. Litzfonah
[21] Divrei HaYamin 26:17- 18
[22] Ibid, 8:4
[23] Mitzvah 388
[24] The Ezrat Kohanim (pg. 154) quotes the following two commentaries who interpret the Rambam this way:
  • Shiltei HaGiborim by Rabbi Avraham HaRofeh (of Mantua, Italy 1542 – 1612), chapter 17
  • Tavnit Heichal by Yehuda Yaakov Aryeh ben Avraham (first printed in Amsterdam and then in Warsaw, 1860), Sefer 2, chapter 4, ot 27
[25] See Ezrat Kohanim (beginning of pg. 144) that some say that the Kohanim alone guarded three of the 24 places. This would make the total 240. Others say that, in those places, there was a group of both Kohanim and Levites placing the total number at 270.
[26] Tiferet Yisrael (Bo’az) on Tractate Tamid, 1:1. See Megillah 23b
[27] Ezrat Kohanim, ibid. See Avot, 1:6.
[28] See Aruch HaShulchan Ha’atid, Kodshim, 15:5 and Chatam Sofer quoted in Yalkut Biurim on the Metivta Shas, Tractate Tamid, 27a section beginning with the words VeKammah Levyim (I could not find this Chatam Sofer)
[29] Sefer HaHashlama on the Minchat Chinuch in the section by Rabbi Yerucham Leiner of Radzin, on Mitzvah 388. He writes that there is no source (preceding the Rambam) to say that there were ten people. He suggests either that eidah does not mean specifically ten or that the word was, originally, adam – אדם, and it was mistakenly copied as eidah – עדה. (The Ayin was mistaken for an Aleph and the final mem for a hei.)
[30] Commentary on Tractate Tamid, page 27a D.H. LaNegbah
[31] Chronicles 26:17- 18
[32] As explained by Ezrat Kohanim, page 150 D.H Be’esrim Ve’echad
[33] Zichron Menachem by Rabbi Menachem Nachum ben Shraga Feivel, on Tractate Tamid page 32b in the commentary he titles Chidushei HaRan
Wishing You all a Shabbat Shalom!
Aryeh Citron

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