During the “Three Weeks,” when we remember the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, it is customary to study the portions of the Talmud which detail the structure and function of these magnificent buildings where G‑d’s presence was manifest.
Two popular tractates are Middot, which discusses the layout of the Second Temple, and Tamid, which spells out the daily routine of the Levites and kohanim who served in the Temple.
Interestingly, both tractates begin with the same line—“In three places, the kohanim guard the Temple”—and then launch into a discussion of the stations of the honor guards who would remain awake all night to guard the Temple Mount.
The first point of departure between the two texts is that Tamid mentions only the three places where the kohanim would stand, while Middot goes on to list the 21 spots where Levite guards would stand as well. (The remainder of the tractates are quite different, although there is some overlap.)
Why the difference? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak devotes 25 pages of dense Kabbalistic text to explaining this discrepancy through the lens of Jewish mysticism.
The following is a mere sample skimmed from a rich and deeply nuanced analysis:
Chesed vs. Gevurah
Our first clue lies in the names of the two tractates.
Tamid, “Constant,” thus named because it enumerates that which took place on a constant basis, denotes the unbounded flow of divine energy that is characterized by the Kabbalistic modality of chesed—kindness.
Middot, “Measures,” thus named because it tells of the precise measurement of many of the Temple buildings, denotes the G‑dly attribute of gevurah—severity, strength and justice. With gevurah, G‑d curtails the effervescent flow of chesed.
This same distinction between chesed and gevurah also appears between the kohanim and the Levites.
The souls of the kohanim are derived from chesed, which is why they bless the nation of Israel after first saying, “Blessed are You . . . who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless His Nation of Israel with love.”
The souls of the Levites, on the other hand, come from gevurah.
Quite appropriately, Middot discusses the placement of the Levite guards, since both the tractate and the tribe are gevurah-oriented. It follows that Tamid tells only of the placement of the kohen guards, who share its chesed bent.
The Author Unmasked
Now let’s peel back another layer. The Talmud tells us that Middot came into being through the recollections of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, who lived through the harrowing years of the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent dispersion of our people.
It is not known for certain if Rabbi Eliezer was a Levite, but we do know that he traced his maternal lineage to Levite stock. And the sages tell us that most boys resemble the brothers of their mother. Thus, if Rabbi Eliezer’s mother’s brothers were gevurah-inclined Levites, it stands to reason that he would have also had a healthy dose of the same attribute. Thus, it is most appropriate that he would have been the one to author a gevurah-themed tractate.
Opening the book itself, we discover that there are two times where Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov stops the narrative, noting that he does not recall a specific detail: Concerning a specific chamber in the “women’s courtyard,” he says that he forgot its purpose. Abba Shaul then fills in, saying that it was used to store oil and wine, and that it was called the House of Oil in Aramaic.
The second instance concerns a chamber called the “Wood Chamber.” Again, Rabbi Eliezer forgot its purpose, and Abba Shaul steps in, saying that it was for the high priest.
Now, the very idea of forgetfulness, in which a certain piece of knowledge ends, is very much in line with gevurah, which curtails the unending flow of chesed.
But why did he forget the function of these two specific rooms?
Concerning the Wood Chamber, the answer is simple. Since the high priest epitomized the chesed of his fellow kohanim, it stood to reason that he would not find a permanent place in the gevurah-mind of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov.
Parenthetically, this is also expressed in the Torah’s treatment of manslaughter, which we read about in the portion of Massei. If one kills by accident, he must flee to a city of refuge, where he lives among the Levites until the death of the high priest. What does a killer have to do with the high priest? Why does he return home only when the high priest dies? The Midrash explains, “The killer shortens the days of man, and the high priest lengthens the days of man. Is it not right that the shortener of days should be present with the lengthener of days.”
And here we see the same division. The high priest, associated with unending kindness (lengthener of days) has no commonality with the accidental killer. On the other hand, the gevurah-oriented Levites can rehabilitate him, since they share a common trait—albeit expressed in a very different manner.
Indeed, the extending nature of the high priest is expressed in the very name of his office, the Wood Chamber, since trees often live for a very long time, much longer than humans.
Now let us turn our attention to the other chamber that Rabbi Eliezer forgot about: the Oil Chamber. Oil is also very strongly associated with the high priest, who was traditionally elevated to his position in a ceremony that included special anointing oils.
Since the ever-flowing oil was so closely linked to the high priest, the chamber named for it could not remain in Rabbi Eliezer’s gevurah-leaning consciousness.
Let us conclude with a prayer that we soon merit to once again see the Holy Temple in all its glory, with the high priest, anointed by oil, in his Wood Chamber and the Levites doing their guard duty, everyone involved in the constant, unending service of the Almighty.
Based on a lengthy discussion found in Torat Levi Yitzchak 270–294.