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What Was the Holy Temple?

What Was the Holy Temple?


The Structure

The “Holy Temple”—in Hebrew, Beit Hamikdash (pronounced BAYt hah-MIK-dahsh)—was a large (approximately football-stadium-sized), multi-level, indoor-outdoor structure that was the nucleus of Judaism, its most sacred site. It stood atop Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah.

The first Beit Hamikdash was built by King Solomon in the year 833 BCE, and destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the year 423 BCE. The second Beit Hamikdash was completed in the year 349 BCE by Jewish returnees from the Persian exile, led by Ezra and Nehemiah. In the year 19 BCE, King Herod completed dramatic renovations to the dilapidated Temple, but marauding armies of the Roman Empire destroyed it in 69 CE, when the current galut (exile) began.

Very little architectural data about the first Beit Hamikdash has survived, unlike the second, about which much was recorded. Both consisted of a tall, majestic, ornate and geometric hall (heichal) surrounded by sweeping, stepped courtyards and castle-like stone walls. The outermost walls described a rectangle from a bird’s-eye view, within which were the stepped courtyards and the hall in the upper center. Within its wide courtyards were vast outdoor floor spaces for the thousands of pilgrims attending the tri-annual holiday services (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot),

Floor plan (top) and model (below) of the Second Temple
Floor plan (top) and model (below) of the Second Temple
a mighty altar where thousands of animals and birds were brought as offerings, and storage and staff facilities for the hundreds of on-duty kohanim (priests) and Levites (who assisted the kohanim). The hall housed a small incense altar, a ceremonial bread rack, a menorah, and the Holy of Holies—a small square room at the back of the hall formed by a wall-to-wall cloth partition, behind which was stored the Ark of the Covenant. The Holy of Holies was a space so ethereal that the laws of physics were suspended within its confines. It was entered only by the high priest, the most spiritual human being, on Yom Kippur, the most spiritual day of the year.

The Temple’s centrality to Jewish existence is reflected in the fact that many of the mitzvot are Temple-related: daily and weekly offerings; holiday pilgrimages and offerings; personal, voluntary and obligatory offerings; agricultural tithes; qualifying criteria for the Kohanim and Levites; Temple rituals; and the dos and don’ts for all of the above. We’re talking around 180 mitzvot (out of a total of 613).

What was/is the significance of the Temple?

The Confused Temple

The problem with the word “temple” is that Indiana Jones got to it. Today, whenever I say “temple,” I guarantee you’ll picture jungle, torches, hieroglyphics, dark foreboding stone entranceways; jungle, dark foreboding stone entranceways overgrown with jungle, illuminated by torches and inscribed with hieroglyphics; jungle, terrifying supernatural forces; and more jungle. And don’t forget rats, skulls, firepits and the occasional mummy. And jungle.

The Real Temple

With the jungle of pop-culture temple jingoism slashed and burned out of the way, let’s talk G‑d’s take on temples.

Today, when you want spirituality, you look inside yourself or at the world around you, and go to a rabbi to tell you what it is you’re looking at. Spirituality is wherever you want to find it. Once upon a time, though, spirituality was sparsely scattered here and there, and principally concentrated in one physical place. When you wanted to get spiritual, you went to that place: the Temple. The Holy Temple was the place where G‑d’s presence throughout the universe could be physically sensed.

When the Temple stood, G‑d was real to everyone. To find Him, you just traveled to Jerusalem and connected to Him at His Temple. The Temple was a symbol of G‑d: majestic, grand and awe-inspiring, because G‑d is majestic, grand and awe-inspiring. It was a shrine to G‑d and all the things that “G‑d” means: responsibility, morality, ethics, love, compassion, humility. It was a place where one found spirituality: the kohanim silently serving in awe of G‑d beyond words, the Levites singing boisterous songs of love for G‑d, the pilgrims fine-tuning their relationship with G‑d, the sights, the sounds.

You didn’t have to be Jewish to go to the Temple; kings and peasants from every country and culture traveled long distances just to experience it all. The Temple was the single most important structure in society, offering structure to society. Then it was destroyed.

The Final Temple

With the destruction of the second Temple, G‑d changed His mode of interaction with the universe. Until the destruction, the Temple was the window to G‑d; spirituality had a physical home in Jerusalem.

With the destruction, G‑d temporarily removed the Temple from its geographic location and placed it within us. Instead of traveling to Jerusalem, G‑d wanted us to find Him in our inner Jerusalem. Now, our bodies are our Temples, our souls are our windows, our minds are our kohanim and our animal instincts are our sacrifices. We cannot offer physical sacrifices three times a day, but we can pray three times a day. We cannot attend Temple services three times a day, but we can tap into our souls three times a day. We cannot atone for our shortcomings by sacrificing animals, but we can sacrifice our inner animals—our hormones, our lusts, our desires, our beastly compulsions. We cannot find G‑d in Jerusalem; we must find Him in us.

If the times of the Temple were principally G‑d reaching down to His world, then the times of our exile are us reaching up, from within that world.

This is G‑d’s master plan. First, a sweeping, dramatic outdoor concert of public spirituality, reaching viscerally and tangibly into the everyday, physical reality. Then He exchanges this for an internal, personal, private experience, forcing us to reach up to find Him, bringing the entire Creation along with us. Together, the two experiences lay the groundwork for the third and final Temple—an age that will synthesize both directions of spirituality. An age of where G‑d’s presence inside our hearts and minds and in the physical world is internalized to achieve a whole new reality: the era of Moshiach.

Written by Mendy Hecht of Brooklyn, New York
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Dale Washington DC November 4, 2012

Surprised to see such Manichaeism or Asceticism in The following sentence in this article doesn't convey my sense of what a universal God of the universe (including our inner desires and feelings) would prescribe.

"We cannot atone for our shortcomings by sacrificing animals, but we can sacrifice our inner animals—our hormones, our lusts, our desires, our beastly compulsions"

Such a description of an inner war between spiritual goodness and material evil seems very manichean or ascetic to me, and not the wholistic Judiasm to which I subscribe. Reply

Natasha Nieminen November 3, 2012

What you wrote is so beautiful, I have tears rolling down my face. I will read it every day to keep that in my heart in my soul and in my mind. Reply

Dale Washington, DC July 26, 2012

Two Indiana Jones movies Perhaps the author confused the two Indiana Jones movies. The first Lost Ark movie has a (barely) Jewish theme, but what might have considered a "temple" in that movie was supposed to be something Egyptian, not something from ancient Israel.

The second Temple of Doom movie was indeed in a jungle, but that movie was obviously suggesting Angkor Wat, the Hindu/ Buddhist Temple in Cambodia, again not the ancient Israelite Temple.

Parenthetically, I suspect the movie's portrayal of those temples could be perceived just as erroneous (or offensive) a presentation of those temples to those culture, than if Steven Spielberg presented the ancient Jewish temple in similar light. Still, those movies were great fun, and it hardly seemed necessary to let a little political correctness ruin the fun. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma July 18, 2012

The Temple Of Our Familiar You are absolutely right in that we moved from the external to the internal experiencing the Temple from within. Our word contemplate contains temple as does temple for our foreheads. Then of course we have template. Words are NOT random.

You have explicated beautifully a great truth. Reply

dIANE mORIARITY New Port Richey, Fl.USA via July 16, 2012

The Real Tempe What a beautiful way of expressing the ability, to try to improve and communicate with Our Maker. Reply

Alexander Arav Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada via July 15, 2012

Bet HaMikdash A thought provoking article.
The author showed the progression of the Jewish soul.
Thank you. Reply

john smith Fort lauderdale, FL July 15, 2012

it appears.. it appears that the jewish temple of the outer dimensions have been transformed to the teachings of the inner inner soul over the years.
the history of the holy temple is now taught as it has existed not only from the original stone and mortar temple but also from within the self, which once built....can never be destroyed. Reply

Meira Shana Vista, CA July 11, 2012

Temple, shul, synagogue, Us Jews are still maligned by non-Jews (not all!) so how can there ever be Peace on Earth.

Just the other day a Catholic asked me how Jews could sacrifice and no wonder G-d was angry with us.

<heavy sigh> Reply

Greg Charles longwood , fl December 3, 2010

from an agnostics point of view This is the best description I have ever read of the Holy Temple. Religion serves many purposes...some good and some bad. But this story shows the struggle of people to become more than common beasts. To comtemplate their existence and question the meaning of life beyond the mere physical world that we can see and touch. If there is a God it is apparent to me that we are not to know in certainty of it's existence but rather to evolve by reasoning and logic to a more Godlike state of consciousness. Reply

Shehani Perera Colombo, Sri Lanka July 19, 2010

The Real Temple I loved the way you explained the real Temple and how we ought to make sacrifices in today's context. It is so true !!!

Thank you for your insight. Although I'm not Jewish... I love the people G-d loved... and pray for you all daily and for the peace of Jerusalem. Reply

Anonymous Washington, D.C. December 11, 2009

Temple Article Although I am not Jewish, I still found your words Inspiring. Reply

Violeta OOB, Maine via November 20, 2009

The Holy Temple This is so beautiful to read, we don't see much on this subject, and I thank you and very much agree with the other two comments. Reply


You are right, I love to read about the temple.... So holy that just reading about it stirs my soul! Reply

D A Levit Signal Hill, CA/USA February 5, 2009

A Good Article About Our Temple Can any of us ever read enough about the Temple? I cannot. I often research the Temple(s) on the Internet for hours on end, and there are amazing things to be found. Archaeologically speaking, there is no place as evocative on the planet. The problem for me is: I always end up in a rage about the Temple Mount's disposition today, and have to leave the subject for a few days to cool down. You did a very nice job of keeping the message gentle and on point; well-written, and the advice on how to keep the Temple alive in our hearts and minds today, as we await the Third Temple was a real delight. Thank you. Reply

Chani Benjaminson, August 7, 2008

Re: Date The date you give (586) is the one calculated by secular historians, 423 BCE is the date based on traditional sources (bible, talmud, midrash etc.)--which is the first hand account of the people who experienced these events.

For more on this topic, see the reader comment sections on these articles: What is Prophecy? and A Visit to Hebron. Reply

David Jerusalem, Israel August 7, 2008

temple 423 BCE ????

I thought Nebuchanezzer destroyed, burnt the temple in his 19 th year as king which was in 586 BCE???
Also, scripture tells us it was the 7th day of the 5th month when this was done, not the 9th of AV - no????
2 Kings 25:8 Reply

Cleophus Cavin Chicago, IL/USA July 4, 2008

What was the Holy Temple? This was a great article, historically informative and spiritually enlightening. The statement concerning the animal sacrifices as symbolical of us sacraficing our own animal passions are very appropiate at this time in the history of mankind especially at this time in our history as Yisraelites. Thank You for the wonderful article. Reply

Anonymous Stuart, Fl. USA August 12, 2005

It is great info. Continue the good work. Reply

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