The Structure

The “Holy Temple”—in Hebrew, Beit Hamikdash (pronounced BAYt hah-mik-DASH)—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.

Floor plan (top) and model (below) of the Second Temple
Floor plan (top) and model (below) of the Second Temple

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), 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.