The Division Between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies

In his description of the dimensions of the Beis HaMik­dash, the Rambam states:1

The First Beis [HaMikdash] had a wall which was one cubit thick that separated between the Sanctuary (קדש) and the Holy of Holies (קדש הקדשים).

When constructing the Second Beis [HaMikdash], [the people] were unsure whether the thickness of that wall was included in the measure of the Sanctuary or of the Holy of Holies. Therefore, they made the Holy of Ho­lies a full twenty cubits long, and they made the Sanctu­ary a full forty cubits long, leaving an additional cubit between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies.

They did not build a wall in the Second Beis [HaMikdash]. Instead, they hung two curtains, one on the side of the Holy of Holies, and one on the side of the Sanctuary, with a cubit between them, equal to the thickness of the wall in the First Beis HaMikdash.

In the First [Beis] Mikdash, by contrast, there was only one curtain as implied by the verse,2 “And the curtain shall divide for you [between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies].”

depictions of the first bais hamikdash according to the two talmuds

second bais hamikdash

Choosing the Jerusalem Talmud as a Source, Rather than the Babylonian Talmud

The Kesef Mishneh3 states that the Rambam’s statements are based on the Jerusalem Talmud,4 which explains that an additional cubit was added to the structure of the Beis HaMikdash, because of an unresolved question: In the dimen­sions of which chamber — the Sanctu­ary or the Holy of Holies — should the thickness of the wall be included? Significantly, this same subject is also discussed by the Babylonian Talmud,5 which states:

Rav Nosson said: “The Sages did not determine whether the cubit of traksin6 was part of the inner cham­ber (the Holy of Holies) or whether it was part of the outer chamber (the Sanctuary).

Ravina objected to his statement: “What is the reason [for the doubt]? One might think that it results from [the apparent contradiction between the following verses]. It is written:7 “And the house which King Shlo­mo built for G‑d was sixty cubits long...,” and it is writ­ten:8 “And the house, that is the Sanctuary, was forty cubits...,” and it is written,9 “Before the dvir, twenty cubits in length....” [Why say that the Sages] did not know whether the cubit of traksin [was to be deducted] from the twenty or from the forty? Perhaps it was not to be deducted from either the twenty or the forty and [the verses] are considering [merely] the open space [of the chambers] without including their walls?

As proof, see that whenever walls are mentioned, they are mentioned as a separate entity....10 Instead, [the doubt is concerning the status of this cubit]: [Does it have the sanctity] of the inner [chamber] or of the outer [chamber]?

Thus, the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that in the First Beis HaMikdash as well, the cubit of traksin was not part of the twenty cubits of the Holy of Holies, nor part of the forty cubits of the Sanctuary, but rather a separate space. The question fac­ing the Sages who constructed the Second Beis HaMikdash related to the degree of sanctity this space possessed, and not to which chamber in whose measure it was to be included. Because the issue of the place’s sanctity remained unresolved, two cur­tains were made.

The Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast explains that the doubt involved the size of the chambers of the First Beis HaMikdash: Was the Holy of Holies 19 or 20 cubits long? And was the Sanctuary 39 or 40 cubits long?

Generally, when there is a difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, it is the Babylonian Talmud which is followed. And yet, as the Kesef Mishnah states, the Rambam appears to follow the Jerusalem Talmud. Moreover, in this instance, to follow the explanation of the Jerusalem Talmud11 invites a difficult question. The dimen­sions of the Beis HaMik­dash were revealed by G‑d through prophetic insight.12 How could these dimensions be changed and the size of these cham­bers be increased?13

Why Two Curtains Instead of One?

There are several other questions that are raised by the Rambam’s statements in this halachah. Among them: In the Second Beis HaMikdash, why was it necessary to hang two curtains with an empty space between them? Why, instead, did they not hang a single curtain which was a cubit thick, thus bearing a greater resemblance to the wall which had existed in the First Beis HaMikdash.

Tosafos14 explains that a single curtain would not be suffi­cient, because, as reflected in the above verse, the outer side of the curtain served as a divider between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. Were there to have been only one curtain, the length of the Holy of Holies would have been extended.

According to the Rambam, however, it appears that the division between the two chambers was not brought about by the curtains,15 but by the space itself. If so, why was one thick cur­tain not sufficient?

A Thought Provoking Reference

The conception of a cur­tain as a divider provokes a fur­ther question. The Rambam concludes this halachah with the state­ment: “In the First Mik­dash, by contrast, there was only one curtain as implied by the verse, ‘And the curtain shall divide for you [between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies.’”

The Kesef Mishneh explains that the word Mikdash refers to the Sanctuary in the desert as reflected by the prooftext used. It does not refer to the First Beis HaMikdash, because there the division between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies was brought about by the wall.16 As mentioned several times, the Mishneh Torah is not a text of history. And therefore, the ques­tion arises: What is the purpose of this reference? What is its relevance in regard to the construction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, the subject the Rambam is focusing on.17

A Difference between the Sanctuary in the Desert and the Beis HaMikdash

This later reference, how­ever, carries the key to the understanding of the Rambam’s conception of the cubit of traksin. With this reference, the Rambam intends to contrast the cubit of traksin with the curtain used in the Sanctuary. In the Sanctu­ary, the curtain performed two functions. It distinguished the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies and it served as a covering for the ark as implied by the verse:18 “And you shall place the ark of testimony there and shield the ark with the curtain.”

These two purposes were also fulfilled by the wall con­st­ructed in the First Beis HaMikdash. Nevertheless, a careful ap­preciation of the continuation of the passage in the Babylo­nian Talmud introduces a third function for the cubit of traksin. The cubit of traksin served as a transition between the Sanctu­ary and the Holy of Holies. Indeed, it was given a special name, the dvir,19 to indicate its separate status.

Why was this space necessary? Because the sanctity of the Holy of Holies was radically different from the rest of the Beis HaMikdash. It was not merely on a higher rung of holiness; it was the resting place for the Divine Presence, and thus in another category entirely. Therefore, the use of a curtain as a divider was not sufficient. It was necessary for there to be an intermediate area set aside for a specific purpose: to distinguish the Holy of Holies because of its uniqueness.

In particular, the existence of this intermediate area was significant for the High Priest who would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. To enter directly into the Holy of Holies would be too radical a transition. It was necessary to pass through this intermediate area first.20

A Temporary Dwelling Differs from G‑d’s Eternal Home

Although most of the por­tions of the Beis HaMikdash had parallels in the Sanctuary in the desert, this was not true in regard to the cubit of traksin. There was no such intermediary in the Sanctuary. Since the Sanctuary was only a temporary dwelling for the Divine Presence,21 it lacked certain facets that were present in the Beis HaMikdash. To cite a similar example: Although the Ulam, the entrance hall, was one of the fundamental elements of the Beis HaMikdash22 there was no parallel to it in the Sanctuary in the desert.23

The Beis HaMikdash, by contrast, was “[G‑d’s] eternal home,” the ultimate — and permanent24 — resting place for the Divine Presence.25 Therefore, all of its elements reflected con­summate perfection. As such, there was also an intermediate area for transition before the Holy of Holies.

Establishing the Dvir as an Independent Entity

Based on the above, we can resolve the questions men­tioned at the outset. According to the Rambam, it was preferable for there to be two curtains, rather than one thick curtain. For these two curtains left a full cubit of open space, thus distin­guishing the dvir as a separate entity. In contrast, were there to have been only a single cur­tain, there would not have been a permanent distinction within the structure of the building where this space existed as a sepa­rate entity. In the First Beis HaMikdash, this distinction was made by the wall. In the Second Beis HaMikdash, this distinction was made by setting off the cubit of empty space by two cur­tains.26

To create this distinction, it was necessary to alter the struc­ture of the Beis HaMikdash from its original design. There was, however, no alternative. The Sages did not know whether to include the cubit of traksin in the Sanctuary or in the Holy of Holies. Including it in either chamber could possibly have reduced the size of that chamber. Therefore, the Sages decided that it was preferable to make the inner space of the chambers equal to the dimensions mentioned in the verses, and thus add a cubit to the total size of the struct­ure, rather than take the risk of reducing the desired size of either chamber.

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May we merit the coming of the time when “the Tishbite [Eliyahu] will resolve all questions and difficulties,” with the coming of the Redemption. And may this come about in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Terumah, 5750