A Building of the Heavens or of the Earth

There is a classic difference of opinion between our rabbis regarding the construction of the Third Beit Hamikdash. Rambam states1 that the Beit Hamikdash will be built by man—more specifically, by Moshiach. Indeed, its construction will be one of the signs of Moshiach’s advent.

Rashi,2 by contrast, explains that the Beit Hamikdash has already been constructed by G‑d and exists in the heavenly realms, waiting for the time when it will descend to the earth. For the Third Beis Hamikdash will be “the Sanctuary of G‑d, established by Your hands.”3 When the setting within the world is appropriate, this heavenly structure will descend and become an actual reality within our material world.

Each of these views is based upon sources in the works of our sages.4 There is, however, a unique historical point which supports Rambam’s position. Our sages relate5 that in the era of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, the Romans granted the Jews permission to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. Joyous at the opportunity they were granted, our people rushed to begin the preparations for building, only to have the project thwarted by the intervention of the Samaritans. What is significant, however, is that they planned to build the Beit Hamikdash through their own efforts; they did not wait for it to descend from the heavens.

Will We Be Worthy?

This account can, however, be reconciled with Rashi’s view. To explain: Our sages6 note the apparent contradiction between two verses describing the coming of Moshiach. One verse states:7 “Behold, one like a son of man came on the clouds of heaven.” It is, however, also written:8 “Your king will come . . . a poor man riding on a donkey.” In resolution, our sages explain that if the Jews are found worthy, Moshiach will come “on the clouds of heaven”; if they do not merit, he will come as “a poor man riding on a donkey.” Similarly, in other contexts, our sages describe one course for the Redemption if the Jews’ conduct is meritorious, and another if, heaven forbid, such merits are lacking.9

In the present context as well, it can be explained that the ultimate conception of the Beit Hamikdash is a heavenly structure to descend from above. If, however, the Jews are not worthy of such a sanctuary, the Beit Hamikdash will still return in the Era of the Redemption. It will, however, be a structure built by man, and not by G‑d.

On this basis, we can also resolve the difficulty cited above. When the Romans granted the Jews the opportunity to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash, the people must have been somewhat disappointed that the Beit Hamikdash did not descend from heaven. Nevertheless, the realization that they had not been found worthy of a heavenly structure did not dampen their enthusiasm for building a sanctuary to the fullest extent of their human potential.10

Concrete Elucidation of Yechezkel’s Prophecies

Another possible resolution can be offered based on Rambam’s statements near the beginning of his Hilchot Beit Habechirah11

The structure which Shlomo built is already described in the [book of] Melachim. Similarly, the structure which will be constructed in the future era [is described in the book of] Yechezkel. Nevertheless, the description there is not explained or elucidated.

[Therefore,] the people who constructed the Second [Beit Hamikdash] in the time of Ezra built it according to the [basic] design [employed by] Shlomo, incorporating the elements which were explicitly detailed by Yechezkel.

It can be explained that Moshiach will lead the people in the construction of those dimensions of the Beit Hamikdash which can be grasped by human intellect. Afterwards, since the dimensions of Yechezkel’s prophecies which we cannot comprehend will be left incomplete, they will be revealed from heaven by G‑d.

When That Which is Hidden Will Emerge

Another approach to reconcile Rashi’s view and that of Rambam is based on our sages’ interpretation of the verse “Her gates sank in the earth.”12 Our sages relate13 that the gates of the Beit Hamikdash were fashioned by order of King David. This endowed them with an eternal invulnerability.14 When the Babylonians laid waste to the Beit Hamikdash, the gates were not destroyed. Instead, they were swallowed by the earth.

In the era of the Redemption, the entire Beit Hamikdash will descend from the heavens, with the exception of the gates, which will ascend from the earth. Moshiach will then connect the gates to the Beit Hamikdash. Our sages explain15 that connecting the gates to a building is considered as equivalent to the construction of the entire edifice.

Adding Divine Perfection to Human Effort

Moreover, it can be explained that these two conceptions are in no way contradictory. Building the Beit Hamikdash is a mitzvah incumbent on the Jewish people.16 In the era of the Redemption, when it will become possible to fulfill all the mitzvot, we will also be obligated to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. Within that structure which man will erect, however, there will descend and be enclothed “the Sanctuary of G‑d,” which is waiting in the heavens.

Mankind is obligated to create a Sanctuary for G‑d within the context of our material world. After that is completed to the fullest extent of our human potential, the inner essence of the Beit Hamikdash will be revealed—that it is “the Sanctuary of G‑d,” possessing a dimension of perfection which utterly surpasses any possible work of mortal man.

May we witness the actual resolution of this issue in the immediate future, with the coming of the Redemption and the rebuilding—or the descent—of the Beit Hamikdash. “And then, the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to G‑d, as in the days of old and as in bygone years.”17

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 11, p. 98; vol. 18, pp. 418–419; Vol. 27, p. 205.