Maimonides' view of the Temple according to an Oxford manuscript: A defence

Friday, 7 March, 2014 - 7:37 am

Oxford’s Bodleian library is known for its rare collection of Hebrew manuscripts including some of the most important manuscripts of the great Jewish legalist and philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or by his Hebrew acronym Rambam (1138-1204). One of these Oxford manuscripts includes Maimonides’ own handwritten work of his Commentary to the Mishnah, known as Pirush Hamishnayot, written in Judea Arabic (MSS 1655).


This manuscript was brought to Oxford by the great collector of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts in the East, Professor Edward Pococke, who was born and passed away in Oxford (1604-1691). Prof. Pococke was appointed to the professorship of Hebrew at Oxford in 1647 and had a valuable collection of 420 oriental manuscripts, which was bought by Oxford University in 1693 for £600. Some of his printed books were acquired by the Bodleian in 1822, by bequest from the Rev. C. Francis of Brasenose.


The manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah was purchased by Prof. Pococke between 1630 and 1635 after he was appointed to the chaplaincy to the English 'Turkey Merchants' at Aleppo in 1629, where he resided for over five years. During this time, he made himself master of Arabic, which he not only read but spoke fluently, studied Hebrew, Samaritan, Syriac and Ethiopic, and associated on friendly terms with learned Muslims and Jews, who helped him in collecting manuscripts. In his view, this was one of the chief reasons why he accepted the post, and a pursuit in which he seems to have been extremely successful.


In this essay we will look at a unique aspect of the manuscript by Maimonides relating to the design of the most sacred site in Judaism, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This manuscript focuses in particular on the design of the building of the Sanctuary on the site, within which is contained the Holy of Holies that carried the most sacred item in Judaism, the Holy Ark.


The manuscript in fact contains a few hand drawings of items in the Temple, including of the Menorah candelabra and which is the only early source that shows the Temple candelabra with diagonal branches. This design concurs with the opinion of the great Biblical and Talmud commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, who maintains that the branches were diagonal, as opposed to countless depictions of the Menorah until contemporary times that show the branches as curved.


In a similar fashion Maimonides draws with his own handwriting the image of the Temple Sanctuary building that also goes counter to the prevailing view. In the drawing, Maimonides depicts the Sanctuary as a square shaped building, whereas the prevalent view is that the shape of the building was a T shape. In this essay we will attempt to explore in detail this landmark dispute that has major implications - not just on a theoretical level but factually - on the design of the holiest site in Judaism. We will then aim to defend Maimonides’ view in light of harsh criticism by the great commentators of the Mishnah in the 16th century for his views.


Commentary on the Mishnah


We would first like to give a brief overview of the Commentary to the Mishnah. Written in Judeo Arabic, it was subsequently translated into Hebrew and other languages. The original title of the commentary was "The Book of the Lamp" or "Kitab al-Siraj" in Arabic, occasionally designated as "Sefer Ha-Ma'or" in Hebrew. It is aimed at those unfamiliar with the study of the Talmud so they would be able to understand the Mishnah without having to navigate the many opinions and conflicting arguments in the Talmud. It general, Maimonides mostly adheres to the explanations given in the Talmud and attaches special weight to the opinion of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), one of the most respected Spanish codifiers.


The challenge of writing this monumental work and what might be seen as uncertainty as to its absolute accuracy can be seen by Maimonides’ own appendix to the commentary. He writes:


"I have now finished this work in accordance with my promise, and I fervently beseech the Almighty to save us from error. If there be one who shall discover an inaccuracy in this Commentary or shall have a better explanation to offer, let my attention be directed unto it; and let me be exonerated by the fact that I have worked with far greater application than any one who writes for the sake of pay and profit, and that I have worked under the most trying circumstances. For Heaven had ordained that we be exiled, and we were therefore driven about from place to place; I was thus compelled to work at the Commentary while travelling by land, or crossing the sea. It might have sufficed to mention that during that time I, in addition, was engaged in other studies, but I preferred to give the above explanation in order to encourage those who wish to criticise or annotate the Commentary, and at the same time to account for the slow progress of this work. I, Moses, the son of Maimon, commenced it when I was twenty-three years old, and finished it in Egypt, at the age of thirty years, in the year 1168.”


Despite the young age and the admittance to the lack of absolute certainty as to the accuracy of the commentary, this cannot be used as an easy premise for dismissing his views in his commentary when faced with challenges. Furthermore, in our case, his view as expressed in the image of the square shaped Temple Sanctuary is supported by his writings in his legal code Mishneh Torah, as we will demonstrate.


Overview of the layout of the Temple Mount (Har Habayit) and Temple 


Temple whole.JPGThe Temple Mount in Jerusalem had five entrance gates. The main entrances to the mount were the two Chuldah gates to the south. These two entrance gates had immediately within them the largest open space on the mount allowing for the enormous crowds to enter on the pilgrimage holidays and congregate, as the Temple building stood mostly to the north western section of the mount. In addition, there was the Shushan Gate to the east, the Tadi Gate to the north that was rarely used, and the Kiponos gate to the west. The word Kiponos comes from a Greek word and indicates there was a rose garden that lay just outside the gate.


Upon entering the mount, there were seven further gates of entry into the Temple courtyard (Azarah). There were four southern gates: the Water Gate which had upon it a Mikvah, ritual pool; the Bechorot gate used for firstborn animal sacrifices; the Delek gate for firewood; and a further gate called the Elyon gate, meaning the high gate, due to its elevated position on the mount but which does not seem to have been used for any particular purpose.


On the northern side, there were four gates: the Moked (hearth) chamber gate; the women’s gate that was used for ritual purposes; the Korban (sacrifices) gate; and the Nitzutz (spark) gate. The women’s gate was rarely used, as it was exclusive for the wayward woman’s offering. This is separate from the women’s section of the Temple that took up a sizable area east of the Temple courtyard.


Moked hearth chamber


Rambam Moked.jpg

The Moked (hearth) chamber was a large domed building that had multiple functions. The central hall was used as a hearth chamber with a constant fire burning to keep the priests warm following their service in the Temple that had to be performed almost barefoot. Alternatively, it was used for warming themselves up after their immersion in the underground Mikvah pool below the Temple. The hall also had stepped stone slabs jutting out from the walls where the priests designated to serve the following day would sleep. In the middle of the hall there was a marble stone with a ring connected to it, and beneath the slab there was a chain that had the keys to the gates of the Temple attached.


The Hearth chamber also consisted of four corner chambers that led from the central hall. Each of the four chambers had a different purpose. In the south west corner was the Lamb chamber; the south east chamber was where the Showbread preparations took place; the north east chamber stored the ritually contaminated stones of the altar that were used by the Greeks to offer up pagan sacrifices in the 2nd century BCE; and the north west chamber had an entrance to the Temple Mikvah through a tunnel below the Temple courtyard.


The Moked chamber was situated half inside the Temple courtyard and half extending outside it, thus only half of the chamber was considered sacred, allowing it to be used in part for mundane purposes. The Moked chamber gate served as an entrance into the Temple courtyard for the Temple vessels to be inspected every morning. Two priests would enter and walk in opposite directions, following which they would meet and confirm that all is in order.


The Moked gate and the layout of its chambers is one of the detailed images depicted by Maimonides in his own handwriting in the manuscript of the Commentary to the Mishnah we are discussing in this essay.


Finally, there was one entrance gate on the eastern side of the temple courtyard called the Nikanor gate. This was used as the main entrance into the Temple courtyard. There was no active access gate on the Western side, although there were technically two gates there positioned behind the Temple building.


The Sanctuary (Heichal)


Heichal.JPGThis essay will focus primarily on the central building in the Temple, which is called the Heichal or Sanctuary. It was made up of three parts: the Ulam entrance hall; the Holy that contained the incense altar, Menorah candelabra and the showbread table; and the Holy of Holies that contained the Ark with the Tablets. The entrance to the Sanctuary building had first a gate into the Ulam entrance hall, followed by a space of eleven cubits that led to the Great Gate of the Sanctuary that consisted of four doors, an outer gate of two parts and a similar inner gate. According to one opinion both the outer and inner gate opened into the hollow of the gate entrance towards each other. According to a second opinion, the outer gate covered the walls in the hollow of the gate and the inner gate opened a full 90 degrees to cover the wall behind the two sides of the gate.


There were two smaller entrances or wicket gates on either side of the Great Gate. The wicket on the North side was for the priest’s entrance into the Sanctuary through which he would walk across the Sanctuary floor to open the Great Gate from within. The precise route to opening the Great Gate is a subject of dispute. The above route follows the conclusive reading of the Sages of the Mishnah.


This is followed by Maimonides in his legal work Mishneh Torah (Beit Habechirah 4:6), where he writes: “A wicket is a small gateway. The Sanctuary had two wickets on the sides of the great gate in the middle, one on the north and one on the south. No one ever entered through the southern wicket. Explicit reference to this is made by in the Book of Ezekiel [44:2]: ‘This gate will be closed. It will not be opened.’ Every morning, the priests would enter through the wicket on the north and proceed between the two walls until reaching an opening to the Sanctuary on the left. From there, they would enter the Temple, proceed to the great gate, and open it.”


The view of Rabbi Yehudah of the Mishnah is that the inspecting priest would enter the northern wicket and then enter immediately through the hollow of the eastern Sanctuary wall that would bring him in between the two sections of the Great Gate, the internal gate and the exterior gate. He would then proceed to open the interior gate from the outside and the exterior gate from the inside. This opinion seems to be preferred by Maimonides in his Commentary on the Mishnah.


On the south side of the Great Gate, as quoted above from Maimonides, there was second wicket through which no person was allowed to enter, as it symbolized the entrance for the Divine presence.


Size of Sanctuary building


The main dispute relating to the Temple is the shape of the Temple Sanctuary itself. The law of the Mishnah (Middot Ch. 4:6) states: The Sanctuary i.e. the entire Sanctuary building including the Ulam entrance hall and the compartments was 100 (amot/cubits) by 100 cubits by a height of 100 cubits.


The Mishnah (Ch. 4:7) then qualifies this enigmatically and states: “The Ulam hall extended beyond the Sanctuary 15 cubits to the north and 15 cubits to the south, and it was called “Bet Hahalifot”, because there they stored the knives. The Sanctuary was narrow at the back and wide in front, and it resembled a lion, as it says, “Woe, Ariel (lit. lion of G-d), Ariel, in the city where David dwelled” (Isaiah 29:1) – just as a lion is narrow at the back and wide in front, so too, the Sanctuary was narrow at the back and wide in front.”


Herein lays the major dispute regarding the shape of the Sanctuary. Maimonides maintains that the Sanctuary building was square and the extension that the above Mishnah speaks of surrounded the whole south and north sides of the Sanctuary, fifteen cubits on either side. This view is followed by the great commentator of the Mishnah, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (Italy 1445-1510 Jerusalem) and defended by Rabbi Joseph Karo (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, 1575).


Sanctuary T shape


The opposing view to Maimonides is of the great Jewish legalist Rabbi Abraham ben David, known by his acronym Ravad (France, 1120 - France, 1197), who opines that the extension of the Sanctuary hall was only on the eastern front of the Sanctuary. This view is defended vigorously by Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (Bavaria, 1578 – Krakow, 1654) author of Tosafot Yom-Tov commentary on the Mishnah (1614-7) and is the most frequently used depiction of the Temple.


In this essay we will attempt to present in detail the views of Maimonides and the Ravad regarding the shape of the Sanctuary and the arguments put forward to justify or refute these opinions. Finally, we will try and defend Maimonides in the final analysis.


We will first present the relevant text of the Mishnah in its entirety. It outlines the width of the Sanctuary in two sections, first the building of the Sanctuary itself, then it adds the additional extension of the fifteen cubits.


“The heikhal Sanctuary was seventy cubits from north to south. The wall of the mesibah (winding ramp) was five cubits, the mesibah was three cubits, the wall of the cell was five cubits, Beit Horedet haMayyim (the place of the water descent) was three cubits and its wall five cubits. The ulam hall extended beyond this fifteen cubits to the north, and fifteen to the south. This space was called the Beit haChalifot, where they used to store the slaughterers' knives. Thus, the heikhal was narrow in the back, and wide at the front, like a lion, as it says (Isaiah 29:1), "Ah, Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped." (Just as a lion is narrow behind, and wide in front, so too was the heikhal narrow behind and broad at front)”.

Mishnah Middot (Ch. 4: 7)




Rambam Heichal drawing.jpgMaimonides in his legal work Mishneh Torah (Beit Habechirah Ch. 4:5) similarly writes regarding the measurements of the Sanctuary building:

“From north to south, there were 100 cubits: The width of the wall of the Entrance Hall was five cubits. There were ten cubits from the wall of the Entrance Hall until the wall of the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary had six walls, one within the other, with five vacant places between them: Between the outer wall and the second wall, there were five cubits; Between the second and the third, three cubits; Between the third and the fourth, five; Between the fourth and the fifth, six; and Between the fifth and the sixth, six. Thus, these walls and chambers encompassed a total of forty cubits on both sides of the Temple building. The width of the Temple inside was 20 cubits. The total was 100 cubits.”


This is followed by the text regarding the shape of the Sanctuary (ch. 4:9): “The structure of the Temple was wide in its front and narrow in its rear, like a lion.” 


From the text of Maimonides it is clear that the fifteen additional cubits of the Sanctuary entrance hall is a part of the overall building measurements from north to south and that it extended to the whole northern and southern side of the Sanctuary building. This is implied by the fact that the text “The width of the wall of the Entrance Hall was five cubits. There were ten cubits from the wall of the Entrance Hall until the wall of the Sanctuary” is incorporated in the description of the overall measurement of the one hundred cubits of the Sanctuary building and not as an additional description and measurement, as the Mishnah presents it.


In case there is any doubt regarding the view of Maimonides on this point, he clarifies it further in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Middot 4:7). He writes: “The whole Sanctuary was 100 by 100 and it went in slightly towards the western side and as it draws towards the eastern side it widened as the image of a lion that is wide in front and narrows at the back.”


This clearly negates the view that the Sanctuary building had a T shape that gave it its image of a lion. Furthermore, Maimonides draws with his own handwriting in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Middot ch. 4:2) the detailed drawing of the Sanctuary, where it can be clearly seen that the Sanctuary was a square shape building, not a T shape, and the fifteen cubit extension of the Ulam entrance hall on either side ran the full length of the Sanctuary on the northern and southern sides.


Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura appears to follow the view of Maimonides. He writes in his commentary: “The width of the wall of the Ulam hall was 5 cubits and the interior of the hall was ten cubits on the south and northern sides.”


Summary: Maimonides and Rabbi Ovadiah Bartnerah maintain that the additional fifteen cubits extension of the Ulam hall surrounded the whole Northern and Southern sides of the Sanctuary.




The Ravad lambasts the view of Maimonides with his characteristically sharp wording. He writes in his commentary to the work of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Beit Habechirah Ch. 4): “All this is worthless (hevel) and the spirit of the imagination. There was no wall to the Ulam entrance hall there (along the sides of the Sanctuary) at all, it is a big mistake. There was only a wall to the Ulam hall on the Eastern side in the front of the Sanctuary”. He then proceeds to bring a proof to his view. He writes: “For this reason the Mishnah states: narrow in the back and wide in the front. And the width of the Ulam hall was counted as part of the (overall) width of the Sanctuary - 100 in total (despite it only reaching this measurement in its width on the Eastern front of the building and not the whole building).”


It appears that the criticism of the Ravad of Maimonides’ view is due to the need, according to the Mishnah, for the design of the Sanctuary to have a lion shape; if it is a T shape the lion depiction would make sense but if it’s a square, as Maimonides maintains, then it negates the possibility of a lion shape.


It is here that Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Kesef Mishnah, in the 16th century, comes to the defence of Maimonides. He argues that the view of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah is reconciled by his own Commentary on the Mishnah. As mentioned earlier, Maimonides writes in his Commentary on the Mishnah that the whole Sanctuary was 100 by 100 cubits and it turned slightly inwards towards the western side. According to this text, in his Commentary to the Mishnah, the question about the need for a lion shape design is explained, as a slight narrowing of the building towards the rear would be sufficient to signify the shape of a lion that has a similar narrowing.


Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipman Heller


In the 17th century, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller, former Chief Rabbi of Prague, however, argues forcefully against the attempt of Rabbi Joseph Karo to reconcile Maimonides’ view and upholds the criticism of Ravad. His principle argument is: why innovate that the Ulam entrance hall extended along the entire southern and northern sides of the building, thus having to justify this by suggesting the whole building narrowed slightly, when it is unnecessary and there is a far simpler explanation. He argues that it is simpler to say that the Ulam entrance hall building was only in the front, as an entrance hall usually is, and the lion shape is justified by the building being a T shape with the extensions only in the front.


Furthermore, Rabbi Heller argues, if the Ulam entrance hall extended along the sides of the Sanctuary, why does the Mishnah discuss the measurements of the overall building in a separate paragraph from the measurements of the extension hall? It should have been combined as one series of measurements that accumulates to a 100 cubits by 100 cubits in total. In fact, this is how Maimonides structures the measurements of the Sanctuary in his legal work Mishneh Torah. If Maimonides is correct, Rabbi Heller asks, why doesn’t the Mishnah also structure the law in the same way? The fact that the Mishneh divides the measurements of the two areas into two paragraphs - the actual building of the Sanctuary with the hall and then the extension - it would appear to validate the view of the Ravad that the extension of the Ulam hall was only at the front and not as part of the measurements of the building as a whole, as Maimonides claims.


Rabbi Heller further reasons that one might give the benefit of the doubt and posit that the reason for this division into two paragraphs in the Mishnah is due to the difference in their names: one is the Sanctuary and the other is the Ulam entrance hall. The Ulam hall is in principle an entrance hall and it is only its extension that continues on the sides of the building that acquires for itself the name Ulam. One may reason, therefore, that it would make sense to separate the measurements of the two areas into two descriptions in the Mishnah.


This answer, Rabbi Heller makes clear, is however illogical. It would indeed make such sense if one is forced to say that the Ulam hall extended along the sides of the building, then in retrospect maybe one can justify the separation of the measurements, due to their separate names. But if one can simply say that it refers to the front of the building, the answer explaining the separation of the paragraphs collapses. The simpler reason for the separation of the clauses of the measurements is because they are on two different sides of the building: the general measurements relate to the Sanctuary building and the extension relates to the Ulam hall that is at the front of the building on the eastern side.


Interpreting the argument of the Ravad


It is important to point out that the above argument of Rabbi Heller against Maimonides is cleverly being presented not as his own critique of Maimonides, as it would be unsuitable in Rabbinical rational tradition for a 17th century rabbi to harshly criticise 12th century Maimonides on his own. Rather he is proposing an interpretation of the rationale of the criticism of the Ravad, Maimonides’ contemporary, against Maimonides. As the Ravad is brief, though harsh, in his remarks, Rabbi Heller claims that Maimonides becomes easily but insufficiently defended by Rabbi Joseph Karo.


Rabbi Heller is proposing that the principle argument of the Ravad against Maimonides is not based on the problem of the narrowness of the building, as Rabbi Joseph Karo understands it, justifiably, one may say, as the Ravad certainly doesn’t explicitly make any other point in support of his view, but rather based on the difficulty it presents to the text of the Mishnah itself. Rabbi Heller therefore separates the Ravad’s argument into two: one is a fundamental point, which is implicitly self-understood and the Ravad would not even bother to articulate, and the second point is the corollary of his first point but not the main argument.


The fundamental argument is that it is unnecessary to innovate new dimensions to the building that is not explicit in the Mishnah, as well as the subject about the separation of the two clauses of the measurements, implying that the extension of the Ulam hall is not along the sides of the building but rather in the front of the building. The second point, the justification of the lion shape of the building, as a T shape, is merely the corollary of this argument. If the whole argument is based on the latter Rabbi Joseph Karo’s defence could be acceptable, as explained above, based on the slight narrowing of the building, as proposed by Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, but in Rabbi Heller’s view, it is however ignoring the fundamental problem with the view of Maimonides.


In conclusion, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller therefore writes it is correct that the Ulam entrance hall did not extend at all along the sides of the building other than at the front of the Sanctuary, in line with the view of the Ravad, as opposed to Maimonides’s view, as recorded in the Mishneh Torah and depicted in his own handwriting in the Oxford manuscript.


This essay would like to conclude in defence of Maimonides. One may argue that the defence of Maimonides is all the more persuasive in light of Rabbi Heller’s interpretation of the critique of the Ravad. If the basis of the argument of the Ravad is due to the narrowing of the Sanctuary this would be a plausible argument, as a square Sanctuary is difficult to reconcile with the idea of the Sanctuary appearing like the shape of a lion. It then becomes necessary to innovate that the building narrowed slightly. While this answers the question, as Rabbi Joseph Karo explains, it is clearly an innovation. However, if we agree that the premise of the argument of the Ravad is not due to the need to reconcile the lion shape but rather the difficulty with the reading of the Mishnah, as explained above, one can quite easily argue that the opinion of the Ravad also does not satisfy completely the reading of the Mishnah and on the contrary Maimonides’ reading might be more satisfactory.


The Mishnah states in its outset that the Sanctuary is 100 cubits by 100 cubits - square. It then qualifies this and writes that the actual building of the Sanctuary is seventy cubits and the hundred is made up by the extension of the Ulam entrance hall at the front of the building by fifteen cubits on either side. This however contradicts the opening statement that implies the building was square. This becomes reconciled by the view of Maimonides that the extension of the Ulam entrance hall extended along the sides of the building. This in fact brings it in line with all three descriptions: the opening of the Mishnah that the whole building was 100 cubits by 100 cubits, the entrance hall extended beyond the actual Sanctuary interior by 15 cubits and there was a lion shape by the fact that there was a very slight narrowing of the building towards the rear.


While this interpretation needs the innovation that the building narrowed slightly and was not precisely 100 cubits square, it would appear to be a more suitable interpretation than presenting the building in a shape that is much less consistent with its opening square description in the form of a T shape building, when it is possible to reconcile all the statements together.


In any event, it would logically be at least equally defensible if not more so, as above, to uphold the view of Maimonides over the Ravad if one chooses to do so and as depicted in the drawing in the Oxford manuscript.


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