Clarifying Roles, for People and Items of the Beit Ha-Mikdash

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Urim ve-Tumim at the Dedication Ceremony for the Beit Ha-Mikdash

The process of sanctifying a Mishkan or a Beit Ha-Mikdash has many parts; among them Shevu’ot 14a says it requires both a prophet and the Urim ve-Tumim, the mechanism within the Hoshen Mishpat–the breastplate the Kohen Gadol wore—by which the High Priest received answers to questions the Jewish people asked of Gd.

If they both serve to relay Gd’s Will and words, Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 1;3 wonders why sanctification requires both. To answer, Meshech Hochmah points us to Yoma 73b, where the Gemara says a prophet’s prediction is not necessarily always fulfilled.

[I think Jewish thought accepts Rambam’s assertion this is only true of prophecies of punishment or painful outcomes; in his view, predictions of bounty always come true]. In contrast, the Urim ve-Tumim’s messages were always fulfilled, and gave more permanence to the ratification of the sanctity of the Temple and/or expansions of the city of Jerusalem.

[He does not explain why this did not make the prophet superfluous. I think the continuation of the comment implies the answer.]

Moshe Replaces the Urim ve-Tumim at the Mishkan Milu’im

Meshech Hochmah says the Urim ve-Tumim only work when the Jewish people are temimim, whole with Gd (a play on Tumim, I think). When not, the Urim ve-Tumim might give answers that are misleading at best. For example, at the end of the book of Shofetim, the people wage war against the tribe of Binyamin for protecting the rapists of Giv’ah. Before the war, they consulted the Urim ve-Tumim improperly, and received an answer ambiguous enough to make them think they were assured of victory, only to meet bloody defeat.

The idea of the Urim ve-Tumim as bearer of incontrovertible truth explains why the sanctification of the Mishkan could happen without them (they were not available until after Aharon was invested as High Priest, and that happened only after the Milu’im, the days of dedication). For a bit more needed background, he turns our attention to Sifra Matot 153, on the Torah’s use of the phrase “zeh ha-davar, this is the matter.”

To Sifra, it showed Moshe operated at a level untrue of other prophets, who used the phrase “koh amar, thus said.” [It’s a difficult claim, because Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu both do use zeh ha-davar, but that’s not Meshech Hochmah’s problem.] Meshech Hochmah assumes the extra level was immutability, that Moshe’s prophecies always came true, making him a full replacement of the Urim ve-Tumim, for all of its uses. Having Moshe was as good or better.

The Role of Prophets, The Role of Certainty

He closes by urging the reader to consider his idea carefully “for it is a wondrous matter, with the help of Heaven.” I think he means it sheds light on prophecy in general. We might think prophecy is about being told what Gd is going to do (as many other sources imply), where R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen relegates that to the role of the Urim ve-Tumim (generally assumed to be of a lower level of contact with Gd than prophecy).

If knowing the future is the lesser value, what does prophecy do? He doesn’t say, but my guess is that prophets give us overall pictures of what Gd wants of us, with predictions of what happens if we continue a particular path. As we change, the future can change as well. Yes, there’s value, especially at the national level, in asking direct questions of Gd, getting direct answers. But the bigger deal, the harder level, is to have the larger picture, awareness of where we’re headed and where Gd wants us to head. While Moshe did both for us, prophets did only one.

One-Sided or Two-Sided Embroidery

The woven parts of the Mishkan were sometimes ma’aseh hoshev, embroidered separately on the two sides of an item (pictures of lions on one side and griffon vultures on the other, for example), and sometimes ma’aseh rokem, one picture for both sides. The curtain between the first room of the Mishkan, the Kodesh, and the inner room, the Kodesh Kodashim, Holy of Holies, was ma’aseh hoshev, the curtains at the opening to the Mishkan and of the courtyard of the Mishkan were ma’aseh rokem.

Meshech Hochmah points to the lack of a wall between the two rooms of the Mishkan, giving the curtain more work. The opening of the building had a wall, making the curtain just a doorway, where the curtain in the inner room was the entirety of the separation.  The two-sidedness made clear each of the two rooms had separate levels of sanctity, the passage from one to the other a change to be noticed.

The idea extends to the High Priest’s belt and breastplate, also ma’aseh hoshev. Since the Kohen Gadol was the only person who went into the Kodesh Kodashim as part of an official service, those of his garments that differed from a regular kohen’s signaled the idea of two sancities, were ma’aseh hoshev [he is ignoring a Talmudic debate about the belts of the kohanim, but we can leave that].

For Meshech Hochmah, the embroidery of the parochet signaled the passage from one sanctity to another and highlighted the Kohen Gadol’s role as the one who traversed the two sanctities in his service on Yom Kippur.

Too Much Dedication Is Also a Problem

At the end of the parsha, Meshech Hochmah has a comment not attached to any verse. He points to Yoma 38b, the story of Nicanor’s gates, the gates of entry to the courtyard of the Beit Ha-Mikdash itself in the Second Temple.

The Gemara’s tradition said a storm arose while Nicanor was transporting the gates from Alexandria to Israel. To lighten the ship’s load, the sailors threw one of the gates overboard, but Nicanor refused to let them have the other, dared them to throw him over with it. With his act, the storm abated. Upon arrival in port, he was distressed over his failure to save the other, only to find it had floated along with the ship.

A first opinion in the Gemara says these gates were not switched for gold in later renovations of the Mikdash because miracles had happened with them. Others said it was because the copper was of high quality, or R. Elazar b. Ya’akov’s view, the copper looked golden.

Meshech Hochmah says the alternative answers signal discomfort with Nicanor’s having put his life on the line for the gate. He bases it on Baba Kama 61a, where the Gemara records a tradition from the court of the prophet Shemuel, not to quote Torah ideas from anyone who puts him/herself in a position to be killed for Torah matters. Meshech Hochmah assumes public Torah study is an exception, because Yehoshu’a was reprimanded (see Megillah 3a) for interfering with communal study, and the Torah is called the Torah of Moshe (Malachi 3;22) because he worked hard to foster it.

I think he takes a surprisingly strict view of the proper parameters for readiness to die to defend a Jewish ideal. He reads disapproval into the views of Nicanor’s Gates, which explicitly only gave other reasons they did not need to be switched for gold. It’s particularly remarkable, to me, because the Mishnah said miracles happened with Nicanor’s Gates, and he was remembered with praise, certainly at least implying the Mishnah approved of how he handled himself, and these other views do not react to or demur from that statement.

Meshech Hochmah seems to be working hard to find disapproval where it was not obvious, implying (to me) it was a point he was invested in making, rather than the sources leading him there. It suggests he was disturbed by some people’s excessive devotion to things other than public Torah study.

Obviously speculation, but a man is only as good as his speculations. For Terumah, we found R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen looking at the role of prophets vs. the Urim ve-Tumim, the ways to delineate levels of sanctity, and what deserves our “to death” declarations.

About Gidon Rothstein

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