Tuesday, April 17, 2012

High Noon in the Mikdash?

As mentioned in the last post, I was going to do somewhat of a two part series. The last post dealt with the alignment of the Beis Hamikdash and solar motion as seen here. This one will address the design of the walls of the Beis Hamikdash.

The Gemara teaches that the earliest that the afternoon offering could be performed in the Beis Hamikdash was a half-hour after midday. The Gemara questions why this is true since tradition teaches us that Avraham prayed his afternoon service immediately after midday and that that prayer corresponds to the afternoon sacrificial offering.
The Gemara assumes that one would not have a problem ascertaining the exact moment after midday based on the following easy experiment. In order to determine the appropriate time one would need only to look at the shadows cast by the surrounding walls. Since the sun is located toward the eastern portion of the sky in the morning, the shadows cast by it will be protruding to the west. The opposite is true for the afternoon. Therefore, the moment that one sees shadows cast toward the east he knows that it is immediately after midday. The Gemara provides several answers, the first of which is that walls of the Beis Hamikdash were sloped and therefore did not produce an adequate shadow until after a half-hour after midday. (Yoma 28b based on Rashi's commentary) Thus, they were unable to be as accurate as possible with regard to the afternoon offering. (To see a fascinating way to determine the actual slope of the wall based on this approach see Rav Yoav Elan's wonderful post from his blog all about the Second Beis Hamikdash on this topic here.)

The question I have with this approach is that it should not have been difficult to determine midday in the Beis Hamkidash. As discussed in the last post, the Yerushalmi maintains that the walls of the Beis Hamikdash were perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions. If so, there is a very easy method to determining when midday is. Anyone at a latitude north of 23.5N will see the sun directly due south at midday on any given day. Yerushalayim is located at approximately 32 degrees north and certainly well above 23.5. Since the walls of the Beis Hamikdash were aligned perfectly, then one could look at an eastern or western wall from the edge toward the south and when the sun would be directly above that wall he would know that it was midday. This is an extremely easy experiment and, based on it, the sacrificial offering could have been offered just after midday and it would be consistent with the tradition with regards to Avraham's prayer.
There is also good precedent that there were kohanim assigned to such tasks of determining celestial phenomena for the purposes of the service as seen in Yoma 28a where we find that there was someone charged to ascend a wall or roof to witness dawn in order to determine when the morning offering could be brought. We also find other items in the Beis Hamikdash whose design enabled the people to know when certain celestial events were occurring in order to perform mitzvos such as reading the shema; this was accomplished by the nivreshes that would sparkle in the rising sun's rays and alert the people of Yerushalayim to recite shema. (See Yoma 37b and Tosefos' commentary) So, why couldn't there have been someone designated to determine midday based on the solar position above the wall?
The above approach to understanding the Gemara reflects the opinion of Rashi. There are other opinions such as those of Rabbeinu Chananel, the Aruch, and the Otzer Hageonim. They have a variant text of the Gemara which clearly states that the walls were perfectly aligned and they do not maintain that there was any slope to the wall. They maintain that technically the sacrifice could have been brought earlier but this could have caused problems for people living elsewhere. Since others may not be as detail oriented when conducting their own experiments outside the confines of the Temple for the purposes of their personal afternoon prayers; it was necessary in the Beis Hamikdash to delay the offering. Had they not delayed, visitors would have learned from the practice and applied it in an erroneous fashion after leaving. Therefore, a half-hour was added so nobody would err when they went back home. According to this approach, no question arises as it is agreed upon that midday was easy to determine in the Beis Hamikdash.
Based on the above questions, Rashi's approach; however, appears to be in conflict with the above Yerushalmi. It would seem that Rashi was forced to this conclusion because according to the text of the Bavli that he had, the walls were not perfect. Rashi interpreted that to mean that they were sloped. He must understand that the Bavli's passage was in conflict with the Yerushalmi because if it wasn't then midday would have been easy to determine by seeing when the sun was due south. The problem is that this leaves one with another question.
According to Rashi's text, the Gemara mentions that the walls were not aligned perfectly. Since Rashi must maintain that they were not perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions, as stated above, how did he know that they were also sloped? One could have stated that the delay of the shadow being cast was completely dependent on the fact that the walls were not perfectly aligned north to south and not dependent at all on there being a slope. In fact, according to the Otzer Hageonim this was considered by the Bavli prior to it rejecting this assertion based on the Yerushalmi. Keep in mind, the Otzer Hageonim has the text that maintains that the walls were perfectly aligned and straight.
Rather, it seems that Rashi would maintain that they were unsuccessful in aligning the walls to the cardinal directions although an attempt had been made to align them. Because of the attempt, Rashi knew that the alignment would not have been off by a lot. It seems reasonable to minimize the conflict between the Bavli and Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi puts emphasis on the importance of aligning the walls and then goes to cite that this was done successfully. I do not find it unlikely that the Bavli would agree that there was an attempt to align the walls and it seems clear that Rashi is of the opinion that they were not perfectly aligned, but that they were close to perfect. Had Rashi been comfortable that they were severely misaligned then he never would have had to mention a slope in the wall's design. He could have attributed to the delay of the shadow to the wall's positioning. Rather, the walls must have been aligned enough that the half-hour estimate would be unreasonable and Rashi presumably got that from the fact that an attempt had been made to align them. This would force Rashi into explaining the Gemara to be referring to a slope.
One cannot state that they possibly aligned it, but were unsure if they were successful because after the first year of witnessing the solar motion they would notice that the walls were not perfectly aligned.
If this is true then the determination of the slope of the wall that I linked to earlier here might not be completely accurate because that is based on the assumption that the walls were aligned perfectly to the four directions. Since it is unknown how much deviation from this there was it would be impossible to determine the slope exactly. Although, since it appears that the difference was minimal the calculations are probably extremely close.

No Compasses in the Midbar

Firstly, let me apologize for not having posted for the past several weeks. Baruch Hashem I have been very busy with all sorts of things and then with Pesach I just did not have the time. I, therefore, hope to post a two part series about how the Beis Hamikdash was aligned with solar motion and whether or not that raises some questions about the design of its walls.

This week's parsha teaches of the inaugural service of the mishkan. As we know, the mishkan was a mobile temple in which Bnai Yisrael were able to offer their sacrifices to Hashem in the wilderness. The Yerushalmi teaches that it is very important to have our temples aligned perfectly with the cardinal directions. In addition to each side having proper alignment, it seems that the eastern doorway was constructed in such a fashion that at sunrise on the first day of summer the sun's rays would directly hit the southern doorpost and while rising on the first day of winter the rays would hit the northern doorpost directly. In fact, the Yerushalmi mentions that the prophets of earlier times went to great lengths to ensure that this doorway was aligned precisely. (Yerushalmi Eruvin 32a-33a)

R. Yosa informs one how to discern which direction is which. He teaches that if one draws a line on the horizon starting from where the sun rises on the first of summer and ending at the point where it rises on the first of winter then he will have defined east. If he does so for the spots where the sun sets on the first of winter until the spot where it sets on the first of summer then he will have defined west. The other sides are north and south. (Ibid.)

Based on the above teaching the Yerushalmi states that this precision would have been easy while in Shilo or in Yerushalayim because the populace was familiar with the area prior to erecting the temples in those locations. However, how was this accomplished while wandering in the wilderness. Klal Yisrael needed to build the mishkan right when they arrived at a new location and they would not have had the ability to watch the solar motion for the duration of a year to determine the cardinal directions with precision. Since the compass hadn't been invented yet, they would not have been able to automatically determine which direction was due east, etc. To this the Yerushalmi responds that the aron would miraculously align itself when it reached its destination. Based on this the Levi'im were able to build the mishkan around it. (Ibid.)

The initial questions that I had were why couldn't Klal Yisrael have looked to the northern region of the sky and seen the North Star? Based on that, they would have known which direction is north and they could figure the rest out from there. Almost instantly I started to wonder if this supported Rabbeinu Chananel's opinion that during the encampment in the wilderness the sky was not visible to Klal Yisrael because the clouds and pillars of fire blocked the view. (See Rabbeinu Bacheye Shemos 12:2) I also wondered why R. Yosa would need to give such a relatively difficult and time consuming method. Why not just point to the North Star and take it from there?

I then realized that I was making a very common but obvious mistake. Klal Yisrael could not have used the North Star to guide them in this fashion because there was no North Star!!! In addition to spinning on its axis, our planet wobbles very slowly. Picture a spinning dreidel. As it turns it also has a slight wobble which becomes more pronounced as it slows. Earth, too, has a wobble, although it is much slower than the dreidel's. It takes just under 26,000 years for one full "wobble" to occur. However, there is enough "partial wobble" during smaller durations of time that stars appear to have shifted in the sky. Because of this phenomenon, called the precession of the equinoxes, there was no polar star during the times of the amoraim, tanaim, batei mikdash, Shilo, or even the mishkan. It is a relatively recent occurrence that we have a star, Polaris, that is so close to due north, less than one degree.

So, it would seem that without a compass it would have been very difficult to accurately set the mishkan up optimally. The aron, though, miraculously enabled Klal Yisrael to adequately set up their mishkan and serve Hashem properly.

Part two of this installment should be arriving shortly. It will, hopefully, analyze the architectural design of the walls of the Beis Hamikdash. Using the information in this post the next one will raise some questions as to why Rashi maintains that it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact moment of midday in the Beis Hamikdash.