Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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.

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