Middot, Chapter Five, Mishnah Four
The final mishnah of our tractate describes the three chambers that were found on the southern side of the courtyard.
1) On the south were the wood chamber, the chamber of the exile and the chamber of hewn stones.
2) The wood chamber:
a) Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob says: I forget what it was used for.
b) Abba Shaul says: It was the chamber of the high priest, and it was behind the two of them, and one roof covered all three.
3) In the chamber of the exile there was a fixed cistern, with a wheel over it, and from there water was provided for all of the courtyard.
4) In the chamber of hewn stone the great Sanhedrin of Israel used to sit and judge the priesthood.
5) A priest in whom was found a disqualification used to put on black garments and wrap himself in black and go away.
a) One in whom no disqualification was found used to put on white garments and wrap himself in white and go in and serve along with his brother priests.
6) They used to make a feast because no blemish had been found in the seed of Aaron the priest, and they used to say:
a) Blessed is the Omnipresent, blessed is He, for no blemish has been found in the seed of Aaron.
b) Blessed is He who chose Aaron and his sons to stand to minister before the Lord in the Holy of Holies.
Section two: We should note that this is the second time in our tractate that Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob did not know what a chamber was used for and Abba Shaul did. See also 2:5. According to the Abba Shaul, the chamber of wood was the chamber of the high priest, which the Talmud identifies with the chamber mentioned in the beginning of Yoma. There it is called “the chamber of parhedrin” and in it the high priest would dwell for the seven days before Yom Kippur.
Section three: This cistern was also mentioned in Eruvin 10:14. Some commentators explain that it was called the “chamber of the exile” because it was built by Jews who had returned from the exile. Others explain that the word “golah” which I have translated to be “exile” should be read “gulah” which refers to a large container attached to the wheel which was used to draw water.
Section four: In the chamber of hewn stone, the great Sanhedrin of 70 judges would sit and one of their responsibilities was to decide which priests were fit to serve in the Temple [see also Sanhedrin, chapter one]. [We should note that there is something to be said about rabbis claiming that they determined which priests were fit to serve in the Temple. One wonders whether the priests would have agreed that this was the way things were done].
Section five: A priest who was disqualified from serving in the Temple, either due to a physical blemish or perhaps a genealogical flaw, would dress in black and leave.
One who was found valid to serve, would don his white priestly clothing and head off to join his fellow priests.
Section five: On a day that no priests were invalidated, the priests would make a celebration and offer up a special blessing. The impression one gets is that this was not the normmost of time at least one priest was found to be disqualified.
Congratulations! We have finished Tractate Middot!
It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.
Middot was an unusual tractate, much as was Tamid. Instead of the usual argumentation, we get a long physical description of the Temple. We should appreciate that although the rabbis were primarily attached to the words of the Torah, both the written and the oral Torah, they were drawn to the physical stones of the Temple, although they could no longer worship there. Perhaps we could even look at Middot as a way of bringing those stones into their own world of words.
This is not the place to discuss rabbinic thought on the complicated subject of animal sacrifice, but we should note that on at least one occasion in the tractate the rabbis did reveal their understanding of this subject. The altar gives life, both to Israel and perhaps to the entire world. By bringing us closer to God and maintaining our relationship with the eternal forces that rule the universe, the altar and the Temple which surround it, seem to tap into such a primal power and bring life to the worshipper’s fragile human existence.
I hope you have enjoyed Arakhin. Tomorrow we begin Tractate Kinim.