Shekalim, Chapter 8, Mishnah 5
Shekalim, Chapter Eight, Mishnah Five
This mishnah describes the curtain in all of its glory. Interestingly, Josephus (Wars of the Jews, Book V, Chapter Five, four) also describes the curtain in exceedingly glorious terms. He writes:
But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.
1) Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of the chief [of the priests]: the curtain was a handbreadth in thickness and was woven on seventy-two cords, and on each cord there were twenty-four threads.
2) It was forty cubits long and twenty cubits broad, and was made by eighty-two young girls.
3) Two curtains were made every year, and three hundred priests were needed to immerse it.
Section one: Obviously the curtain was simply a tremendous piece of work. There is a description of the Tabernacles curtain in Exodus 26:1. There we learn that it is made of four types of thread: blue, purple, scarlet and fine linen (see also Josephus above). Each type had six strings, which means that there were twenty-four threads on each cord.
Section two: The entrance to the hall of the Temple which this curtain hung in front of was forty cubits long and twenty cubits broad.
It took 82 young girls to weave the curtain. We should note that this explanation is according to a certain version of the text. According to another textual reading, the curtain was made up of 820,000 strings.
Section three: According to the Toseftas explanation of this clause, there were two curtains in the Temple, one spread out to cover the doors and one folded up. If the spread out one became impure they would spread out the folded up one and purify the other (see yesterdays mishnah). On the eve of Yom Kippur they would bring in a new curtain and take out the old one.
Because of its great thickness and weight, it required three hundred priests to immerse the curtain outside of the Temple and to spread it out in the Hel (see yesterdays mishnah). The Talmud admits that three hundred may be an exaggeration, but it still lets us know what a massive undertaking this must have been.