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Reconstructing the Life of the Temple and Its All-Too-Human Denizens

In the Talmud’s descriptions of self-glorifying and self-enriching Temple priests, lessons for today’s public officials

Adam Kirsch
November 05, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Oregon State University Special Collections/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Oregon State University Special Collections/Flickr)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Imagine that 400 years from now, the United States has been destroyed and Washington, D.C., lies in ruins. Few documents survive to explain how America was once governed; all that posterity has to rely on is hearsay and oral tradition, passed down over the generations. People know, for instance, that there was once a vice president named Al Gore, but they don’t know when he lived or exactly why his name has been recorded, when other holders of the same office are forgotten. Some speculate that it is because Gore was the best of all vice presidents; others say that perhaps all vice presidents were named Gore, in honor of the first of their line.

This was roughly the situation of the rabbis when they tried to reconstruct the life of the Temple. The Temple occupied the center of Jewish life for centuries; it was a massive institution, with a priestly bureaucracy and a dedicated tax base, and it performed a variety of ritual and political functions. But the Temple was burned down in 70 CE, by a Roman army under the future emperor Titus. By the time the rabbis came to write Tractate Shekalim, hundreds of years later, they could only speculate about many things that had once been common knowledge.

In Chapter 5 of Shekalim, for instance, the Mishnah offers a list of “the officials who served in the Temple.” Yochanan ben Pinchas was in charge of the seals; Achiyya was in charge of the libations; Petachya was responsible for bird-offerings; and so on. But the rabbis of the Gemara don’t know how to interpret this catalog. Why are these particular names recorded, when over the many centuries of the Temple’s life many individuals must have served in these offices? Rabbi Shimon suggested that the men named were “the most fit … from whatever generation”; in other words, they were the best holders of that particular office who ever served.

The majority of the rabbis, on the other hand, believed that this list was simply a snapshot of the moment in time when the Mishnah was recorded: “The tanna who was in that generation enumerated those who served in his generation.” Even the identities of the named individuals were sometimes ambiguous: According to the Gemara, the Petachya who was in charge of bird-offerings was actually the same person as Mordecai in the Book of Esther.

Traditions gathered around some of these officials, giving a sense of what their jobs in the Temple entailed and sometimes of how they were regarded by the people. Ben Bevai, for instance, was in charge of braiding the wicks used in the Temple’s lamps—a menial-sounding job. But his willingness to perform even this lowly task became an example of piety, which Rabbi Yosei once used to chastise some Jews who resisted being named charity commissioners in the town of Kufra. “If this man, who was appointed to deal with the wicks, merited to be listed with the greatest of that generation,” Yosei told them, “you, who are appointed for life-sustaining matters, all the more so are you not honored by the position?”

Another detail is related about Hugras ben Levi, who was in charge of the Levites who sang Psalms in the Temple. Apparently he had a technique that involved “sticking his thumb in his mouth” in order to “produce several kinds of music” at the same time, which was so seductive that when he sang “all of his fellow priests would lurch toward him all at once”—like a Jewish Orpheus. Nechunya, on the other hand, met a grimly ironic fate. He was in charge of digging the Temple’s wells and caves for collecting water, yet according to Rabbi Eliezer, “his son died of thirst.” This suggests that being a top priest was not necessarily a way to win God’s favor. On the contrary, the closer one stands to God, the more rigorous an account he demands, as Rabbi Yosei says: “His dread is upon those close to him more than upon those distant from him.”

It’s fascinating to compare the account of the Temple in Shekalim with the one in Josephus’ The Jewish War, written just after its destruction. Josephus offers a vivid sense of the Temple as a worldly, political institution. The high priesthood was a power base, jealously guarded by a handful of privileged priestly families, and the king of Judea often had to reckon with the high priest as a rival. The behavior of priests and kings in The Jewish War is not a bit more ethical or high-minded than that of the warlords in other parts of the Roman Empire. In the Talmud, by contrast, the whole political side of Temple life is missing; the rabbis are concerned not with worldly power but with sacred ritual, the timeless element that survived in memory even after the Temple was gone.

Yet even the Talmud makes clear that Temple officials were held to a high standard, which they did not always meet. The opportunities the Temple offered for self-glorification, and self-enrichment, were sometimes too tempting for the all-too-human priests. “There was great haughtiness among the high priests,” we read in Shekalim 11a, when it came to building the ceremonial ramp used for the sacrifice of the red heifer. Each new high priest would build a new and splendid ramp, at great expense—“more than 60 talents of gold”—even though the old one was still standing, just to demonstrate his own wealth and greatness.

Later we hear about the House of Garmu, a priestly family whose hereditary duty was to prepare the shewbread—the loaves of sacred bread that were perpetually on display in the Temple. The House of Garmu held the recipe for shewbread as a closely guarded trade secret and refused to share it with anyone. To break their monopoly, the sages “brought in craftsmen from Alexandria” to bake the shewbread; however, these ringers turned out to be “not as proficient as the house of Garmu” in taking the loaves out of the oven, and their bread kept getting spoiled. The upshot was that the Garmuites had to be hired back at twice the salary: “They had been receiving 12 maneh, and they gave them 24.”

A similar story is told about the House of Avtinas, which was in charge of preparing incense for the Temple. They too refused to share their recipe, managed to fend off rivals, and ended up making a big profit. The House of Avtinas claimed that the reason they would not tell anyone else how to make incense was purely pious: If the Temple was ever destroyed, they said, they did not want the recipe to be used by idol-worshipers for their profane rites. The rabbis did not accept this excuse, but they did acknowledge one thing: The women of the House of Avtinas were never found wearing perfume, because they wanted to avoid even the suspicion that they were using Temple incense for their own benefit. In this, they were obeying God’s instructions from the book of Numbers: “Then you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel.” Being innocent before God is not enough; people, too, must believe in you.

This principle, we read in Chapter 3 of Shekalim, governed the procedure for dealing with Temple funds. As we saw last week, Jews around the world contributed a half-shekel each for the Temple’s upkeep, sending the coins to Jerusalem in the month of Adar. Three times a year, the Mishnah explains in Shekalim 7b, the priests would perform a ceremony called “the collection of the chambers,” which involved withdrawing the coins so that they could be spent.

A single priest would enter the treasury chamber bearing three baskets, each marked with a letter: alef, bet, and gimel, according to one opinion, but another source says that Greek letters were used, alpha, beta, and gamma. (This suggests that, by the late Second Temple period, the culture of Judea was thoroughly Hellenized.) The priest would fill the baskets with coins in that order; naturally, there are rules about how to fill the baskets, how to cover them, and the order in which the coins should be spent. Throughout the process, however, the priest making the collection had to go out of his way to demonstrate that he was not pocketing any of the coins. He could not wear sleeves with cuffs, amulets or tefillin, shoes or sandals, since any of these could be hiding places.

What’s more, he could not have curled hair, since he could theoretically hide coins in his curls, and once he emerged from the chamber the Temple treasurers would comb out his hair, to demonstrate that there was nothing in it. Another source has it that the priest had to keep talking while making the collection, to show that he wasn’t hiding coins in his mouth. All this does not seem to suggest a great deal of trust; but the Talmud explains that public officials must be held to an extremely high standard. According to Rabbi Yonatan, “A person must appear justified before people as he must appear justified before the Omnipresent.” Or, as we might say today, he must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Today, we might well wish that our own public officials would take the Talmud’s strictness to heart.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.