Navigate to Belief section

The Importance of Cubits and Shewbread and Everything That Makes Your Eyes Glaze Over

In their faith, Talmudic rabbis kept contradictory thoughts, believing in both the reality of miracles and their unreliability

Adam Kirsch
November 12, 2013
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

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

This week brought Daf Yomi readers to the end of Tractate Shekalim, by far the shortest of the tractates we have read since the cycle began 15 months ago. Because Shekalim survives only in the Jerusalem Talmud, we have been reading that version, instead of the usual Babylonian Talmud; and it has been interesting to compare the style and approach of the Yerushalmi with the Bavli. I’ve come to appreciate the terse, to-the-point Gemara of the Yerushalmi, which sticks much closer to the Mishna than do the intricate debates of the Bavli. In Shekalim, for instance, there have been no mind-bendingly complex attempts to attribute an opinion to this or that sage—the kind of thing that makes the Gemara in the Bavli read at times like an LSAT logic problem.

The last chapters of Shekalim continue the rabbis’ attempt to figure out just what the day-to-day operation of the Temple was like. There is a melancholy feeling to these discussions: They are the attempt of a dispossessed people to recover their heritage, and it is moving to see just how little the rabbis had to go on. Archeology, of course, was out of the question: Not only were the rabbis unable to dig for clues at the Temple Mount, but the very idea of scientific archeology was still centuries in the future. They seem to have had access to few written documents, and oral traditions were partial and unreliable.

What they fell back on, mostly, was the Bible; but this was, as always, a difficult resource to use. Most of us, when we read the Bible, tend to skip any passage that mentions cubits, or at least let the details run together. But to the rabbis, nothing could have been more important than the exact architectural specifications of the Temple. These measurements, after all, were dictated directly by God, and so they must have been just as holy and significant as the rules about ritual purity, or for that matter the Ten Commandments.

The rabbis take for granted that the sanctuary in the Jerusalem Temple followed the pattern of the Tabernacle, which was built by Moses according to the specifications God delivered at Sinai. Then there are details from the book of Kings, which describes how Solomon built the First Temple. But that building was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, and it’s not clear how closely the Second Temple followed its blueprint. The Temple that emerges in the rabbis’ imagination, then, is a palimpsest, full of contradictory details that have to be reconciled.

Take, for instance, the question raised in chapter 6 of Shekalim: How many tables were there in the Temple? The Mishna on Shekalim 17b lists 13, some of which were made of marble, others of silver and gold. Two of these tables were located inside the entrance hall of the Temple and were used to display the shewbread—the loaves of consecrated bread that were perpetually on show in the Temple’s Sanctuary and were changed each week on Shabbat. On a marble table the priests would display the shewbread before it entered the Sanctuary to be consecrated; on the neighboring gold table they would display the bread after it had been removed from the Sanctuary. It was then divided among the priests to be eaten.

But the Gemara points out that this description is challenged by other accounts. According to a baraita, the shewbread was actually placed on a silver table, not a marble one. The rabbis debate the point: Rabbi Yochanan says that the priests wouldn’t have used a silver table, since silver conducts heat, and the shewbread could have gotten moldy. Other rabbis say that this wouldn’t have mattered, since the shewbread was kept hot anyway, by a miracle, as described in the book of Samuel. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi retorts that “one does not mention miraculous events”: That is, the bread may have been kept hot by a miracle, but the builders of the Temple wouldn’t have counted on this, since one can never make plans that depend on a miracle. This sound advice shows how the rabbis could keep contradictory thoughts in their mind at the same time, believing both in the reality of miracles and in their unreliability.

Another problem arises in the book of Chronicles, which says that King Solomon “made also 10 tables, and placed them in the Temple, five on the right side and five on the left.” Was the shewbread placed on all of these, one loaf per table? Or, as Moses seems to instruct in Exodus, were all 10vloaves placed on one table in the Sanctuary, which was made of gold? And if there were 10 tables, how were they arranged in the Temple space—east to west or north to south? This detail matters, because Moses instructed that the table should be “on the north side” of the Sanctuary. If the tables ran east to west, they could all be in a line in the northern half of the space, and so they would technically be following Moses’ instructions. But if they were in a line from north to south, five of them would have had to be in the southern part of the sanctuary, where they couldn’t be used.

The rabbis are just as painstaking when it comes to describing the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, of course, contained the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, given to Moses at Sinai. Exactly how big did the Ark have to be for the tablets to fit inside? In Exodus, it is said to be two and a half cubits high and one and a half cubits across. And how big is a cubit? According to Rabbi Meir, it is six handbreadths; according to Rabbi Yehuda, it is five handbreadths. Using these measurements, the rabbis then deduce how large the tablets must have been, if they were to fit into the Ark with room to spare for handling.

But how much room needed to be spared? The answer depends on whether you believe the Ark contained the tablets alone, or both the tablets and the fragments of the original tablets that Moses smashed when he came down from Sinai and saw the golden calf. And there might also have been room in the Ark for a Torah scroll, since at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the people to “take this book of the law and put it by the side of the Art of the Covenant.” It’s not clear, however, whether this meant that the scroll was actually kept inside the Ark or, as Rabbi Yehuda believed, in a box next to the Ark.

The fate of the Ark, too, was a mystery for which the rabbis had no simple answer. The Ark was a magic object, which the Israelites would carry into battle, and which could strike dead people who touched it without permission. When the Philistines captured it, we read in the book of Judges, it brought a plague on them until they sent it back. But the Ark disappeared in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple. In the Second Temple, the space formerly occupied by the Ark, the Holy of Holies, was completely empty. So, where, the rabbis wonder in Shekalim 15b, did the Ark end up?

Rabbi Elazar holds that “the Ark was exiled with the Jews to Babylonia”: When the people of Judah were deported, Nebuchadnezzar also took “the vessels of the House of the Lord,” including the Ark. But it was hard to accept that God would allow such a holy object to simply vanish into the Babylonian treasure-houses. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish argues that, in fact, the ark was hidden inside the Holy of Holies. The Mishna disagrees, saying that it was buried underneath the Temple’s wood depository, and that the priests would genuflect there in its honor. On one occasion, the Gemara adds, a priest saw an unusual paving-stone in the area and was about to start digging it up, when he was struck dead and “his soul left him.” This was surely proof that something supernatural was happening: “And they knew with certainty that the Ark was sequestered there.”

If the Ark could be hidden, the rabbis reasoned, so too could other magic relics mentioned in the Bible that had later disappeared: a canister of manna, Aaron’s rod, and the flask of oil used to anoint Judah’s kings. What the rabbis are wrestling with in this discussion is the great gulf between the biblical era, when miracles were regularly performed for Israel, and the fallen present, when miracles have ceased. For the rabbis, as for us, God was no longer tangible. His power, which the ancient Israelites saw manifested in magic objects and supernatural deeds, is now a matter of faith. By holding that the Ark was only hidden, not destroyed, the rabbis left open the possibility that the age of miracles might one day return. The Talmud itself lives in that space between the worldly present and the messianic future.


To listen to a Vox Tablet conversation with literary critic Adam Kirsch about his Daf Yomi study, click here.

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.