Yoma 16

Hasmonean stones.

Today’s daf offers more description of the Second Temple compound’s layout — a description that can help us to remember just how enormous and complex this entire structure really was, a structure that employed a bevy of priests and Levites to work round the clock offering sacrifices to God.

According to all the earlier traditions cited, there was a room called the Hall of the Hearth, which presumably had a fire pit or hearth burning, and there were four rooms that opened onto it. What were these rooms used for? The Gemara cites two opinions from earlier mishnahs.

The first is from Mishnah Tamid 3:3:

One was the Chamber of the Lambs, and one was the Chamber of the Seals, and one was the Chamber of the Hall of the Hearth, and one was the chamber where the showbread was prepared.

The second opinion is from Mishnah Middot 1:6:

The one on the southwest was the Chamber of Sacrificial Lambs, the one on the southeast was the Chamber of the Showbread. In the one to the northeast the Hasmoneans deposited the stones of the altar which the kings of Greece had defiled. Through the one on the northwest they used to go down to the place of immersion.

Both texts agree that one of the four rooms was used to pen the sacrificial lambs before they were sacrificed. They also agree that one of the rooms was used to make the showbread, a set of cakes that were left out for God on a special table and baked (likely on that hearth) and replaced weekly. The two mishnahs disagree, however, on the functions of the last two rooms. 

According to the mishnah in Tamid, these rooms were also used for the day-to-day function of the Temple: storing the seals (receipts) for people’s payments to the Temple, and an antechamber. According to the Mishnah in Middot, however, one of these rooms housed some kind of stairwell or ramp to a place to immerse and prepare for Temple service, but the other was very different: it served to store “the stones of the altar which of the kinds of Greece had defiled.”

Those familiar with the story of Hanukkah will remember that after recapturing the Temple from the Greeks, Judah Maccabee and his band purified and rededicated the sanctuary. They also saw that the altar itself had been used to offer impure sacrifices to foreign gods. Could it be purified as well? According to 1 Maccabees 4“They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the Temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them.”

The sacred stones of the altar, which had been desecrated by impure offerings made to foreign gods, couldn’t remain — they would serve as a lasting reminder of the invasion and defilement of their most holy space. But before that they had been used to serve the God of Israel and so the stones retained a degree of holiness and could not simply be discarded. Hence: storage in the Temple in a convenient place which, according to the mishnah in Middot, turned out to be a room off of the Hall of the Hearth.

The Gemara doesn’t tell us which identification of the four rooms off the Hall of the Hearth is correct. But it’s worth thinking about what it would have meant to have a room filled with Hasmonean stones that had once been part of God’s sacred altar, and then dripped with porcine blood offered to Zeus, somewhere in the Temple precincts. Like the Maccabees and their descendants, many of us feel obligated to keep certain objects around that bring up painful memories. But today’s daf asks us consider the emotional impact of surrounding ourselves with these items. What would it have meant for a priest to walk by a room with the stones that symbolized Israel’s defeat and defilement every day on his way to work? What would it have felt like to see, every day, the evidence that your most sacred space had been used to worship the foreign gods of one’s oppressors? What would it have meant to priests to be serving in the Temple, now rededicated and purified, with a renewed awareness of the impermanence of the Temple service? And perhaps most importantly, what would it have meant for the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, living in a world without a Temple — at least for the time being — to try to recapture these experiences?

Read all of Yoma 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 27th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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