Talmud pages

Yoma 8

Unworthy priests.

We will probably never have an exact blueprint of the Second Temple. The Bible gives a fairly detailed description of the First Temple, built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Likewise, the biblical prophet Ezekiel describes in great detail the dimensions of the Temple he hoped would be rebuilt — a structure that Maimonides characterized as a futuristic Third Temple, as yet never constructed. But the Second Temple, the one that was destroyed a few centuries before the Talmud was written down, has no such detailed description — at least not in our Bible.

The Second Temple was built under the reign of Darius of Persia in 516 BCE and it was drastically rebuilt under Herod the Great some five centuries later. The first century Jewish historian Josephus gives a detailed if controversial description of it toward the end of the first century (see Antiquities chapter 15 and Jewish War chapter 5). Descriptions of the Temple are also found in the Temple Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Mishnah Middot. Neither of these date to the period during which Herod’s Temple stood; the Temple Scroll is earlier, the Mishnah later.

But one thing that we can be sure of is that the whole Temple complex was not only large (the Temple Mount built by Herod as a platform to surround the Temple was a whopping 37 acres) but incredibly intricate and complicated. Aside from large spaces to offer sacrifices and the sacred heart of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, the sacrificial system itself had to be supported by spaces to accommodate and process livestock and chambers to store wood, utensils, clothes and instruments. There were administrative offices and treasuries and a library. What different areas and chambers they were and what they were called has continued to be a matter of dispute. 

Today we continue our exploration of the first mishnah of Yoma, in which we learned that the high priest would be sequestered in the “Chamber of the Parhedrin” seven days to prepare for his role in the Temple on the Day of Atonement. In the Gemara, we learn that during that time, he was sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer to ensure that he is in a state of complete purity. Then a question is raised about the name of the room:

Rabbi Yehuda: Was it called the Chamber of Parhedrin? Wasn’t it called the Chamber of Balvatei? Rather, initially, they would call it the Chamber of Balvatei. However, because people were giving money (to purchase appointments) to the high priesthood, and they were replaced every twelve months like the parhedrin who are replaced every twelve months. Therefore, the chamber was called the Chamber of Parhedrin. 

As the rabbis understand it, there was a time — back in the days of Simeon the Righteous (3rd c. BCE) — when the high priests were honorable and conscientious stewards of the Temple. At that time, the room where they would prepare for Yom Kippur was called the Chamber of Balvatei, from the word for a senator — a name connoting significance.

However, over the centuries, the office became corrupt. Wealthy individuals began purchasing the position of high priest high priest. As a result, the position was filled by a series of unworthy and, more to the point, interim individuals. Rashi explains that these greedy people who aspired to the position were not worthy, and never held it long — invariably dying during their first year in office. The name “Parhedrin” derives from the Greek word for an appointed official — one who is likely to hold an office for a shorter amount of time. The Gemara implies the name change reflected the corruption of the priesthood.

Of course, we should not take this at face value. It seems unlikely that the corrupted high priests would have changed the name of the august room of preparation to reflect their own defects. It’s more likely that the rabbis used the name (or perhaps names) of this room as an opportunity to rail against the shameless defilement of the highest religious office in the land. Either way, however, it is a sad reflection of how politics and wealth corroded the moral authority of the priesthood.

Read all of Yoma 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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