Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts of the tenth class are those enumerated in the laws on the Temple (Hilkot bet ha-beḥirah), the laws on the vessels of the temple and on the ministers in the temple [Hilkot kele ha-miḳdash veha-‘obedim bo]. The use of these precepts we have stated in general terms. It is known that idolaters selected the highest possible places on high mountains where to build their temples and to place their images. Therefore Abraham, our father, chose Mount Moriah, being the highest mount in that country, and proclaimed there the Unity of God. He selected the west of the mount as the place toward which he turned during his prayers, because [he thought that] the most holy place was in the West; this is the meaning of the saving of our Sages, "The Shekinah" (the Glory of God) is in the West" (B. T. Baba B 25a); and it is distinctly stated in the Talmud Yoma that our father Abraham chose the west side, the place where the Most Holy was built. I believe that he did so because it was then a general rite to worship the sun as a deity. Undoubtedly all people turned then to the East [worshipping the Sun]. Abraham turned therefore on Mount Moriah to the West, that is, the site of the Sanctuary, and turned his back toward the sun; and the Israelites, when they abandoned their God and returned to the early bad principles, stood "with their backs toward the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the East, and they worshipped the sun toward the East" (Ezek. viii. 16). Note this strange fact. I do not doubt that the spot which Abraham chose in his prophetical spirit, was known to Moses our Teacher, and to others: for Abraham commanded his children that on this place a house of worship should be built. Thus the Targum says distinctly, "And Abraham worshipped and prayed there in that place, and said before God, 'Here shall coming generations worship the Lord'" (Gen. xxii. 14). For three practical reasons the name of the place is not distinctly stated in the Law, but indicated in the phrase "To the place which the Lord will choose" (Deut. xii. 11, etc.). First, if the nations had learnt that this place was to be the centre of the highest religious truths, they would occupy it, or fight about it most perseveringly. Secondly, those who were then in possession of it might destroy and ruin the place with all their might. Thirdly, and chiefly, every one of the twelve tribes would desire to have this place in its borders and under its control; this would lead to divisions and discord, such as were caused by the desire for the priesthood. Therefore it was commanded that the Temple should not be built before the election of a king who would order its erection, and thus remove the cause of discord. We have explained this in the Section on Judges (ch. xli.).
It is known that the heathen in those days built temples to stars, and set up in those temples the image which they agreed upon to worship; because it was in some relation to a certain star or to a portion of one of the spheres. We were, therefore, commanded to build a temple to the name of God, and to place therein the ark with two tables of stone, on which there were written the commandments "I am the Lord," etc., and "Thou shalt have no other God before me," etc. Naturally the fundamental belief in prophecy precedes the belief in the Law, for without the belief in prophecy there can be no belief in the Law. But a prophet only receives divine inspiration through
the agency of an angel. Comp. "The angel of the Lord called" (Gen. xxii. 15); "The angel of the Lord said unto her" (ibid. xvi. 11); and other innumerable instances. Even Moses our Teacher received his first prophecy through an angel. "And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flame of fire" (Exod. iii.). It is therefore clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the latter precedes the belief in the Law. The Sabeans, in their ignorance of the existence of God, believed that the spheres with their stars were beings without beginning and without end, that the images and certain trees, the Asherot, derived certain powers from the spheres, that they inspired the prophets, spoke to them in visions, and told them what was good and what bad. I have explained their theory when speaking of the prophets of the Ashera. But when the wise men discovered and proved that there was a Being, neither itself corporeal nor residing as a force in a corporeal body, viz., the true, one God, and that there existed besides other purely incorporeal beings which God endowed with His goodness and His light, namely, the angels, and that these beings are not included in the sphere and its stars, it became evident that it was these angels and not the images or Asherot that charged the prophets. From the preceding remarks it is clear that the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the Existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in Prophecy and in the truth of the Law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in God's Existence; it leads us to believe in Prophecy and in the Law, and opposes idolatry. If there had only been one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God's image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring "the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," Moses clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that) God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one.
A candlestick was then put in front of the curtain, as a sign of honour and distinction for the Temple. For a chamber in which a continual light burns, hidden behind a curtain, makes a great impression on man, and the Law lays great stress on our holding the Sanctuary in great estimation and regard, and that at the sight of it we should be filled with humility, mercy, and softheartedness. This is expressed in the words, "And ye shall reverence my sanctuary" (Lev. xix. 30), and in order to give these words more weight, they are closely joined to the command to keep the Sabbath.
The use of the altar for incense and the altar for burnt-offering and their vessels is obvious; but I do not know the object of the table with the bread upon it continually, and up to this day I have not been able to assign any reason to this commandment.
The commandment that the stones of the altar shall not be hewn and that no iron tool shall be lifted up upon them (Deut. xxvii. 5), has been explained
by our Sages as follows: It is not right that the tool that shortens man's life should be lifted up upon that which gives length of life. As an Agadic explanation this is good: but the real reason is this: the heathen used to build their altars with hewn stones: we ought not to imitate them. For this reason we have to make an altar of earth: "Thou shalt make unto me an altar of earth" (Exod. xx. 24); if it should be impossible to dispense altogether with stones, they must not be hewn, but employed in their natural state. Thus the Law also prohibits from worshipping over painted stones (Lev. xxvi. 1), or from planting any tree near the altar of the Lord (Deut. xvi. 21). The object of all these commandments is the same, namely, that we shall not employ in the worship of God anything which the heathen employed in the worship of their idols. In general terms this is repeated in the following passage: "Take heed, that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise" (Deut. xii. 30), the Israelites shall not do this, because--as is expressly added--"every abomination unto the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods."
The mode of worshipping Peor, then very general among the heathen, consisted in uncovering the nakedness. The priests were therefore commanded to make breeches for themselves to cover their nakedness during the service, and, besides, no steps were to lead up to the altar, "that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon" (Exod. xx. 23)
The Sanctuary was constantly guarded and surrounded [by Levites] as a mark of respect and honour: and at the same time the layman, the unclean, and mourners, were prevented from entering the Sanctuary, as will be explained. Among other things that tend to display the greatness and the glory of the Temple and to inspire us with awe, is the rule that none shall approach it in a state of drunkenness or uncleanness, or in a disorderly state, i.e., the hair undressed and the garments rent; and that every one who officiated as priest should first wash his hands and his feet.
In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honour: and the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priests should be clothed properly with beautiful and good garments, "holy garments for glory and for beauty" (Exod. xxviii. 2). A priest that had a blemish was not allowed to officiate; and not only those that had a blemish were excluded from the service, but also--according to the Talmudic interpretation of this precept--those that had an abnormal appearance; for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the 'temple was to be held in great reverence by all.
The Levites did not sacrifice; they were not considered as being agents in the atonement of sins, for it was only the priest who was commanded "to make atonement for him" (Lev. iv. 26) and "to make atonement for her" (Lev. xii. 8). The duty of the Levites was the performance of vocal music; and a Levite became therefore disabled for service when he lost his voice. The object of the singing is to produce certain emotions; this object can only be attained by pleasing sounds and melodies accompanied by music, as was always the case in the Temple.
Again, the priests, even when fit for service, and actually officiating in the
[paragraph continues] Temple, were not allowed to sit down, or enter it whenever they liked; the Most Holy was only entered by the high-priest four times on the Day of Atonement, and on no other occasion. The object of all these rules was to raise the estimation of the Sanctuary in the eyes of the people.
Since many beasts were daily slaughtered in the holy place, the flesh cut in pieces and the entrails and the legs burnt and washed, the smell of the place would undoubtedly have been like the smell of slaughter-houses, if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense there twice every day, in the morning and in the evening (Exod. xxx. 7, 8), in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odour. There is a well-known saying of our Sages, "In Jericho they could smell the incense" [burnt in the Temple]. This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally feels elevated in the presence of good odour, and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smell.
The anointing oil (Exod. xxx. 22-33) served a double purpose: to give the anointed object a good odour, and to produce the impression that it was something great, holy, and distinguished, and better than other objects of the same species; it made no difference whether that object was a human being, a garment, or a vessel. All this aimed at producing due respect towards the Sanctuary, and indirectly fear of God. When a person enters the Temple, certain emotions are produced in him; and obstinate hearts are softened and humbled. These plans and indirect means were devised by the Law, to soften and humble man's heart at entering the holy place, in order that he might entrust himself to the sure guidance of God's commandments. This is distinctly said in the Law: "And thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings, of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always" (Deut. xiv. 23). The object of all these ceremonies is now clear. The reason why we are not allowed to prepare [for common use] the anointing oil and the incense (ibid. ver. 32, 38) is obvious; for when the odour [of the oil and incense] is perceived only in the Sanctuary, the desired effect is great: besides [if it were allowed for every one to prepare the anointing oil], people might anoint themselves therewith and imagine themselves distinguished; much disorder and dissension would then follow.
It is clear that when the ark was carried on the shoulder, and was not put on a waggon, it was done out of respect towards it, and also to prevent its being damaged in its form and shape; even the staves were not moved out of the rings, for this reason. In order that the form of the ephod and the breastplate should not be spoiled, they were never separated. The garments were also entirely woven and not cut, in order not to spoil the work of the weaving.
Those that ministered in the Temple were strictly prohibited to interfere with each other's work; for if in public duties and offices, each one would not have assigned to him his particular task, general carelessness and neglect would soon be noticed.
It is evident that the object of giving different degrees of sanctity to the different places, to the Temple mount, the place between the two walls, to the Hall of women, to the Hall, and so on up to the Most Holy, was to raise the respect and reverence of the Temple in the heart of every one that approached it.
We have thus described the reason of all precepts of this class.