Menachem Zigelbaum, Beis Moshiach
I had some trepidation when I contacted Dr. Michoel Ben Ari, since it was at a time that he was in the center of a political storm. However, hearing that I was from Beis Moshiach and wanted to talk to him about the Beis HaMikdash and his yearning for it, he dropped everything, moved to a quiet place and we spoke for more than an hour. When you speak with Ben Ari, you can’t help but see the Beis HaMikdash before your very eyes. That’s the way he is, he lives it. He hardly needs any questions in this interview because his words just flow.
“One of the things that I find most painful about the Three Weeks is that people are busy with the stories of the churban and Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and they ignore entire mesechtos that describe life in the Mikdash and the experience of the Mikdash,” he begins.
“Usually, when people want to learn about the Mikdash, rather than learn about it, they learn about its destruction as is described in Medrashim and Aggadata. This can easily lead one to despondency.
“When you learn the sources that the Lubavitcher Rebbe cited, Meseches Middos and things like that, the learning is uplifting and arouses a longing for the Beis HaMikdash. Whoever learns about the structure of the Bayis in its glory, becomes aware of the majesty and splendor that was in the Beis HaMikdash and the intensity of kedusha that it infused into whoever entered its gates.
“I just start talking about it and my entire body gets the shivers from head to toe.
“For example, the Gemara in Meseches Yoma describes the avoda of Yom Kippur in the Mikdash and says, ‘the call of the rooster did not come until the Azara was full of Jews.’ Picture it, Menachem, how the masses of Jews were walking to and gathering in the Beis HaMikdash while it was still night… Yom Kippur… It fills up with people and those who can’t get in, go and stand in the Ezras Nashim so they can watch the avoda from there. Those who come even later go off to the Beis Ha’deshen where, during the course of the day, they will burn parts of the ox and goat, as it says in the Tosefta, and they would set up barricades of Kohanim so they would not throw themselves into the fire… The excitement was so great … Do you know what it means to be part of such a great event?”
TO UNDERSTAND THE FULL PICTURE
OF THE MIKDASH
The conversation with Ben Ari, former Knesset member, was a fascinating discussion about the amazing research that he did in order to really plumb the depths of the Mikdash. He has been living with this topic for over thirty years and even founded the Mikdash Research College that eventually merged with the Machon HaMikdash.
Nearly every detail of the Mikdash comes to life in his published research as though he researched a currently existing building. Ben Ari did not leave a single nook and cranny that he did not clarify. He even devoted a chapter of his research to the drainage system of the Beis HaMikdash. He quotes the Rebbe about learning the Tzuras HaBayis (structural form of the Beis HaMikdash) and explains that this subject is also a part of the construction of the Bayis and in order to understand the whole picture you cannot omit a single detail.
“Studying the Tzuras HaBayis means understanding how it was built, with all its components and how it operated,” he says.
“When I began researching the subject of the Har HaBayis and the Beis HaMikdash (in the Torah world they don’t like the expression ‘research’) the doctoral advisors asked me, ‘What are you going to bring us on the topic? From what angle are you going to research this subject?’ I told them, ‘I’ll quote Chazal.’ They said, ‘Chazal is not history,’ and I didn’t understand that. What does that mean that it’s not history? Chazal are the epitome of history.
“I devoted all my free time for two years to go over all the sidrei Mishna, the Tosefta, and halachic Medrashim for the purpose of collecting any mention, large or small, about the Mikdash.
“Chazal, in essence, are men of halacha and intellect. They did not deal with history per se. They did not care what a particular kohen ate or what that levi wore unless it had halachic significance. Yet, within all that, there is a treasury of historical information from the days of the Mikdash in its glory.”
Is there is a Tanna who dealt specifically with topics related to the Mikdash?
All the Tannaim dealt with all Torah matters in the broadest way including the Mikdash. Perhaps though, we can say that Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, one of the great students of Rabbi Akiva, in the discourse between the Sages, always comes with a different view about what happened in the Mikdash. When you learn Mishnayos Pesachim or Yoma or Succa, you notice that he has a unique recollection of the Mikdash.
Why is that, when he lived decades after the churban?
“He would sit in the Beis Medrash or at the Shabbos table with kohanim who had served in the Beis HaMikdash and they would tell him the way it used to be. He lived the experiences with them as they relived it all. He didn’t see it himself but he got authentic information from the kohanim who had been in the Beis HaMikdash. He is one of the transmitters of the recollections of the Mikdash.”
When Ben Ari speaks about Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, he can’t ‘skip over’ Rabbi Akiva who was also in the first period following the churban:
The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood that people are busy with the churban while we need to yearn for the Mikdash. Note that at the end of Yoma, after all the descriptions about the avoda of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, how he would enter the Holy of Holies and all the people would prostrate themselves, how the excitement and relief were so great when he came out safely and he would make a Yom Tov, the last mishna is about the great zechus of Am Yisrael. It quotes Rabbi Akiva, “Fortunate are you Yisrael, before Whom are you purified and Who purifies you…”
Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Tannaim and the one who is called by the Sages, ‘Rosh l’Chachamim,’ was well aware of the despondency over the loss of the means of acquiring atonement after the churban. The Jewish people felt that once the Bayis was destroyed, there was no opportunity for atonement. Not only that but another year passed and we still did not have the Beis HaMikdash and our sins were piling up and there was no lottery and no sprinkling and no Kohen Gadol and no red string and no… and no… The pain is great.
In response, he tries to appease us by explaining that purity does not depend on the Kohen Gadol. He quotes the verses that teach that Hashem Himself is the one who purifies the Jewish people in the absence of the Kohen Gadol and Beis HaMikdash. In Rabbi Akiva’s words there is an attempt to lessen the bewilderment and the feeling of helplessness of the people. Rabbi Akiva teaches about an unconditional personal relationship between Yisrael and their Father in heaven.
We find something similar with prayer which serves as a substitute for the korbanos, ‘our lips will replace the [sacrificial] bulls.’ The Jewish people said: Master of the universe, when the Beis HaMikdash existed, we would bring a korbon and gain atonement and now all we have is prayer …
CHAZAL WANT TO AROUSE OUR YEARNING
When I asked Dr. Ben Ari about his academic work, he answered seemingly off topic, “I merited to repose in the house of Hashem and to be engaged in the holiness of the Har HaBayis.” I asked about academia and he answered about Torah study. That’s how he looks at things.
“Unfortunately, I had to deal with testimonies and descriptions of the Beis HaMikdash from foreign sources. Still, most of my work is based on Chazal and that is also how I lecture to students, primarily from Chazal.”
(Emotionally): “When you engage in a substantive study of the Mikdash, throughout this time you are actually walking there, you are there, seeing the images, the chambers and the buildings, and it all becomes alive and real. You are living there.”
I hear you speaking about the Mikdash with such emotion. How can we arouse people’s feelings and not just awareness about the Bayis?
I think that Chazal themselves concerned themselves with that. There are entire chapters of recollection in the Mishna. During the Nine Days, many learn Meseches Middos and Tamid. According to my research, Tamid was the first mesechta written of all the mishnayos.
This mesechta is a sort of song. It’s not halacha but a song. The Mikdash was so present in the lives and words of Chazal… First of all, it has no arguments, there is a unanimous description. Read it for yourself and you will see its style and structure.
Take note of what the Rambam says in his introduction about Meseches Middos, “After Tamid is tractate Middos, whose content is limited to narratives about the measurements of the Mikdash, its shape, and the manner of its construction. The benefit to be derived from this is that when it will be rebuilt, one should preserve that shape and that arrangement because that arrangement comes from divine inspiration …” He defines this mesechta as a narrative and recollection.
You see that the Mikdash is the most present reality in the lives of Chazal. The lack of the Mikdash and yearning for it drove them to erect a sort of memorial and provide direction for the future. This is the house of Hashem, this is our place which does not exist today, and this is the place that we pine for.
You know what? Why must we go so far as Meseches Middos? Come and look at the first mishna (in the entire Talmud). In the very first line, the Chachamim discuss when is the time to recite the Shema. What is Chazal’s answer? It’s both amazing and moving. “From the time when the priests enter to partake of their teruma.”
The example they use refers to the avoda in the mikdash and the kohanim. That’s the way it is in Brachos as well as Pei’ah and Orlah, not to mention Bikkurim which is full of yearning for the Beis HaMikdash, “When they drew close to Jerusalem they would send messengers in advance, and they would adorn their bikkurim. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to greet them… All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’”
The Tanna continues there with a description that is so vivid, “The flute would play before them, until they reached the Temple Mount. When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When he got to the Temple Court, the Levites would open with song…” The Chachamim described not just the halacha but also the visual imagery so that you can visualize it.
It was all written to awaken this image inside of us, so that this picture and image of the lives of the Jewish people who repose in the shadow of Hashem who has His Shechina dwell among them will be vivid for us today too. We come before Him, rejoice before Him, thank Him and bring korbonos. The Chachamim did not want this image to be forgotten during the terrible days of darkness of exile; so every Jew would know that this is his reality, that the natural state of the nation is when the Mikdash is among us.
This is the reason why the feeling of yearning accompanies us in our prayers too, when we recall the Beis HaMikdash…
Definitely. We spoke earlier about Yom Kippur. How emotional are our prayers when we say how beautiful it once was and what we are lacking today.
Along these lines, the Medrash ‘Eicha Raba Pesichta’ says, “Knesses Yisrael says to Hashem: Master of the Universe, I recall the safety, contentment, and prosperity in which I formerly dwelt, but they are now far removed from me; and I weep and sigh and say, ‘Would that it were like the former years when the Sanctuary was standing, in which You would descend from the high heavens and cause Your Shechina to rest upon me; and the nations of the world used to praise me; and when I begged mercy for my sins You would answer me. Now, however, I am in shame and contempt… the place where the seed of Avrohom used to offer the sacrifices before You, and the Kohanim stood on the dais, and the Levites sang hymns of praise to the accompaniment of lyres, do foxes now dance in it.”
Note the words and you will see how this Medrash is highlighting the stark difference between the pilgrimage to the Mikdash and the ruins of the city in captivity and the destruction. The Medrash is drawing the contrast between the Jewish memory of the days in which the Mikdash stood and the days of exile; the aliya l’regel and the time after the churban. The author is branding into our collective memories the ‘past’ in light of the ‘present,’ the days of joy versus the days of mourning, a beautiful building versus the terrible destruction. What is manifest in this Medrash is the emotional upheaval of a nation that refuses to disconnect from the source of its life even in its destruction.
This is what Chazal are doing, arousing a yearning in our hearts for the Beis HaMikdash. They established for us and within us the awareness and our Jewish heritage for generations, for millennia. What would we do without these descriptions?!
THE MIKDASH – SOURCE OF JOY
Dr. Ben Ari did his impressive research paper drawing on all parts of Torah. His style is unique compared to other researchers. When he begins researching a certain topic, he doesn’t open books and search the summarized materials on the subject he is working on. Rather, he learns all the sefarim in depth that pertain to his subject, and looks for how to learn from all that about the subject in question.
When he began his research, for example, he first learned all of the Mishna and divided it into many points out of which he drew the material that he based his work on. With this method, he managed to discover many details even in mesechtos and Talmudic sources that are not directly connected with the Mikdash.
You ‘live’ with the Three Weeks all year …
G-d forbid! All year and especially the Three Weeks, I live with the Mikdash … In general, all the customs instituted by Chazal during the Three Weeks are not merely signs of mourning but practices whose purpose is to connect you with your nation and your deepest consciousness, and it is into that the Sages infused the content and recollection such that it becomes part of your DNA.
In general, the Chachamim do not promote mourning and sadness. Look at how far the teachings of Chassidus ran away from that as in the saying, “When Av enters, we minimize all the negativity. How? Through joy.”
It’s always like that and all the more so when speaking about building the Mikdash; there is no joy like the joy of the Mikdash. In the Torah and sources in Chazal there are so many expressions of joy concerning the Mikdash. Here are just a few: “Before Hashem your G-d you shall eat it in the place Hashem your G-d chooses and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d.” Or, “and you shall sacrifice Shelamim and eat there and rejoice before Hashem your G-d,” and many other verses that describe the connection between being before Hashem and joy.
What more do you need than Nechemia 12:43, which describes the sojourn in the Beis HaMikdash with tremendous enthusiasm, where the one verse contains the word “joy-rejoiced” five times, “And they slaughtered great sacrifices on that day, and they rejoiced, for G-d made them rejoice with great joy, and also the women and the children rejoiced, and the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.” When you are in the Beis HaMikdash, there is nothing more joyous. Why? Because the source of joy is found in the Mikdash and Yerushalayim! It is the place where Jews receive their power…
In Meseches Smachos it says that a mourner may not enter the Mikdash because you are not allowed to bring sadness into the source of joy. Simcha is a state of completion; it brings a person to admit the very fact that he wants nothing more than to see Hashem face to face.
The Mikdash is the meeting place between the Jewish people and Hashem who rests His Shechina there; it is the place of our prestige and glory on earth and is what expresses who we are as a nation. What could be happier than the fact that you can go to a certain place and encounter the Shechina there, face to face?”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE YEARNING
Does the subject of the anticipation for Redemption come up in your doctoral research work?
The Mikdash research I did is not, G-d forbid, hypothetical research. It was done with the knowledge that all this is about to be restored immediately with the Geula Shleima. That’s why the research work in its entirety is saturated with the feeling of longing and yearning for the building of the Bayis. We anticipate every day and pray for “Return in mercy and dwell in Yerushalayim Your city,” and we know that all this is about to happen again in our generation.
In Chazal there are many sources that tell of the yearning of the generation of the churban for the building of the Beis HaMikdash. They tell how even after the churban and after the Romans forbade going up to the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim and even decreed a death sentence for doing so, Jews continued going to Yerushalayim with self-sacrifice, putting their lives in danger because they wanted to continue being connected to the Beis HaMikdash; as though wanting to ‘touch’ it again and again. If we understand what went on in that era, we would understand what a mighty yearning there was in the hearts of those Jews to return to the Beis HaMikdash.”
I see how emotional you keep getting throughout our conversation. How does one get to that? I would like it too…
When you are involved in learning about the Beis HaMikdash and delving deeply into it, it connects you and makes you into a part of the subject. You ‘live’ the Mikdash and when you live it, it definitely brings out a flood of emotions…
Ultimately, we all come from the Mikdash and will return there very soon in our days. The Mikdash is our meeting place with G-d and He is the One who connects us to our innermost point. I recommend that everyone open the fascinating sources that teach about the tremendous intensity that was experienced in the Bayis and about the purity and refined living that took place around it. All this arouses love for the Beis HaMikdash, yearning and longing.
We saw with the Rebbe that when he spoke about the churban of the Beis HaMikdash, he described it in living color as though it was happening just then and he cried out that we need to cry out about the “Shechina in galus” and the desire to return to the avoda in the Beis HaMikdash. Examining the sources is inseparable from demanding the Geula. ■
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