Herod's Refurbished Mikdash; "A Work of Heaven!"
As the height of the rising walls began to exceed the reach of the tallest cranes, Herod's workmen laboriously built earthen or rough stone ramps and preceded to move the cranes or rebuild them on their summits. Newly positioned, the workmen continued to lay the carved building blocks in their proper places in the uppercourses. Refurbishing the Azara and the Bayit presented another very serious logistical problem; the daily Avoda could not be disturbed even for a single day. In the restricted areas, much of the work was done by Kohanim. Josephus notes how Herod, "bought a thousand sacerdotal garments for as many of the priests, and hadsome of them (the Kohanim) taught the art of stonecutters, and others of carpenters." It is likely that the construction work began every day at the conclusion of the afternoon Tamid. As the Kohanim of the Mishmar filed out of the Azara, the "Kohanic stonemasons" immediately began work and they toiled until the stars came out (Shavu'ot 51a, Hil. Beit HaBechira 1:12). They paid particular attention to technical problems. Already 150 years earlier, the author of the Letter of Aristeas (90) could write, "And the whole (Azara) floor is paved with stone and sloped leading to the appropriate places to allow for the flushing of water which occurs so as to cleanse the blood from the sacrifices. For many tens of thousands of beasts are brought for sacrifice on the days of the festivals… There were also many openings at the base (of the Mizbei'ach) which were invisible to all except those who have the duty of carrying out the Service, so all the blood of the sacrifices, which is collected in huge amounts, is cleansed by the downward momentum and slope." Since, "all of Herod's structures were up-to-date in both materials and methods of construction", we can be sure that Herod greatly improved the already efficient drainage system. Herod surfaced the Azara floor with great slabs of hewn limestone; his engineers understood perfectly that a wobbly stone could invalidate the Avoda. As the sky darkened, the priestly workmen swiftly moved the unset stones to the side and disposed of rubble before they vacated the premises. Neatly stacked stone building blocks on Mikdash grounds furnished a backdrop to two very striking Mishnayot!
A popular celebration in the Mikdash associated with Sukkot which served as a point of contention between the Sages and the Sadducees was the Mitzvat Ha'Arava - the "Precept of the Willow Branch". Ordained by the prophets (i.e. Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi), Mitzvat Ha'Arava had no specific source in the Written Torah,and for that reason, was unacceptable to the Sadducean High Priesthood (Sukka 44a). The Mishna reads, "…they came and set (willow branches) on the side of the Mizbei'ach so their tops were bent over the altar. Then they blew on the Shofar… Each day (the first six days of the Sukkot festival) they went in procession around the Mizbei'ach one time… but on that day (the seventh day) they circumambulated the altar seven times… As the rite was during the week, so it was on Shabbat except that then they would gather the (willow branches) on Erev Shabbat and place them in (water) in golden basins so they would not wither" (Sukka 4:5,6). The Gemara relates how on one "seventh day" which fell on Shabbat, the "Boethusians" - akin to Sadducees - removed the willow branches and hid them under stones. Confident that the Sages would not move the stones on Shabbat to retrieve the branches, they assumed that the ceremony which they opposed would be cancelled. "But the next day, some Amei Ha'aretz (who were not exactly meticulous in their observance of Mitzvot) found the branches and took them out from under the stones. The Kohanim brought them in and fixed them to the sides of the altar" (Sukka 43b).
Anchoring support posts in the ground and tying crossbeams with ropes, the workmen constructed scaffolding to facilitate their access to the upper reaches of the Bayit. The inner areas of the Bayit were built by trained Kohanim who erected enormous partitions to block the interiors of the Kodesh HaKodashim and other holy areas from public view while they were being refurbished. An idea of the kind of precautions taken by the Mikdash authorities can be gleaned from the Mishna in Midot (4:5) "And in the upper story were openings into the Kodesh HaKodashim by which they used to let down the workers in boxes, so they should not feast their eyes on the Kodesh HaKodashim." Tif'eret Yisrael (49) explains, "…the boxes (were) closed on three sides so they - the workmen - would be not able to look around". Herod's engineers, in consultation with the Mikdash authorities, took great care to ensure that the Kedusha of Kodesh HaKodashim and the other sacred areas of the Bayit was violated as little as possible. The daily Avoda continued without interruption.
"Of what did he (Herod) build it? Rabbah (a Babylonian Amora who was born 200 years after the Churban) said, 'Of yellow and white marble …of blue… marble'. He (Herod) originally intended to cover it with gold but the Sages advised him not to, since it was more beautiful as it was, looking like the waves of the sea" (BabaBatra 4a, Sukka 51b). But headstrong Herod, whose heart was set on a "world-class temple", was not going to take architectural advice from anybody! Josephus writes, "Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight and at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays" (Wars, 5:5). Even the Sages were forced to admit, "He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building" (Baba Batra 4a). And in fact another Gemara rhapsodizes, "In the days of Herod when the people were occupied in rebuilding the Temple, rain fell during the night but in the morning the wind blew and the clouds dispersed. The sun shone so the people were able to go out for their work, and then they knew that they were engaged in the work of Heaven" (Ta'anit 23a). But Herod, with an unerring instinct, promptly frittered away any good will he might have garnered among the people by placing a large gold Roman eagle over one of the gates. When Herod was close to death, "one Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Mathias, the son of Margalothus, two of the most eloquent men of the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws …and well-beloved by the people persuaded (their students) to pull down the golden eagle ...so in the very middle of the day (in front of many witnesses) they got upon the place… pulled down the eagle and cut it into pieces with axes... (They said to Herod), '…we contrived (it) …and we performed it (the deed) and that with such a virtuous courage as becomes men… we will undergo death and all sorts of punishments with pleasure, since we are conscious to ourselves that we shall die not for any unrighteous actions but for our love for religion'. …Herod …burned Matthias, who had raised the rebellion, with his (forty!) companions alive" (Antiquities 17:6;1-3). But the demolished Roman Eagle was not replaced.
Catriel's book in progress: The Temple of Jerusalem, A Pilgrim’s Perspective; A Guided Tour through the Temple and the Divine Service