The Relationship between the Bait HaMikdash and the Synagogue

And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (Shemot 25:8)

1. The source of the commandment to build the Bait HaMikdash
Our parasha discusses the construction of the Mishcan. The Mishcan was the portable sanctuary that accompanied Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Once Bnai Yisrael entered and conquered the Land of Israel, this Mishcan – Tabernacle – was replaced by a permanent structure. This permanent structure – the Bait HaMikdash – was constructed by King Shlomo. Its construction was completed in approximately 950 BCE. Shlomo’s Bait HaMikdash was destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar’s armies in approximately 587 BCE. Shortly thereafter, much of the Jewish population of the Land of Israel was exiled to Babylonia. Eventually, the exiled Jewish people return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Bait HaMikdash. The second Bait HaMikdash was dedicated in approximately 515 BCE and stood until 70 CE when it was destroyed by Titus.

The above passage contains the specific command to construct the Mishcan. Maimonides indicates in his Sefer HaMitzvot that this passage is also the source for the commandment to build the Bait HaMikdash.[1]

And My Shabbats you should observe and My Mikdash you should fear. I am Hashem. (Sefer VaYikra 19:30)

2. The sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash and the synagogue
The Bait HaMikdash’s sanctity is derived from the Torah commandment that enjoins Bnai Yisrael in its construction. This sanctity expresses itself in many ways. One expression is in the commandment found in the above passage. Bnai Yisrael are commanded to treat the Bait HaMikdash with awe. This commandment requires that a person enter with respect the area of the Bait HaMikdash and conduct oneself appropriately while in the Bait HaMikdash. Jewish Law – halachah specifies various behaviors that are inappropriate in the Bait HaMikdash.

A synagogue is also endowed with sanctity. Awareness of the sanctity is expressed through acting respectfully inside of a synagogue. However, the requirement of a community to create a synagogue does not seem to be expressed anywhere in the Torah. This raises an interesting question. The institution of synagogue does not seem to be the subject of a Torah mitzvah. What then is the source of the synagogue’s sanctity?

Rabbaynu Nissim suggests that the synagogue’s sanctity is not based upon a Torah commandment and is not conferred by the Torah. Instead, the Sages endowed the synagogue with its sanctity. He explains that the synagogue is designated as the place in which the most solemn prayers are offered. Therefore, the Sages conferred upon it a degree of sanctity consistent with its function as a house of prayer.[2]

Others disagree with Rabbaynu Nissim and suggest that the synagogue’s sanctity is conferred by the Torah itself. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l included Maimonides among Rabbaynu Nissim’s opponents. This conclusion is based upon Maimonides’ summary of the 613 mitzvot included in his introduction to his code of Torah Law – Mishne Torah. Maimonides explains that the 65th negative commandment includes a prohibition against destruction of the Bait HaMikdash, a synagogue, and house of Torah study. Maimonides is outlining the Torah level prohibitions included in the commandment. This implies that the synagogue and house of Torah study are endowed by the Torah with sanctity. Therefore, it is prohibited to destroy them. In short, Maimonides seems to regard the synagogue’s sanctity as conferred by the Torah. However, he does not provide any indication of his basis for this conclusion.

Therefore say to them, “So says Hashem, G-d: Although I have removed them far away among the nations and although I have dispersed them to many lands, I will be with them a minor sanctuary in the lands to which they shall come.” (Sefer Yechezkiel 11:16)

3. The synagogue is a minor sanctuary
The prophet Yechezkiel shared the above message with Bnai Yisrael. He assured the people that although they would be scattered among the lands of their exile, Hashem would remain in their midst. In the Diaspora, they would not be able to serve Hashem in His Bait HaMikdash. However, they would have access to a “minor sanctuary”. The Talmud suggests that the synagogue is the “minor sanctuary” to which the prophet refers. The Sages of the Talmud understand the passage as a reassurance. Even when the major or primary sanctuary – the Bait HaMikdash – has been destroyed, Hashem will continue to be found in the minor sanctuary – the synagogue.

According to Rav Soloveitchik, the Talmud is positing an analogy between the Bait HaMikdash and the synagogue. This analogy is in regard to the basis of their sanctity. In other words, the Bait HaMikdash and the synagogue derive their sanctity from similar – if not identical – sources.

And you shall make an Ark of acacia wood. Its length shall be two and a half cubits. Its width shall be one and a half cubits. Its height shall be one and a half cubits. (Sefer Shemot 25:10)

And you shall place in the Ark the Testimony that I will give to you. (Sefer Shemot 25:16)

This is the accounting of the Mishcan – the Mishcan of Testimony – that was determined by the command of Moshe (and was) the responsibility of the Leviyim under the authority of Etamar the son of AhAhron the Kohen (Sefer Shemot 38:21)

4. The centrality of the Tablets of Testimony to the Mishcan
In Hashem’s commandment to Moshe regarding the construction of the Mishcan, the first component that is described is the Ark – the Ahron. The Ahron was to contain the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue. According to Rashbam, because the Luchot were to be placed within it, the Ahron is referred to as the Ahron of Ark of Testimony.[3] Nachmanides adds that the Mishcan is referred to as the Mishcan of Testimony because it was to house the Luchot.[4]

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the very identity of the Mishcan as the Mishcan of Testimony communicates that the Luchot are the fundamental component of the Mishcan. The primacy assigned to the Ahron in the instructions for the creation of the Mishcan also supports this conclusion. Based upon this insight, Rav Soloveitchik suggests a solution to a troubling problem in Maimonides’ code – Mishne Torah.

And he said to the Leviyim who taught all of Yisrael, who were sacred to Hashem: Place the sacred Ark in the house that Shlomo the son of David, the King of Israel built. It will no longer be a burden for you to be carried upon the shoulders. Now, go and serve Hashem your G-d and Yisrael His nation. (Sefer Devrai HaYamim II 35:3)

5. King Yoshivahu’s actions to preserve the Bait HaMikdash
King Yoshiyahu foresaw the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash. He understood that he was responsible to preserve the Ahron, its contents, and other critical components of the Bait HaMikdash. Shlomo had included in the construction of the Bait HaMikdash hidden underground chambers. Yoshiyahu commanded the Leveyim to remove the Ahron, with its contents to these chambers to assure their preservation.

As a result of Yoshiyahu’s actions the Ahron, its contents, and other fundamental elements of the Bait HaMikdash were saved from destruction. However, when the Bait HaMikdash was rebuilt, these items were not restored to their proper places and they remained hidden in Shlomo’s underground vaults.

Maimonides’ Mishne Torah is a work of halachah. Maimonides rarely discusses philosophical issues in this work. There is almost a complete absence of descriptions of historical events. Maimonides includes philosophical or historical material in order to explain halachic issues. Therefore, it is surprising that Maimonides includes in his discussion of the laws of the Bait HaMikdash a complete description of Yoshiyahu’s actions.[5]

6. The sanctity of the second Bait HaMikdash
Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Maimonides includes a description of the precautions taken by King Yoshiyahu in order to solve a perplexing problem. As demonstrated above, the central component of the Mishcan and the Bait HaMikdash is the Luchot. However, the Ahron and its Luchot were not restored to their place in the second Bait HaMikdash. How could the second Bait HaMikdash be endowed with sanctity if it was bereft of its most fundamental component?

Rav Soloveitchik responds that Maimonides is addressing this question in his description of King Yoshiyahu’s actions. King Shlomo included in his Bait HaMikdash hidden underground chambers. Shlomo’s vaults were an integral part of the design and structure of the Bait HaMikdash. Yoshiyahu removed the Ahron from its usual place and hid it in Shlomo’s vaults. By taking this precaution, he not only preserved the Ahron and its contents. He also secured them within the structure of the Bait HaMikdash. Therefore, the second Bait HaMikdash was not deprived of the Ahron and Luchot. They were not restored to their former location. However, they remained within the structure. The second Bait HaMikdash included within its structure the Ahron and its Luchot!

7. The Torah source of the synagogue’s sanctity
Based upon this analysis, Rav Soloveitchik concludes that the sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash is derived from the Ahron and its Luchot. Now, the source of the synagogue’s sanctity can be identified. As explained by the Talmud, the synagogue is a minor sanctuary. It is a version of the Bait HaMikdash. In order for the synagogue to be analogous to the Bait HaMikdash, must derive its sanctity from a similar or identical source. This means that, like the Bait HaMikdash, the synagogue derives its sanctity from its Ahron and its contents – the Sefer Torah. Because the synagogue derives its sanctity from fundamentally the same source as the Bait HaMikdash, it is endowed by the Torah itself with its sanctity.[6]

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 20.
2. Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven, (Ran) Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Megilah 8a.
3. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot 25:16.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 38:21.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 4:1.
6. Rav Hershel Schachter, Eretz HaTzvi (Genesis Jerusalem Press) pp. 88-92. The above is a much condensed version of Rav Shachter’s presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis.