Guarding the Gates of the Courtyard

The Rambam writes1 that the Courtyard of the Beis HaMik­dash had seven gates: “Three on the north, close to the west, three on the south, close to the west, and one in the east, in the center, directly opposite the Holy of Holies.”

When discussing the guarding of the Beis HaMikdash, 2 he also refers to the gates of the Courtyard, stating:

Where did they keep watch? The priests kept watch in the Chamber of Avtinas, the Chamber of the Spark, and the Chamber of the Hearth....

Where would the Levites stand watch?... At five of the gates to the courtyard, for the priests stood watch at the Gate of the Hearth and at the Gate of the Spark.

The Rambam is thus stating that there are seven gates to the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash. The Levites stood watch on only five of them, because the priests stood watch over the other two.

How Many Gates Were There?

The Rambam’s statements reflect a resolution of two ap­par­ently conflicting mishnayos in the tractate of Middos. The open­ing mishnah of that tractate states: “The Levites stood watch in twenty-one places:... five at the five gates of the Courtyard.” Later on, however, the Mish­nah 3 states: “There were seven gates to the courtyard.”

Our Sages discuss this apparent contradiction and offer two explanations:4

Abaye says: “Two of [the gates] did not need [the Levites] to guard [them].” Rava states: “There is a dif­ference of opinion among the Sages.... One maintains that there were seven gates and another maintains that there were five gates.”

It thus appears that the Rambam follows Abaye’s view. This is problematic, for with merely six exceptions, whenever there is a difference of opinion between Abaye and Rava, the halachah follows Rava.

The difficulty is compounded by the Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah (Middos 1:1) which appears to combine both opinions, stating:

There are Sages who say that the Courtyard had five gates. This is the opinion stated here. There are those who say that it had seven, and this is the majority opin­ion. And there are those who say that it had thirteen as mentioned... in the second [chapter] of this tractate.5

According to the Sages, [the Levites] would watch on five of the seven [gates].

Thus, on one hand, the Rambam is quoting Rava’s view that there is a difference of opinion among the Sages regarding the number of gates. Simultaneously, however, he is quoting Abaye’s view that the Levites would stand watch at only five of these seven gates.

This juxtaposition of both opinions forces us to say that Rava also maintains that the two mishnayos differ only in regard to the number of gates there were to the courtyard, but not regarding the number of places where the Levites stood watch. For Rava would agree that even the opinion which maintains that there were seven gates to the courtyard accepts the fact that the Levites stood watch in only five places.

This explanation, however, prompts another question. To the greatest extent possible, the rabbis always endeavored to explain concepts in a manner that minimized the differences of opinion between our Sages.6 Why then does Rava state that the Sages differed on the number of gates to the Courtyard? Why is Abaye’s approach not acceptable? Moreover, in this instance, the difference between the Sages concerns not merely a point of theory, but rather a point of actual fact — the number of gates to the Courtyard. This contradicts one of the fundamental principles of Talmudic study which maintains that the differ­ences of opinion between our Sages never concern points of fact, merely theoretical matters that are left to interpretation.7

The Difference between an Entrance and a Gate

Based on the above, we are forced to say that all the Sages agreed that there were thirteen entrances to the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash. On this point of fact, there was no debate. The differences in opinion between the Sages concerned an abstract issue — Which of these thir­teen entrances was given the status of a gate and which was not.8

To explain: A person who enters the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash while ritually impure commits a transgression for which he is liable to be punished by lashing.9 He incurs this liability, however, only when he enters in an ordinary fashion.10 It is possible to interpret this limitation as implying that one is liable for this punishment only when one enters the Courtyard through a gate. Hence, it is significant to know which of these entrances is considered a gate and which is not.

Also, as stated in the mishnah, 11 our Sages ordained that a person who entered the Beis HaMikdash should prostrate him­self. According to the opinion that there were thirteen gates, one was required to prostrate oneself thirteen times. According to the opinion that there were fewer gates, however, fewer pros­trations were required.

Similarly, in regard to guarding the Courtyard, it would appear that the Sages maintained that only an entrance which was classified as a gate required that it be guarded.12

The Contrast Between the Guarding Performed by the Priests and the Guarding Performed by the Levites

On this basis, we can re­solve the difficulties mentioned at the outset. The first opinion mentioned in the mishnah main­tains that only five of the entrances were worthy of being con­sidered as gates, while the second opinion maintains that seven entrances were worthy of that status. If so, according to this opinion, why were there only five gates guarded by the Levites? Because the priests guarded the others.

There was, however, a difference between the gates guarded by the priests and those guarded by the Levites. The mishnah mentions three places guarded by the priests: “the Chamber of Avtinas, the Chamber of the Spark, and the Chamber of the Hearth.” These were the three chambers used as dwellings in the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash and therefore, they re­quired a watch. The priests did not stand watch at the entrance to these structures, but rather within the chambers. The Levites, by contrast, stood watch at the entrance to the gates. Nevertheless, since the inside of the Chamber of the Spark and the Chamber of the Hearth were guarded by the priests, these structures did not need a Levite to guard the entrance to their gates.

Why does Rava (and the Rambam in his Commentary on the Mishnah) maintain that the two opinions in the mishnah differ? Because the opening opinion in the mishnah mentions the priests keeping watch over the chambers and the Levites keep­ing watch over the gates without even alluding to the fact that the priests’ watch freed the Levites of the responsibility of watching those gates. This leads to the conclusion that this mishnah maintains that these two entrances, the Gate of the Spark and the Gate of the Hearth, were not significant enough to be considered gates and require a watch. The second opinion does not, in actual fact, require more watchmen. Nevertheless, the rationale as to why it does not require them — because the priests were watching these gates — differs.

* * *

We have been promised, “O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen on your walls. They will never be silent day or night.”13 And they “will give Him no rest until He establishes Jerusalem and makes her [worthy of] praise throughout the earth.”14 May this take place in the immediate future with the coming of the Re­demption and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, Parshas Korach