The Inspection of the Courtyard on Shabbos

The Rambam concludes Hilchos Beis HaBechirah with a discussion of the manner in which the priests would inspect the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash every morning. On weekdays, before dawn, they would rise and walk through the entire Courtyard, carrying two torches of fire.1 On Shabbos, however, they would make an exception, as the Rambam describes in the final halachah2 of this section:

This was the procedure that was followed every night with the exception of Friday night. [On that night,] they did not [hold] torches in their hands. Instead, they inspected [the courtyard using] the light of lamps that had been left burning before [the commencement] of the Sabbath.

This halachah has aroused the attention of several commentaries,3 for one of the principles of the Sabbath laws is that the prohibitions included in the category of shvus do not apply in the Beis HaMikdash.4 Which activities are prohibited as shvus? Those which resemble a prohibited labor or which might lead to the performance of a prohibited labor.5 The prohibition against carrying torches on the Sabbath is therefore included in this category. Why then was it necessary to observe this prohibition in the Beis HaMikdash? What distinguishes it from other activities that are placed in the category of shvus, and which are nevertheless permitted in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is the Prohibition Against Performing a Shvus Waived When There is an Alternative or Not?

The Kesef Mishneh offers a possible resolution. Since the inspection of the courtyard could be performed using lamps that were kindled before Shabbos, there was no necessity to perform the forbidden activ­ity. Hence, the prohibition was not lifted.

This resolution is not accepted by other authorities,6 because the Rambam appears to allow an activity forbidden as a shvus to be performed in the Beis HaMikdash even when there were other alternatives. To cite an example:7 On Yom Kippur, in the case of an elderly or ill High Priest, the mikveh in which he immersed himself was warmed. Iron slabs were placed into a fire before the holiday commenced. Before the High Priest’s immersion, they were placed in the mikveh to diminish its chill. Although heating the mikveh in this manner is a shvus, no prohibition was imposed.

In this instance, there were other alternatives available; e.g., hot water could have been mixed with the waters of the mikveh. Nevertheless, placing the hot slabs in the water was permitted, because activities that are placed in the category of shvus are not forbidden in the Beis HaMikdash.

Or to refer to another law: The High Priest was required to remain awake throughout the night on Yom Kippur. If he began to doze off, the young priests would snap their fingers rhythmically to keep him awake.8 Although snapping one’s fingers on the Sabbath or festivals is forbidden as a shvus, 9 it is permitted in the Beis HaMikdash despite the fact that there were other ways to prevent the High Priest from sleeping.

Is there a Difference Between a Standard Procedure and an Unusual One

A distinction can, however, be made between the laws men­tioned. The inspection of the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash was a standard pro­cedure carried out every Shabbos. The need to warm the mikveh for the High Priest or the need for the young priests to snap their fingers to keep him awake, by contrast, were occasional matters which would not necessarily be required. Accordingly, it is possible to explain that although leniency was granted in ex­ceptional situations, it was necessary to observe all prohibitions in the category of shvus when the standard procedure in the Beis HaMikdash was involved.

This distinction, however, is a matter of question. For we find that when the eve of Pesach fell on Shabbos, it was permitted to skin the Paschal sacrifice in the same way as one did during the week.10 Although, ordinarily, skinning an animal in this manner was forbidden as a shvus, this prohibition was not observed in the Beis HaMikdash despite the fact that it involved a standard procedure.11

Why the Rambam includes the discussion of the inspection of the courtyard in Hilchos Beis HaBechirah?

The above difficulty can be resolved through analysis of a question of a larger scope. Why did the Rambam include the discussion of the inspection of the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash in Hilchos Beis HaBechirah? Hilchos Beis HaBechirah concerns itself with the structure of the Beis HaMikdash. Seemingly, the inspection of the courtyard should have been placed in Hilchos Tamidim UMusafim, which deals with the daily order of sacrifcial worship.12

To resolve this issue: As explained above,13 the positioning of guards around the Beis HaMikdash was not for the purpose of protection, but rather was required to enhance the honor of the structure, for “A palace without guards cannot at all be com­pared to a palace with guards.”14

On this basis, we can understand why the discussion of guarding the Beis HaMikdash was included in Hilchos Beis Ha­Bechirah. The Beis HaMikdash must be a structure which is wor­thy of honor and one of the expressions of this honor is that guards are placed around it. Were there to be no guards, the structure of the Beis HaMikdash itself would be incomplete, as it were, for it would not appear as a structure worthy of honor.

A similar concept applies in regard to the inspection of the courtyard. This inspection shows that the priests are devoting their attention to the Beis HaMikdash 15 and thus increases the esteem in which people hold the structure.16

An Expression of Respect and Awe

Based on this concept, we can explain why the perform­ance of a shvus was not permit­ted when inspecting the courtyard on Shabbos. The perform­ance of a shvus is permitted in all activi­ties involved in the sacrificial service of the Beis HaMikdash. The primary intent of the inspection of the courtyard, however, is not to prepare for this service, but to express respect and awe for the Beis HaMikdash. Accordingly, taking any leniency whatsoever regarding the observance of Torah law while carrying out this inspection, would not have served this purpose.

To cite a parallel concept: when rededicating the Beis HaMikdash at the time of Chanukah, the Jews refused to kindle the menorah with impure oil. Although they had only enough oil for one day, G‑d wrought a miracle and caused this oil to burn for eight days. The commentaries ask: Why was this miracle necessary? Communal offerings could be offered in a state of impurity if there was no other alternative.17 Why couldn’t the menorah be lit with impure oil?

Among the resolutions offered is that although the kindling of the menorah would have been acceptable with impure oil, G‑d wrought the miracle to demonstrate the dearness with which He holds the Jewish people. He wanted to provide the Jews with the opportunity of fulfilling the mitzvah without relying on leniencies.18 Similarly, in regard to the case at hand: Although it would have been acceptable to inspect the courtyard holding torches on the Sabbath as well, fulfilling this obligation in a manner which did not require a prohibition to be bypassed served as a greater expression of honor and respect.19

The Distinction Between the Sacrificial Worship in the Beis HaMikdash and the Construction of the Building

This relates to a concept of a larger scope. In regard to the performance of forbidden la­bors in the Beis HaMikdash on Shabbos, we find two seemingly contradictory dimensions. On one hand, the sacrificial worship of the Beis HaMik­dash must continue without interruption on Shabbos. Not only is license granted to carry out all the labors involved in this wor­ship, we are commanded to do so.20 Conversely, however, the mitzvah of building the Beis HaMikdash itself may not be performed on Shabbos.21

It is possible to explain this contrast as follows: After the construction of the Beis HaMikdash is completed, the activities carried out within it are not mundane acts, but rather sacred in nature. Therefore, their performance supersedes the Shabbos prohibitions. During the construction of the Beis HaMikdash, by contrast, these prohibitions must be observed to establish the sacred nature of the structure.22

A similar point can be made in the present context. Our Sages permitted all activities classified as shvus to be performed during the sacrificial worship of the Beis HaMikdash. The inspection of the courtyard, however, was not an element of this worship, but rather was intended to generate respect and awe for the structure. This activity, which, as mentioned above, is comparable to the building of the Beis HaMikdash, cannot be performed in a manner which violates the Shabbos laws, for this would be a direct contrast to the sacred nature of the Beis HaMikdash.

A Focus on the Objective, and Not on the Act

The above concepts enable us to draw a connection be­tween the beginning of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah and its conclusion.23 Hilchos Beis HaBechirah begins: “It is a positive command to make a house for G‑d....” The Rogatchover Gaon24 questions why the Rambam uses the verb “make” rather than “build” ). The difference between these terms, he explains, reflects a difference in the conception of the nature of the mitzvah.

“To build” would imply that the fundamental dimension of the mitzvah is the act of construction itself, as is the case regarding many mitzvos — e.g., tefillin, where the perform­ance of the act is G‑d’s desired intent. “To make” implies that the fundamental dimension of the mitzvah is the accomplishment of its purpose — in this instance, that there be a Beis HaMikdash. From this perspective, it is not the act of building that is significant, but the fact that “a house for G‑d, prepared for the sacrificial worship” of the Jewish people, is completed.

This conception enhances the explanation of why the guarding of the Beis HaMikdash and the inspection of its courtyard are discussed in Hilchos Beis HaBechirah. Since the Beis HaMikdash must be a structure that is worthy of honor, and these activities contribute to that objective, performing them is considered as part of the mitzvah of “making the [Beis Ha]Mikdash.” For these activities establish a dwelling for G‑d in the most complete manner possible.

Illuminating the Third Beis HaMikdash

There is also a homiletic allusion to the law under dis­cus­sion. The seven days of the week can be compared to the seven millennia of existence,25 and the Shabbos, to “the era that is all Shabbos and rest for life-ever­lasting,”26 i.e., the Era of the Redemption. Figuratively speaking, in the Era of the Redemp­tion, the preparations for the service in the Beis HaMikdash will be carried out “[using the light] of lamps that were burning from before [the commence­ment] of the Sabbath” — i.e., our service of Torah and mitzvos in the present era.

The Torah that we study and the mitzvos that we perform are lights which will illuminate the Third Beis HaMikdash and make possible the preparations for the sacrificial worship in the Era of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXI, Parshas Vayakhel