Temple Mount Excavation 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Temple is part of Jewish collective memory; alas, it is a distant memory.
For many of us, it is challenging to connect to the hazy narrative of the
Temple. To be sure, we continue to learn its laws, mourn its destruction and
regularly pray for it to be rebuilt, but it is not part of daily reality.
Following rabbinic tradition, hassidic masters sought to recreate the Temple
experience in a variety of forms.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatow
(the Ohev Yisrael, 1748- 1825) was keenly aware of his previous incarnations,
one of which was as kohen gadol (high priest) in the Temple. Part of the Yom
Kippur service recounts the kohen gadol’s service in the Temple on this holiest
of days. When the Ohev Yisrael was leading this service on Yom Kippur, he was
heard saying: “And thus I used to say” – instead of the standard text, “And thus
he used to say” – because he still remembered the time he served as high priest.
Thus, for the Ohev Yisrael, the Temple was not merely collective memory; it was
a personal memory, and he was prepared to publicly share that
In another case, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel (the Yismah
Moshe, 1759-1841) finished the silent amida prayer and recalled the rabbinic
tradition that the Temple in heaven was not destroyed and that sacrifices are
being offered there even today. He thought to himself that he should pray to see
that sight, and God granted his request. The Yismah Moshe then saw with his own
eyes Elijah the Prophet dressed in the priestly garments, standing there and
offering up the daily sacrifice. For the Yismah Moshe as well, it was not a
distant memory, but the real heavenly Temple – an image of the earthly Temple,
accessible only by mystical experience. This matter also became public
Following rabbinic precedent, another avenue for recreating
the Temple was to identify acts that could be considered parallel to Temple
Thus, for instance, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) declared
that “the money given for the benefit of the tzadik [righteous person] is
considered as if the giver served in the Temple service.” Or in a mystical vein:
“The ‘clear-sighted’ are able to perceive the halafim [slaughter knives] of the
shohtim [ritual slaughterers] as vessels of the Temple.”
master, Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (1757-1826) described the experience of coming to
visit the the Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin, Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz
(1745-1815), in terms of a visit to the Temple: “When coming to Lublin, a person
should imagine that the city is the Land of Israel, and the courtyard of the
beit midrash [Torah study hall] is Jerusalem, and the beit midrash the Temple
Mount, and the apartment [that is, the house of our master] the antechamber, and
the sanctuary – the Holy Chamber, and his room is the Holy of Holies, and the
Divine Presence speaks from his throat.” Rabbi Uri concluded that once this was
fathomed, the visitor “will understand who our master is.”
sacred space in general and comparing special sites to the Temple is not the
purview of hassidism alone. In his memoirs, Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan,
1880-1949) recalled the 1886 fire that destroyed his home town of Volozhin:
“Suddenly it became apparent that the fire had taken hold of the roof of the
yeshiva building” – referring to the famous Etz Hayim Yeshiva founded in 1807.
“The whole crowd sounded a great and bitter cry: ‘Oy vey, the Temple is
burning.’ There was no one – not a learned person nor a simple Jew – whose eyes
did not cry. Some cried quietly, some loudly, but everyone cried; everyone
called out: ‘Oy vey, the Temple is burning,’ ‘The holy yeshiva is amidst the
flames.’ Children that were looking for food, Jews who had just been moaning
about their homes and property that had been destroyed, all of them forgot what
they had just been busy with; there was only one groan, one cry: ‘The Temple is
burning,’ ‘The yeshiva is amidst the flames’...”
The Temple may have been
a distant collective memory, but virtual substitutes were recreated in hassidic
thought. It should be recalled, however, that while individual mystical
experiences, communal perceptions of sacred space and symbolic acts representing
Temple rites could temporarily replace the Temple of old, the longing for the
rebuilt Temple was never excised from the liturgy or from Jewish consciousness
by the hassidic masters who found such replacements.
The writer is on the
faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.