The Tisch: Virtual temples

Following rabbinic precedent, another avenue for recreating the Temple was to identify acts that could be considered parallel to Temple service.

Temple Mount Excavation 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 vignette.
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 knowledge.
Following rabbinic precedent, another avenue for recreating the Temple was to identify acts that could be considered parallel to Temple service.
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.”
Another hassidic 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.”
Of course, 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.