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Location, Location, Location?

By: Rav Ari Shames

Our parsha opens with the classic line “And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying”. This is not very surprising as many of the sections in the Torah start out this way. However the last time we had one of these was two weeks ago in the opening of Trumah. The entire parshiot of Trumah and Tetzave were one long instruction regarding the construction of the Mishkan and the special garments of the Kohanim.

We are starting something new.

It seems that despite the fresh opening we actually are getting some of the leftover issues concerning the mishkan that were not dealt with yet. We read about the funding in the first section and then we read about the Kiyor- the washing basin- and later about other additional elements.

When it comes to the Kiyor it seems natural to not have listed it earlier as it is obvious that it is not an essential item in the Mishkan. It serves no real ceremonial function; rather it is part of the infrastructure of the building. The purpose of the Kiyor is stated explicitly in the parsha. The kohanim are to use it to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the tent or serving on the altar. Today we have a similar standard fixture in every Bet Kenneset, a sink to wash one’s hands before teffila. The Rambam actually lists the washing of one’s hands prior to teffila as one of the necessary elements in order to fulfil the obligation of teffila.

What puzzles me about the Kiyor is its position. The Torah clearly states that it should be placed between the Ohel Moed and the Mizbeach. This seems to be a strange place to put it. If one were to enter the courtyard of the Mishkan one would first encounter the mizbeach and then get to the Kiyor that was placed on the way to the Ohel Moed. Had the Kiyor been required as a prerequisite to entering the ohel moed only, then this might have been understandable. However if one wanted to offer a korban on the mizbeach he would actually have to pass the mizbeach up in order to get to the Kiyor, wash himself, and then return to the Mizbeach.

If we translate this into modern terms, I think we would find it very strange to find the washing sink in a Bet Kenesset placed in the sanctuary itself between the bimah and the aron kodesh! It would even be awkward to find it in the sanctuary at all.  I believe the more common and logical custom is to place it in the entry way before entering the sanctuary itself.

There is another peculiar element. The Rambam describes the essential elements that we must have in the mikdash. We find the altars, the menorah, the shulchan and the kiyor. I would not have obviously added the latter to the list. If the kiyor is simply a tool used for preparing one’s entry to the ohel moed, it does not warrant the lofty status of an essential part of the mikdash.

Three functions of the washing -

A closer study of the obligation to wash at all may shed some light on our question.

  1. The washing as an introduction to the service. The first and basic function of the washing is to enable the Kohen to do the service. Washing symbolizes a new leaf and a new start. The Kohen cleanses himself of all previous impurity and is now able to bring the korban. As we mentioned before the Rambam extends this concept to the washing before teffila. We do not approach God’s work without first washing. This is simply stated in the verse - “upon approaching the mizbeach to offer a sacrifice”.
  2. The washing as a completion of the definition of the Kohen. The Torah also states that they must wash as they enter the ohel moed. Rashi comments that the entrance is for the purpose of lighting the menorah or offering the incense, etc. In other words it is identical to the previous concept that the washing is an introduction to the work to be done. The Torah simply spelled out where the work is done, both on the mizbeach and in the ohel moed. However the Tosafot in Sanhedrin, and it would seem the Rambam as well, offer a different explanation. The prohibition is to enter the ohel moed unwashed even if the Kohen had no official business to do there. The very entrance in to the area unwashed is wrong and even punishable by death.      The unwashed Kohen can be compared to the Kohen who is missing one of his official garments. We read last week in Tetzve 28:4, after describing the pants of the Kohen, that “they should be on Aharon and his sons as they enter the ohel moed or approach the mizbeach, and they will not sin and die”. The exact same two scenarios and the same punishment are listed both for the lack of clothing and for the unwashed Kohen. (The commentaries debate whether the prohibition is about any of the priestly garb or specifically about the pants.) In any case, I think we can see the washing in the same light as the uniform. Without them the Kohen is violating protocol by just being where he is not allowed to be, in the same manner that a non-Kohen would not be allowed in those areas.   The Rambam actually records the issue in Mishne Torah in two different places. In Hilchot Bet Habechira he defines the different areas of the mikdash and states that one is not allowed to enter into the ohel moed without having first washed. In Hilchot Klei Mikdash he writes that a Kohen who offers a korban unwashed, both invalidates the korban and he himself is liable for death. Clearly one focuses on the service while the other on the very entrance in to the ohel moed.  These two reasons for washing may produce a long list of distinctions between them. When does it have to be done? How often? What would require one to have to rewash? If one washed for one purpose is it valid for the other?
  3. The washing as part of the avodah itself. There is one more halacha that may infuse the washing with an even greater sense of importance. The Rambam writes: (Bait Mikdash 5/14) “the Kohen is not allowed to wash himself while sitting, as the washing is part of the avodah, and the avodah must be performed while standing”. This halacha goes much further than anything we have imagined thus far. The washing is not only a preparatory stage in the avodah, but rather it is an actual part of the avodah itself. The requirement to perform the act while standing opens a whole new range of understanding. Accordingly it would make sense why we would have to place the Kiyor in the courtyard itself and not outside of it. The avodah can only be done in the courtyard.

I believe that there is a very significant lesson to be learnt from such a position. The process of purification is not only a prerequisite to serving God but it is also part of the process itself. We learn that on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol must immerse himself five times in a mikve. The first immersion is before entering the courtyard while the rest are to be done in the holy area itself. He is not simply preparing to serve God. The immersions of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur and the daily washing of the hands and feet of any Kohen are part of the service of God.

At this point of the shiur I must admit that our answer is only partial. I think that the definition of the washing as an integral part of the service would justify the position in the courtyard, however the placement between the ohel moed and the mizbeach is still a mystery to me. I would appreciate any insight that any of you may have.

Please be in touch.

Rav Shames


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