Today our virtual tour of Jerusalem takes us back 2,000 years to help us understand what it was like for people who went to the Temple Mount back then. Some came to bring their sacrifices, especially on Yom Kippur. Others went to pray. And still others just wanted to see what the beautiful Holy Temple looked like up close and personal.
We will need to close our eyes to the structures that are on the Temple Mount today and visualize what it was like 2,000 years ago. And of course, we will need to take a ritual bath (Mikve) before entering.
First, we climb the monumental staircase to the south of the Temple Mount in order to get up to the top. Upon entering the courtyard of the Temple Complex, we can see the expanse of this massive complex. It is 144,000 sq. meters in size; that is more than 27 football fields! It took 10,000 Jewish laborers & their taxes and about 40 years to build. As a matter of fact, King Herod died in 4 BCE before it was actually completed. The stone base of the Temple Mount rises 32 meters above street level and 20 meters below. This is the reason that even after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Titus’ men could not break down all the walls; they were reinforced far into the earth!
There was an Outer Courtyard that gentiles (non-Jews) could be free to roam around and there was a Royal Stoa lining the entire southern side of the complex. Certainly, there were shops and places where Pilgrims could exchange their money for the ½ shekel Temple Tax that they had to pay upon their arrival. They could also buy their sacrifices if they had a long way to travel and couldn’t bring their animals with them. Three times a year, Jews came on Pilgrimage to the Temple to give their sacrifices and pray: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and Shavuot (the Feast of Tabernacles). This is most likely the place where Jesus of Nazareth came and turned over the tables of the money-changers when he arrived in Jerusalem during Pesach the last week of his life. (Luke 19)
There was a low separation fence around the Temple area, called the Soreg. Each post had an inscription stating that only Jews were allowed beyond that point. Within this area was the Court of the Women where all Jews, male and female, were permitted. In this, the largest of the temple courts, there could be seen constant dancing, singing and music.
From this point onward, only men could go any further. Going thru the Nicanor Gate, the first hall was called the Israelites’ Hall. The next hall was the Priests’ Hall, reserved for Levite priests only. The Israelite men could see through the gates of that hall and into the Inner Court where the Brazen Altar was located, where all the sacrifices took place.
Just beyond the Brazen Altar was the entrance to the Temple itself. Between the entrance of the building and the curtain veiling the Holy of Holies were the incense-burning altar, the seven-branched menorah, and the table of showbread. And inside the Holy of Holies was most surprising during the 2nd Temple Period. It was empty! There was absolutely nothing in the inner chamber of the Temple behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies. It is believed that the contents in the Holy of Holies from the 1st Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, were either stolen or hidden before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. But still every year the High Priest would enter into this most holy place only once, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to atone for the sins of all of Israel.
This week, 2,000 years later, Jews around the world still observe Yom Kippur. This is still the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. It is a day of fasting and prayer, a day of self-reflection and repentance. It is a day to come clean before a Holy God. The book of Leviticus 16 explains in detail what the Day of Atonement represents.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of Sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community. This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites. And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses.” Leviticus 16:29-34
Every year, for the 10 days between the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, Jews spend time in self-reflection. They try to repair relationships with people they might have offended, or been offended by, in order to purify their hearts for the most holy experience of Yom Kippur.
This is a wonderful time to reflect on the importance of the presence of God in our lives and the idea of atonement. Jews and Christians have the same desire for a relationship with God. Judaism still holds Yom Kippur as the one day a year to confess their sins (if they haven’t already done so throughout the year) and find atonement. Christianity has embraced the idea that 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed himself one time for the sins of all people. While we don’t all agree on how sin is forgiven and how the relationship between God and man is sustained…we do agree that this relationship is the life-blood for both religions.
May each of us take a good look at ourselves and see if we need to make things right; first before man and then before God. A time of prayer and fasting can do well for the soul. Before every Yom Kippur in Israel, the people have a special greeting for one another. In Hebrew it is said, צום מועיל (Tzom Mo’il). It means to have a productive “fast”. So we conclude our virtual tour of the Temple in Jerusalem with these very important and meaningful words, צום מועיל.
*As an added bonus: You can watch a 45-second tour through a reconstruction of the Temple in Herod’s Time and feel what it might have felt like to be there yourself.