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The Chamber of Hewn Stone: "From Zion Shall Come Forth Torah"

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Devarim - Shabbat Chazon

The Chamber of Hewn Stone

“From Zion Shall Come Forth Torah”

Sponsored by Dr. Jean Jaucqes and Perla Edderai in honor of their Children and Grandchildren

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.

Click here for a print version of this article 

In the Torah portion of Devarim, Moshe Rabeinu rebukes the Jewish people for some of the sins they committed during their journeys in the desert. One of these was the fact that the Jewish people agreed to Moshe’s suggestion that he appoint judges to adjudicate their disputes. Moshe recounts that he told the Jewish people;[1] “Pick from each of your tribes candidates who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.” Then he said וַֽתַּעֲנוּ אֹתִי וַתֹּאמְרוּ טוֹב הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לַעֲשֽוֹת which means, “You answered me and said, ‘What you propose to do is good.’” Rashi points out that the word וַֽתַּעֲנוּ can also mean “You pained me” and that Moshe was unhappy that the Jewish people agreed so readily to his suggestion. Moshe would have preferred if they had said, “Who is better to learn from than you, Moshe, who went through suffering on our behalf?” He felt that the reason they were happy to have local judges was because they thought they might be able to sway and influence them. 

The Ohr HaChaim writes that there can also be a positive interpretation to this verse as the word דִּבַּרְתָּ can mean harsh speech. This can indicate that the Jewish people were saying to Moshe that his request for them to choose additional judges was a difficult request for them to fulfill as they would have preferred to learn from Moshe directly. They accepted the proposal for Moshe’s sake, to relieve him of the burden of judging everyone himself. It is possible that both meanings are true and that the troublemakers were happy to have local judges whom they could bribe while the righteous would have preferred to have Moshe as their only judge, but they agreed for Moshe’s sake to the new arrangement.

Now that we’re on the topic of judges, we will discuss the Chamber of Hewn Stone (לשכת הגזית), the room in the Beit HaMikdash where the highest court of the land, the Sanhedrin, would convene. Such discussions are especially important at this time of year because studying about the Beit HaMikdash is considered to be on par with building it.[2]Thus, during the time of the destruction, it is appropriate to do our part to rebuild it in this way.[3] It is also an appropriate topic for the Shabbat preceding Tisha Be’Av, called Shabbat Chazon because there is a tradition that on this Shabbat every Jew is shown a vision of the third Beit HaMikdash, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.[4] (Chazon means “vision.”)

Mount Moriah

The Midrash says[5] that one of the meanings of Mount Moriah (this is the description G-d gave to Abraham as to where he should bind his son Isaac) is that “teaching” radiates from this spot to the entire world. (הוֹרָאָה means teaching). This alludes to the Sanhedrin concerning whom it says,[6] “For Torah will come forth from Zion, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.” 

From the Place that G-d Chose

The Mishnah says[7] that the Sanhedrin (highest court) needed to be located in the area of the Beit HaMikdash, based on the verse,[8] “You should follow the word that they (i.e., the sages) say to you from the place G-d will choose (i.e., the Beit HaMikdash), and you should guard and keep everything that they teach you.”

Near the Altar

On the verse[9] “And these are the laws you shall place before them” which follows a verse about the Altar (“And you shall not go up with steps on My Altar”[10]Rashicomments (based on the Midrash[11]) that the Sanhedrin was supposed to be near the Sanctuary (which was near the Mizbe’ach/Altar).

When the Jewish people were in the desert the location of the Sanhedrin was also close to the Mishkan and the Altar.[12]

In the Portion of Yehudah

The Talmud says[13] that one of the reasons that King David and Samuel, the prophet, chose Mount Moriah as the spot of the future Beit HaMikdash was because they had a tradition that the Sanhedrin was supposed to be in the section of the tribe of Yehudah, while the Shechina was supposed to reside in the section of the tribe of Binyamin. Since the Sanhedrin needed to be near the Beit HaMikdash (which is where the Shechinah resides), Mount Moriah was deemed an appropriate spot since it is on the border between these two tribes.

Full Strength of the Sanhedrin - in the Beit HaMikdash 

Although the Sanhedrin continued to function for many centuries in various locations,[14] the full judicial power of the Sanhedrin could only be exerted when it was located in the Lishkat HaGazit.[15]

What Would They Do There?

The Sanhedrin would sit in judgment in the Lishkat HaGazit every day from after the morning Tamid (daily sacrifice) until the afternoon Tamid.[16] On Shabbatot and holidays, when it was forbidden to judge court cases, they would sit in the Cheil,another section of the Beit HaMikdash, where they would be available to render halachic rulings.

●      Judge the Lineage of the Kohanim

In addition to acting as the court of appeals and to ruling on matters of national interest,[17] the Sanhedrin would also rule on the eligibility of Kohanim to see if their lineage was proper and if they were fit to serve in the Beit HaMikdash. [18] Some suggest[19] that this would take place on Fridays, the day before each new family group would begin their turn to serve in the Beit HaMikdash. The Sanhedrin would then rule on members of that family who were ready to serve in the Beit HaMikdash for the first time (because they had just come of age). Once they served, they were considered to be “kosher” kohanim and would not need to be reexamined unless an issue with them came up.[20] The Tosfot Yom Tov writes[21] that they would also judge the eligibility of the Levites to serve in the Beit HaMikdash.

●      Blemishes of Kohanim

In addition, some say[22] that they would rule on whether the mum (blemish) of a kohen would render him unfit to serve or not.

●      Rule on the Daily Lottery

The daily lottery to assign the jobs in the Beit HaMikdash also took place in the Lishkat HaGazit. If there were any questions that came up about this matter, one of the sages of the Sanhedrin would render a ruling on it.[23]

Where Was It Located?

According to the Talmud,[24] the Lishkat Hagazit was built so that half of it was in the azara (courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash) and half of it was outside the Azarah in an area that is considered (relatively) chol/unsanctified. (That half was in an area that was part of the Har Habayit which is certainly sanctified, but is not as holy as the Azarahitself.)

The reason for this is that the Sanhedrin was supposed to be in a holy place (see above), but when they judged, they had to be seated.[25] The halacha (Jewish law) is that no one may sit in the Azarah except for kings of the Davidic dynasty.[26]

As such, their chamber was built to straddle the border of the azara so they could be as close as possible to the holy part of the Beit HaMikdash without even a wall in between.

The Ezrat Kohanim explains[27] that it was designed specifically so that half of the Sanhedrin was in the holy area while half was not, so that neither side should be considered to be dominant over the other.

In addition, as mentioned above, the kohanim would hold the daily lottery in the Lishkat Hagazit, assigning the various jobs of the day to the different kohanim . This lottery was supposed to take place in the Azarah but since a kohen would take off his hat as part of the lottery, it was inappropriate to hold it in the regular Azarah with the building of the Beit HaMikdash in full view.[28] As such, it was done in the half of the Lishkat HaGazit that was in the Azarah. Since the lottery took place in the proximity of the Sanhedrin, any halachic questions that emerged would be addressed by a member of the Sanhedrin.

Where Was the Entranceway?

The halacha states that if a room in the area of the Beit HaMikdash has doors that open to a certain area, that room gets the status of that area even if the room is located outside of that area’s borders. For example, if a room was in the Azarah but the only entranceway to that room was in the Har Habayit, it “only” had the holiness of the Har Habayit. As such, in order to ensure that the half of the Lishkat Hagazit located in the Azarah would be holy and the half located outside of it would not be, they made two entranceways, one between the Lishkat HaGazit and the Azarah, and one between the Har HaBayit and the Lishkat HaGazit.

The Ezrat Kohanim suggests that these entranceways were in the corners of this room. This would allow the Sanhedrin (on the Har HaBayit side) and the lottery (on the Azarah side) respectively to operate at the end of the room and not have people entering and exiting nearby. (See the diagram in note 33.)

What Side of the Azara Was It On?

The Mishnah says[29] that the Lishkat Haazit, the Kohen Gadol’s chamber, and the chamber that contained a well which provided water for the Azarah were all situated in the south side of the Azarah. 

The Rambam, however, writes[30] that these chambers were on the north side of the Azarah. This is based on an alternate version of the Mishnah.[31]

Behind the Holy of Holies

The Midrash says[32] that the judges would sit and judge the lineage of the Kohanim behind the Beit HaKaporet (house of the Kaporet).[33] This usually refers to the Holy of Holies which housed the Aron and the Kaporet. Since the Sanhedrin was the body that ruled on the lineage of the Kohanim (see above), it seems that the Lishkat HaGazitwas located in the western side of the Azarah (this was the side behind the Holy of Holies).[34] This doesn’t seem to follow either of the above views that the Lishkat HaGazit was on the north or south side of the Azarah. The Ezrat Kohanim[35] suggests that the Midrash means that some of the Lishkat HaGazit extended to the area behind the Holy of Holies.[36] Alternately, he suggests that there may have been another body of judges that decided which cases needed to be brought to the Sanhedrin, and this body would convene behind the Holy of Holies.

In the Middle of the World

The Midrash says[37] that the Sanhedrin is compared to a belly button insofar as it is situated right in the middle of the Beit HaMikdash.[38]

Heart of the World

In a similar vein, the Zohar says[39] that the Beit HaMikdash is compared to the heart which receives its energy from the head and distributes it to the entire body. Similarly, the Beit HaMikdash receives its energy from the Shechinah (the Divine Presence which is compared to the head) and disperses it to the entire world. According to the Zohar, the oceans surround the dry land, the lands of the 70 nations surround Israel, Israel surrounds Jerusalem which surrounds the Har HaBayit which in turn surrounds the Azarot. These surround the Lishkat HaGazit which “surrounds” (i.e., is in front of) the Altar which is in front of the Ulam (entrance hall), which is in front of the Heichal(Sanctuary) which houses the Holy of Holies which is the location of the Aron and the Kaporet which is where the Shechinah rests.

What Was Its Size?

While we don’t know the exact measurements of the Lishkat Hagazit, we do know that it was a very large chamber as it needed to accommodate the 71 sages of the Sanhedrin who would sit in a semicircle with three rows with 23 students in each row, who sat in front of the sages. In addition, since the Talmud (quoted above) says that half of the Lishkat Hagazit was in the Azarah, that half must have been as large as the half which accommodated the Sanhedrin. Indeed, the Talmud[40] describes this room as a Basilicawhich Rashi says is a large room above another room. (It is not clear what room was beneath the Lishkat HaGazit.)

What's in the Name?

Lishkat Hagazit means the chamber of hewn stone, referring to stones that are square-shaped. The commentaries explain[41] that although most of the Beit HaMikdash was made of stones, the walls of this chamber were built with beautiful square stones to show respect for the Sanhedrin who judged there. This alludes to the Talmudic teaching[42] that Torah study (exemplified by the Sanhedrin) is considered to be on an even higher level than sacrifices. Another purpose of making this chamber so grand was so that the people who came to be judged by the court would recognize the importance of this court and accord them (and their rulings) the proper respect.[43]

Some say[44] that the word Gazit, which means “cut” alludes to the fact that the Sanhedrin would “parse” out judgments from this location.

A Mini-Sanctuary

After the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, every shul continues to function as a mini Beit HaMikdash. As such, it should include both prayer (corresponding to sacrifices) and Torah study (corresponding to the Sanhedrin).[45]

May Hashem Speedily Restore our Judges in the Third Beit HaMikdash!

[1] Deut. 1:13

[2] Tanchuma, Tzav, 14

[3] See Likutei Sichot, 18, sicha on Parshat Masei – Bein HaMeitzarim (pg. 411).

[4] See ibid, vol. 9, page 24 – 32 and in many places

[5] Bereishit Rabbh 55:7

[6] Isaiah 2:3

[7] Sanhedrin 86b

[8] Deut. 17:10

[9] Exodus 21:1

[10] Ibid 20:23

[11] Mechilta DeRabi Yishmael on ibid. (The Midrash says that it should be placed near the Altar.)

[12] Torat Menachem 5745 vol. 3, pg. 1607

[13] Zevachim 54b

[14] See Rosh HaShanah 31a that the Sanhedrin was exiled 10 times.

[15] See Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 14:11 that there could be no capital cases when the Sanhedrin wasn’t located in the Lishkat HaGazit. For this reason, the Sanhedrin left the Lishkat HaGazit for the 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple as there were so many factions who fought and killed each other, and they did not want to implement the death penalty on so many people (Avodah Zarah 8b). See Torat Menachem, ibid.

[16] Sanhedrin 88b

[17] See Sanhedrin 2a

[18] Middot 5:4

[19] Rashash on ibid

[20] See Pesachim 3b

[21] On Middot ibid

[22] Tiferet Yisrael on ibid

[23] Yoma 25a

[24] Ibid

[25] See Choshen Mishpat 28:6

[26] See II Samuel 7:18 “And King David came and he sat in front of G-d.”

[27] By Rabbi Yehoshua Yosef HaKohen of Mordy, Poland (first printed in Warsaw 1873), on Middot ibid

[28] See Tosfot D.H Veha Be’inan on Yoma 25a

[29] Middot ibid

[30] Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 5:17

[31] See Yoma 19a

[32] Yalkut Shimoni Parshat Korach, Remez 754

[33] Another Midrash (Sifri, Parshat Korach 116:2) quotes this same teaching but says that it was behind the Beit HaParochet.

[34] The Midrash Tanchumah (Buber Tetzaveh 1) seems to take the same view as it says that the Sanhedrin is compared to a woman’s hair which she places behind her head (like a bun).

[35] On Middot, ibid

[36] Click here for a diagram that the Ezrat Kohanim suggests (the top of the diagram is West):

[37] Bamidbar Rabbah 1:4

[38] See Ezrat Kohanim (ibid) as to how to reconcile this with the various opinions as to the location of the Lishkat HaGazit.

[39] Parshat Shelach, 161b

[40] Yoma 25a

[41] Tosfot Yom Tov and Tiferet Yisrael on Middot, ibid

[42] Ezrat Kohanim based on Megillah 3b

[43] Ezrat Kohanim, ibid

[44] Rabeinu Bachaye on Deut. 1:17

[45] The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Torat Menachem vol. 47 page 64 and Likutei Sichot vol. 8 pg. 361

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach, and may we celebrate Tisha Be’Av with Torah Study and Sacrifices in the Third Beit HaMikdash!

Wed, April 24 2024 16 Nisan 5784