At about 4 a.m. on cold and damp autumn mornings in London, Dad would try to wake us in time for Selichot, the pre-Jewish New Year dawn prayers. As we heard Dad’s footsteps mounting the stairs, my brother and I would hide under our covers and mutter our displeasure at being disturbed.
Eventually, after a few more tries and realizing that the futile attempt to get us out of bed was only making him late, Dad would turn at the front door of the house, deposit the prayer books on the sofa and announce in a voice, loud enough to wake us up again, “Seliches on the couch!”
Then the front door would bang and Dad would disappear into the cold, wet night. We would surreptitiously emerge from under our covers. All clear. Peace at last! Dad never criticized us for our sloth. But years later, reading about how the kohanim sprang into action in the wee hours of the morning to conduct the preparations for the daily Temple service known as the korban tamid and how they raced each other to the front of the line to be the first to report to duty, I realized I’d better clean up my act before Mashiach came.
In fact, the kohanim were so eager to be on time that they slept the night before on the marble surfaces of one of the chambers of the Temple known as Bet Hamoked, the House of Fire situated on the north side of the azarah, the Temple courtyard. The bet hamoked was built into the wall of the Temple so that half of it protruded into the azarah and half into the har habayit, the Temple Mount, situated outside the Temple.
The bet hamoked was permanently warmed by an open fire, which served the dual purpose of keeping the kohanim warm and providing a backup source of fire for the altar. It had an interior door leading into the azarah at its southern end and an exterior door leading outside to the har habayit at its northern end. A staircase in the bet hamoked led down to a subterranean tunnel, which ran under the Temple to a mikveh situated outside of the Temple where the kohanim could immerse themselves at night in preparation for the morning service.
Long before dawn broke, there was a knock on the outside door of the bet hamoked. The kohen hame’muneh, the boss responsible for supervising the preparations for the korban, had arrived. The kohanim were prepared for his arrival. They had already changed out of their bedclothes and donned their priestly garments. They were eager to participate in the korban tamid activities. The korban tamid was offered up every morning and every afternoon, including Shabbat. The korbanot tamid served as the bookends for all the other korbanot that were brought during the day. No other offering could be brought before the korban tamid of the morning or after the korban tamid of the afternoon.
Each family unit of kohanim, numbering 168 kohanim in all, was allotted only two days a year in which to participate in korban activities. There were not that many jobs to hand out. So there were a lot of bench kohanim. The first job in the pre-dawn hours of the morning was the removal of some of the previous day’s ashes from the outside altar, the mizbeach hachitzon, located in the courtyard of the kohanim, ezrat kohanim. This procedure, known as terumat hadeshen, involved the removal from the altar, with a silver shovel, of an amount of ashes equal to a fistful, kometz, and the placing of these ashes on the ground on the northern side, in front of the altar.