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.
It had once been the practice that when the kohen hamemuneh arrived, the kohanim would turn and race up the slope of the altar. The first to the top would win the privilege of performing the terumat hadeshen service. After these races led to accidents, they were banned and replaced by a lottery system. The kohen hamemuneh administered the lottery in the Beit Hamoked. The lottery winner was honored, not only with performing the terumat hadeshen but also with arranging on top of the altar the three wood pyres, the ma’arachot, which were later lit to fuel the sacrificial fires. The lottery winner, accompanied by the other kohanim, would then leave the Beit Hamoked through the door leading into the azarah and with torches in hand they would walk around the azarah to inspect the various utensils, klei mikdash, soon to be used in the korban tamid service.
The lottery winner would then break away from the group and step westward into the darkness of the ezrat kohanim, walking beyond the altar toward the Sanctuary until he reached the kiyor, the washbasin in which he would wash his hands and feet. Then he would pick up the silver shovel, ascend the altar and remove, with the shovel, a fistful of ashes from the wood pyre and complete the terumat hadeshen ceremony.
Seeing him descend, the group of kohanim would leave their post at the lishkat osei hachavitin, rush toward the kiyor to purify themselves, and then ascend the altar with rakes and shovels. There they would clear to the edges of the altar any parts of the previous day’s sacrifice which had not been consumed by the fires. They would then pile any remaining ashes onto a mound on top of the altar known as the tapuach. The lottery winner would then ascend the altar again to arrange the wood pyres on which the pieces of the korban tamid and the incense would later be burned. The other kohanim would replace the parts of the previous day’s sacrifice on the first pyre and then light the pyres.
With this work complete, all of the kohanim repaired to the liskat hagazit chamber, the seat of the Sanhedrin, located to the east of the Beit Hamoked. There they would participate in a second lottery to determine which of the bench kohanim would perform the other tasks of the korban tamid. Since the act of shechitah could not be performed at night, one of the kohanim was sent up onto the roof to see whether dawn had broken. If he could see all the way to Hebron, it was light enough to perform the shechitah.
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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