Guarding The Temple – Even Today
‘Kohanim Stationed in Three Places’
Rabbi Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein, zt”l, arrived in Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1869 at the age of 34. He came originally from Bialystok, and his personality was molded in the beis midrash of the Kotzker Rebbe. After the latter passed away, he became very close to the Chidushei HaRim of Gur.
Rabbi Gelbstein settled in Yerushalayim in a room whose windows faced the Kosel Maaravi. Starting in the winter of 1870, he devoted 40 years to clarifying how the Temple was guarded: how many kohanim and levi’im participated, where they were posted, etc. (see his Mishkenos Laavir Yaakov).
Rabbi Gelbstein aroused a commotion in Yerushalayim when he warned that an impure person may not put his fingers between the stones of the Kosel. Most of the leaders of his generation, including the Maharil Diskin, the Imrei Binah, the Aderes, and the Sedi Chemed, agreed with him (see Keilim 1:8 and Pesachim 67b).
Guarding – Day and Night?
The Rambam states (Hilchos Beis Habechirah 8:4) that 30 kohanim guarded the Temple in three places, 10 per place, and 210 levi’im guarded the Temple in 21 places. Rishonim disagree about when they stood guard. The Rambam (ibid., halacha 2) maintains that the mitzvah applies only at night, but the Raavad and Rosh maintain that the mitzvah applies at all times.
Why Is There a Need to Guard the Temple?
Rishonim explain that the guards were not posted to discourage break-ins. Rather, says the Rambam (Hilchos Beis Habechirah 8:1), their purpose was to honor the Temple. Thus, the mitzvah only applied at night when the Temple was essentially empty. During the day, guards weren’t necessary due to the constant stream of people to the Temple and the sacrifices brought there.
The Rosh, however, says the purpose of the guards was to keep everyone’s attention on the Temple as per the Torah’s demand. Thus, the Rosh argues that the mitzvah applied during the day as well.
(In his Moreh Nevuchim [3:45], the Rambam mentions another reason for guarding the Temple: to prevent impure people and onenim from entering.)
Stationing Guards Around the Destroyed Temple
Rabbi Gelbstein argued that we should station guards around the destroyed Temple today. How do we know, he argued, that the mitzvah to guard the Temple ended with its destruction? Indeed, from the Rambam’s wording (in his commentary on the Mishnah) it seems that this mitzvah applies at all times: “This is a way to aggrandize the Temple and thus they would guard the Sanctuary in the desert and in Shlomo’s era and forever.”
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Beis Habechirah 6:14-15) that the Temple’s sanctity remains forever since the Shechinah never left it. Thus, argues Rabbi Gelbstein, we should be guarding the site of the Temple in our time.
Establishing Batei Midrash near the Kosel Maaravi
As he was aware that it was impossible to observe the mitzvah properly in his time (for reasons that we will soon explain), Rabbi Gelbstein suggested establishing batei midrash near the Kosel where people could pray and learn Seder Kadashim at all times. He actually collected money to implement his plan, raising 270 Napoleons (a tremendous sum of money at the time) to acquire three courtyards around the Temple Mount on which he wanted to build three synagogues.
He wrote to Sir Moshe Montefiore, asking him to support his plan, arguing that someone with the name Moshe should begin this mitzvah (the handwritten letter is published in Rabbi Gelbstein’s Mishkenos Laavir Yaakov). Unfortunately, the plan ultimately did not succeed for various reasons.
Rabbi Gelbstein did not suggest posting guards on the Temple Mount itself because many believe impure people are forbidden from walking on it, and in our era everyone is tamei mes. He wanted to post guards outside the Temple Mount; he suggested that posting levi’im at specific designated spots is not crucial to fulfilling the mitzvah. Kohanim couldn’t participate since their posts were specifically inside the azarah. (It’s possible that the posts of the levi’im and kohanim are linked, in which case the levi’im wouldn’t be able to watch either.)
A Singer or A Guard?
The Talmud states (Arachin 11b) that “a [levite] singer who guarded is punished with death.” If that is the case, then, how can any levi nowadays guard the Temple? Perhaps he descends from a family of singers.
What Purpose Guarding?
The Sochatchover Rebbe, zt”l, author of Avnei Nezer (Responsa, Yoreh De’ah 449), wondered if there was any purpose in people standing guard outside the Temple Mount these days. The purpose of the guards was to give honor to something precious. But we have nothing precious left on the Temple Mount today. The Temple itself is destroyed, its utensils are missing, and two mosques currently rest atop it. Is there anything left to guard? Does guarding a desolate hill accord honor to anything.
The Aderes argued that we also don’t need guards preventing impure people from ascending the Temple Mount since Jews are not allowed on it in any event. Of course, this statement was accurate in his era. Today, Jews have the ability to ascend the Temple Mount and some do, although most gedolim believe doing so is forbidden.