The price of passion

Posted by Levi Cooper on January 22, 2014
Topics: Temple Era, Mussar, Talmud

From pages 109-112 of Relics for the Present by Levi Cooper,
presented in Istanbul during January 2014 Pardes trip to Tukrey.

Berakhot 12a

levi's book relics new 3d resized for new websiteThe Jewish community in Istanbul, Turkey, has an engaging custom. Moments before beginning the Amida prayer, worshippers apologetically wave to each other, silently asking for forgiveness for any wrongs committed. Prior to our standing before the Almighty in solemn prayer – the principal act in the realm of bein adam lamakom (between a person and God) – the bein adam laĥavero (interpersonal) realm must be repaired. This appealing custom reflects the desire to bridge the bein adam lamakom/bein adam laĥavero divide, ensuring that our relationship with God is not at the expense of our relationship with fellow human beings.

The Turkish practice echoes a Temple ritual described by our sages. After the morning Temple service began, the kohanim would enter the Chamber of Hewn Stone for an abbreviated prayer service. Once a week, on Shabbat, an extra blessing was recited by those kohanim who were completing their tour of duty in the Temple (M. Tamid 5:1).

The kohanim, as well as the Levites, were divided into twenty-four mishmarot or watches. Each mishmeret would serve in the Temple for one week twice a year (I Chronicles 24–25). On festivals when the entire nation came to Jerusalem, there was no specific mishmeret. During the Second Temple period, this system was still employed; however, a new internal division of mishmarot was used. Each mishmeret was divided into six families, and each family was responsible for one day during the week. On Shabbat the entire mishmeret served together, offering the morning sacrifices. After that, the incumbent mishmeret would pass the baton to the next week’s mishmeret, who would complete the Shabbat Temple service. At the completion of the term of the incumbent mishmeret, a special blessing for the changing of the guard was recited (B. Sukka 56b). The Talmud relates the content of this additional Shabbat blessing. The outgoing mishmeret would turn to the incoming mishmeret and say: “May the One Who has caused His name to dwell in this House cause love and brotherhood, peace and friendship to dwell among you” (B. Berakhot 12a).

This is indeed a beautiful benediction. Before entering the ultimate bein adam lamakom realm and embarking on God-centred Temple service, the new mishmeret was given a blessing in the realm of interpersonal relationships.

This blessing, however, may not have been introduced in a vacuum; it is entirely possible that awful events surround its institution.

Each morning at dawn, a shovel of burning ashes was taken from the Temple altar and deposited on the floor (Leviticus 6:3). This act, known as terumat hadeshen, was initially done by whichever priest rose sufficiently early. Later, many priests wished to perform this service, and a daily footrace up the ramp of the altar was conducted. The winner of this race was accorded the honour of terumat hadeshen.

This practice, however, was terminated following a wretched episode. One morning, two kohanim sped up the altar ramp, each vying for the honour of terumat hadeshen. Neck-and-neck they raced until one kohen, desperate for the privilege to remove the smouldering ashes, pushed his fellow, who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw the danger involved in the race, they cancelled the competition and instead enacted a lottery – as was the custom for other Temple tasks – for the right to perform terumat hadeshen (M. Yoma 2:1–2).

A more tragic calamity that occurred during one of these races is also related. Two kohanim were racing up the ramp. (In one version of the account, they were actually brothers.) At the finish line, one kohen pipped his colleague, winning the contest and the right to perform terumat hadeshen. At this point, the loser took a knife and drove it into the winner’s heart. The callousness that this zeal betrayed was matched by that of the father of the dying boy, who, running to the scene, found his child in his death throes on the floor of the Temple. Indifferently, the father declared: “My son is still writhing and therefore the knife has not become impure!” He was implying that the knife should quickly be removed before the death of the young kohen could render it impure. Apparently the impurity of utensils was of greater concern than murder (T. Yoma 1:12; T. Shavuot 1:4).

The Talmud questions the chronology of these two appalling episodes, and concludes that the murder occurred first. However, at the time it was presumed – perhaps in a further show of apathy – that this was a freak occurrence that would not repeat itself. Following the second episode, in which a kohen sustained a comparatively mild injury, the trend towards violent zealousness (even if the intent was not to maim) could not be ignored, and the lottery was legislated (B. Yoma 23a).

In light of these accounts, the benediction of the outgoing mishmeret to the incoming mishmeret may have been a charge and a caution more than a blessing, as if to say: “Beware that your eagerness for Divine service not be at the expense of peace and friendship between you.” Alternatively, one commentator suggests that the blessing comes from the pre-lottery period and reflects the deplorable but acute and lifethreatening bickering that was commonplace in the Temple (Maharsha).

Perhaps there is an inherent danger when our focus turns too intently to the bein adam lamakom sphere. With our eyes keenly directed to God, we are liable to forget our fellow humans who may be running next to us or standing beside us. The quest for a relationship with the Almighty should not be at the expense of our relationship with other humans. Rising before dawn and eagerly racing to perform the Temple service is certainly laudable, but when it entails pushing another aside, the fervour is misdirected. Our tradition indicates that a tame, insipid lottery is preferable to passionate competition, if that competition exacts a price on the bein adam laĥavero front.

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