Occult or ordinary? Understanding the Temple service

By Miriam Levenson

This week’s Torah portion (parashat Emor) returns to some of the opening themes of the book of Vayikra, exploring details of the service in the Mikdash. While these themes may not appear to hold anything more than hypothetical or historical interest, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understands the Mikdash as a timeless ideal in the way that we connect to God.

One of the points which Rav Hirsch makes clear is that the Mikdash is not meant to represent a utopia, or escape from reality. Those coming close to God with korbanot must do so in a state of sobriety (Vayikra 10:9), and only during daylight hours (see the beginning of chapter 5 of Pesachim, on Vayikra 6:2). The Jewish Temple is not a place of darkness, mystery or fear; an onen – a mourner in the immediate aftermath of a close relative’s death – is restricted from entering the Mikdash or offering korbanot, suggesting that one needs to be in a clear-headed and considered state of mind in order to take part in the service.

Finding meaning in the everyday
There are many parallels that can be drawn between the service of the Mikdash and prayer, which is understood to be a continuation of the Avoda. Prayer is set at a fixed time, designed primarily as an infusion and reminder of certain principles. Commenting on the reflexive grammatical form of the verb ‘hitpallel’ (to pray), Rav Hirsch writes that it means

… to infuse oneself with divine ideas. Jewish prayer is not an outpouring from within oneself; rather it means infusing the heart with truths that come from outside oneself. If prayer were merely an expression of what the heart already feels, prescribed prayer … at fixed times would be absurd. For such prayer would assume that certain emotions could be present on demand at pre-determined times. Instead, “Hitpallel” means to steep oneself with lasting, eternal truths because they are likely to fade away from one’s consciousness. (Commentary on Bereshit 48:11)

Of course, there is still a significant role for spontaneous supplication within prayer – but Rav Hirsch here emphasises the primary theme of daily prayer.

Our service of God – just like the service of the Mikdash – is a real, everyday service. It is not an escape from reality, or a mysterious abstract concept. Our focus as religious Jews is to seek meaning through the commitments of our everyday lives, connecting to God with a clear head and considered thought.


Miriam Levenson plays the bassoon with the Israel Sinfonietta in Beersheva and has been living in Modiin with her family since their aliyah two and a half years ago. She studied at MMY, Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, and completed the Susi Bradfield Educational Leadership Programme in 2011.




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