Chanukah is the time of the re-dedication of the Holy Temple. The festival commemorates the Maccabees’ restoring the Second Temple to its original sanctity after it had been ransacked and defiled (but not destroyed) by the Greeks. It is, therefore, worth dedicating a few minutes to consider how the Temple relates to us today. By this, we mean, of course, the Third Temple, whose re-building and long-awaited presence will usher in the Messianic Era.
Before we can delve into the intricacies of the Third Temple, how it will look and how it will ultimately be built, some sketchy background is necessary, particularly for those who know little or nothing about the Holy Temple.
Three structures have borne the name Mikdash, or Holy Temple. The first was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, built by Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai as atonement for the sin of the golden calf. It was portable and stood for an aggregate of 440 years. The second structure bearing the name Mikdash, was King Solomon’s Temple. It was built on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, upon foundations laid by Solomon’s father, King David. This is known as the First Temple. It stood for 410 years and was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, as prelude to the Babylonian Exile of the Jewish people. 70 years later, King Cyrus of Persia gave permission to the Jews to rebuild the Holy Temple, which was accomplished through the leadership of Ezra, the Scribe. This, the Second Temple, was later beautified by King Herod, and stood for a total of 420 years. Titus and the armies of the Rome destroyed Herod’s Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era. Since then, the Holy Temple has stood in ruins. The Torah teaches that the Temple will again be rebuilt in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, and this Third Temple will stand forever. It is about this future Temple, that we now address ourselves.
We learn about the future Temple from the Book of Ezekial, chapters 40-42, wherein the prophet, a kohen (priest), is mystically transported from Babylon to Jerusalem, and shown every detail and measurement of the Holy Temple by an angel of G-d.
The Prophecy of Ezekial came during the Babylonian Exile, between the First and Second Temples. However, the sages who built the Second Temple, did not completely follow Ezekial’s prophetic design, for they knew that the Second Temple would eventually be destroyed, and that Ezekial was prophesying about the future, eternal Temple.
We can now approach the primary question about the Third Temple. How will it be built? This is an issue that few people are willing to address because of obvious political implications. But, like it or not, the Third Temple is going to be built one day. So we may as well look at the question now.
There is an essential disagreement among authorities as to how the Third Temple will be built. According to the Rambam (Maimonides), in his work, the Laws of the Chosen House, (chapter one, law number one), the Jewish people are commanded to construct a House for G-d. The Rambam lists this as one of the 613 eternal commandments of the Torah, relevant and obligatory whenever the Temple is not standing. He derives this from the verse (Exodus 25:8), “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” According to the Rambam, the Jewish people must build the Third Temple any way they can, at any time they can accomplish the task. In the Laws of Kings, (chapter eleven, law number four), the Rambam states that the Messiah, an earthly, Jewish king, will build the Third Temple. And, in fact, he states that the only conclusive proof of the identity of the Messiah is that he will be the one to build the Temple.
The other view on the subject is derived from Medrash Rabba, (a book of homiletic expositions from the time of the Talmud) . Here, the Medrash teaches that G-d Himself will build the Third Temple, and it will descend out of the fire from Heaven, onto its appointed place on earth, the Temple Mount. Rashi (the chief and classical bible commentator, circa 1200 C.E.) and Tosefos, (an academy of European scholars circa 1300C.E.) and many other authorities subscribe to this view, and this has become the popular view of the Jewish people. As to the verse, “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary,” this opposing view teaches that the directive was already fulfilled with the building of the Mishkan and the first two Temples, and is no longer applicable. They cite as the source for the Third Temple the verse (Exodus 15:17), “You shall bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the establishment of Your residence which You have made, O Eternal, the Sanctuary, G-d, which Your hands have established.”
Although the two views appear to be contradictory, both are the words of the Living G-d, and there is no contradiction here at all. Among the many explanations which resolve the argument is the teaching that the redemption (and therefore the Third Temple) can come in one of two ways, b’itoh (in its time) or achishenah (suddenly, at any moment). B’itoh is the end of the fifth milennia, the Jewish year 6000 (as of this writing we are in the year 5759). If final redemption does not come till then, the Jewish people, led by the Messiah, who will be anointed as king by a prophet of G-d, will build the Third Temple. This goes according to the Rambam. But if the redemption comes achishenah, that is, immediately if not sooner, it will be replete with manifold miracles, incomparably greater than during the Exodus from Egypt some 3309 years ago, and the Holy Temple will suddenly appear out of the fire of Heaven atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. This is the opinion of Rashi and Tosefos, and the hope and dream and yearning of the Jewish people.
This explains the contradiction, but it does not resolve it. And one does not push away the Rambam with a toothpick. For the Rambam could tell you, “Is that so? Well, the commandments are eternal and G-d has no right to take one of them away from us. So don’t give me this ‘appearing out of the fire of Heaven’ stuff.”
The question then becomes, “How can G-d send the Temple down from Heaven already built, yet have it built on earth by the Jewish people?”
In Ohr HaMikdash (Light of the Holy Temple), Rabbi Raphael Moshe Luria resolves the paradox a number of ways. He cites the principle of a hechsher mitzvah, that is, an act that causes a mitzvah to be fulfilled. For example, the last commandment of the Torah (number 613) commands us to write our own Torah scroll. This is an extraordinary task that few people are capable of performing. It takes years of training to become a scribe, and a trained scribe will spend a year or longer writing a Torah, which must be copied letter by letter from an existing Torah. If one letter is missing or written incorrectly, the Torah is invalid, and considered as no Torah at all.
So how does the average Jew fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Torah? When a newly written Torah is about to be completed, a great ceremony takes place. The members of a community or congregation gather together and, aided by the scribe, each person writes one letter of the last verses in the scroll. Each person who participates is credited with the mitzvah of writing a Torah. Why? Because if that person’s particular letter had been omitted or written incorrectly, it would have been no Torah at all. Each person’s writing brought this particular Torah scroll into existence. This is called a hechsher mitzvah, an act that causes a mitzvah to be fulfilled.
Let us now apply the principle to building the Third Temple. When the G-d of Israel is going to bring the Holy Temple down from heaven, He is going to do it in answer to the prayers of the Jewish people. As we say in our daily prayers, “May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days.” This is our hechsher mitzvah. Our prayers and yearning for the Temple, will arouse the Will of G-d. Without this, the Temple would surely never be rebuilt. And the AriZal, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, teaches that, according to Kabbalah, our prayers create the spiritual channel of light by which the Temple will descend.
In the same light, we find a fascinating teaching in the Medrash, Yalkut Shimoni. The Prophet Ezekial addresses G-d by saying “Master of the Universe, You instructed me to teach the form and laws of the Third Temple to the Jewish people when they shall do them [build the Temple]. Are they doing them now that I should teach it to them?” And G-d answered that a person studying the design of the Holy Temple according to the Book of Ezekial, would be regarded as if he were actually building it.