The Mishnah discusses the dimensions of the parochet – the curtain that divided between the kodesh and kodesh ha’kodashim (holy of holies) in the Beit Ha’Mikdash. At first the Mishnah appears to be presenting a technical description of one of the components of the Beit Ha’Mikdash. However, keen mathematical analysis reveals an insight into the character of the kohanim in the Beit Ha’Mikdash and how they represented the ideal role models.
The Mishnah (8:5) writes as follows:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says in the name of Rebbi Shimon the son of the Segan: The curtain was one handbreadth thick, woven on seventy-two strands, and on each strand were twenty-four threads; its length was forty amot and its width twenty amot, and of eighty-two ten-thousands it was made; and they would make two every year, and three hundred kohanim would immerse it.
After reading the above what is left to ask other than a search for meaning for all the details. Such an endeavor would be beyond the abilities of the author of this article. Nevertheless one detail is worth probing.
The Mishnah ends by explaining that it would take three hundred kohanim to immerse the parochet in the mikvah. The Bartenura explains, citing Gemara Chagigah, that whenever any utensil was made, even if completed in a state of purity, it would still require immersion in a mikvah prior to its use.
The Bartenura also proceeds to explain the statement that the immersion required three hundred kohanim is a blatant exaggeration. The Melechet Shlomo points out that if the parochet was so heavy that it truly required three hundred people to carry it, it would break. This opinion is shared by many Rishonim and confirmed in Gemara Chulin (90b) where R’ Yitzchak bar Nachmani cites this Mishnah as one of three instances where the Chachamim exaggerated.
Granted that the number three hundred is an exaggeration, why did they pick that number? Why not choose two hundred, five hundred or six hundred thousand? The Melechet Shlomo suggest that this exaggeration explains the Midrash (Shmot Rabbah VaYakhel) that all the kohanim would come to take part in the immersion. How does the figure three hundred support the Midrash?
The Etz Yosef cites the Grah that applies some mathematics in explaining the choice of three hundred. It was explained earlier that the length of the parochet was forty amot (cubits) while the width was twenty amot. This means that the perimeter of this curtain was one-hundred and twenty amot. Now, the amah used in the Beit Ha’Mikdash was different and equal to five t’fachim - handbreadths (unlike elsewhere, where it was equal to six t’fachim). Consequently, the perimeter was equal to six hundred t’fachim.
This now explains the choice of the number three hundred. The kohanim in their eagerness in wanting to take part in the mitzvah of tevilah would grab on with two hands and with a perimeter of six hundred t’fachim that would divide between three hundred kohanim. The point is not that the immersion required three hundred kohanim, but rather that all the kohanim wanted to take part and there was only room for three hundred. He continues that it is indeed an exaggeration because even though it divides evenly two hands would not be able to share the same corner.
Consequently out of this technical detail we learn of the kohanim’s eagerness to take part in a mitzvah. No matter the mitzvah, as long as they could get two hands in, they would jump at the opportunity.
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