Shmirah in the Beit Ha’Mikdash

Tamid (1:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 years ago

Masechet Tamid deals with the daily activity in the Beit Ha’Mikdash. The first item discussed is shmirah - “guard duty”. While we learn elsewhere that the levi’im also performed shmirah at other locations, the Mishnah here lists the three locations that the kohanim stood watch. What was the purpose of this duty? When was it performed?

The Rambam (amongst many others) explains that this duty, a positive commandment25, does not stem from fear of bandits or enemies, but rather out of respect to the Beit Ha’Mikdash. Citing the Mechilta he explains that a palace without guards cannot be compared to a palace with guards.

The Sefer HaChinnuch continues that Hashem clearly does not need this honour. Instead the display is meant to have an impact on those that come to the Beit Ha’Mikdash, instilling a sense of awe in their hearts. When they therefore enter, their hearts will be softened thereby hastening their teshuva.

There is a debate however regarding when shmirah had to be performed. The Rambam (Hilchot Beit Ha’Bechirah 8:2) explains that shmirah was performed only at night.26 The Mefaresh on the other hand understands that it was performed both day and night.

The Mishnah LeMelech finds the Mefaresh difficult. The Minchat Chinnuch however defends the Mefaresh arguing that the difficulty lies with the Rambam. He explains that the Rambam does maintain that shmirah was performed for respect, not out of fear. Consequently why should shmirah only be performed at night? The Minchat Chinnuch argues further, that if one visits those palaces that have guards stationed for their honour; they will see the guards both night and day!

The Tifferet Yisrael (Boaz 1) explains that even though the shmirah was for the honour of the place, it was unnecessary during the day. The simple reason being that during the day the kohanim were busy rushing back and forward with the regular avodah in the Beit Ha’Mikdash. That is honour enough.

Perhaps then we can take the question of the Minchat Chinnuch and the explanation of the Tifferet Yisrael to develop an important idea. One can respond to the Minchat Chinnuch that there is stark difference between the honour shown to a king and the honour demanded by the King of Kings. Respect shown by the guards of an earthly king is demonstrated by their inactivity. Every sinew in his body is locked to his station. HaKadosh Baruch Hu however demands activity, movement – the performance of mitzvot. It is perhaps this image, according to the Rambam, of non-stop action, of kohanim performing the will of Hashem that has far more of an impact on those entering the Beit Ha’Mikdash than the inanimate, motionless guard.


25: Bamidbar 18:4. The Gra explains that the purpose of shmirah is clear from the p’sukim; it was to ensure that non-kohanim would not enter the Beit Ha’Mikdash. However the Gemara nonetheless questions its source. The Gra explains that the practical motivation alone is not reason enough. Firstly there would be no need for shmirah at night as the doors were locked. Secondly, why should shmirah be performed specifically by the kohanim and levi’im? Any agency would do. Consequently the Gemara asks for the source of what must be a positive commandment on the kohanim and levi’im.

26: Tifferet Yisrael understands that shmirah was performed in three or four shifts correlating with the three or four “watches” during the night discussed in Brachot (3a).

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