(1 Kings 7:40-50)
December 27, 2003
The Second Shabbat Of Hanukkah
The haftarah for the second Shabbat of Hanukkah contains a veritable catalogue of the furnishings made for the building of the First Temple by Hiram, the king of Tyre. Two items, in particular, are of interest: “So Hiram made an end of doing all the work that he wrought for King Solomon in the house of the Lord…and the one sea and the twelve oxen under the sea…” (1 Kings 7:40,44) What was this mysterious implement and what role did it play in the religious role of the Temple?
The reference to these items in this list is oblique but an earlier verse gives a more detailed picture: “And He [Hiram] made the molten sea [ a tank of cast metal] of ten cubits from brim to brim, completely around, and it was five cubits high and it measured thirty cubits in circumference. There were gourds below the brim completely encircling it- ten to a cubit, encircling the tank; the gourds were in two rows, cast in one piece with it. It stood upon twelve oxen: three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east, with the tank resting upon them, their haunches were all turned inward. It was a handbreadth thick, and its brim was made like that of a cup, like the petals of a lily. Its capacity was two thousand baths.” (verses 23-6)
The purpose of this pool is suggested in 2 Chronicles: “the sea served the priests for washing” (4:6) For the sages of the Talmud, this meant that “Solomon’s sea’ was most certainly a mikvah: Rabbi Hiyyah taught in a baraita [a teaching from the period of the Mishnah]: ‘The sea that Solomon made was large enough to hold 150 purifying mikvahs.’ [The Talmud proceeds to ask:] But doesn’t a mikvah hold 40 seah of water, as it is written: ‘And he shall bathe his flesh in water’ (Leviticus 15:16) [This implies] in water that is gathered together – a mikvah. ‘All his flesh’ – [implies] water in which all of his flesh can be immersed. How much water is that? – [The volume of water] of a cubit by a cubit by a height of three cubits. The sages estimate this be a measure of forty seah. (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13a)
Since a mikvah must have naturally flowing water as its water source, Solomon’s sea had a special problem since it was an above ground pool. Maimonides, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Yomah ch. 3, Mishnah 8) explains how it must have been constructed: The sea that Solomon built was made like a mikvah since it had a stream of water that flowed into it… so that its water did not become ritually impure by sitting overnight like water in a basin. (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Entering the Temple 5:15)
Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, the 13th century French scholar and philosopher, adds an interesting structural detail, perhaps based on technology from his own times. He explained that the water must have flowed into the “sea” through conduits found in the bulls which supported it.