(1 Kings 7:40-50)
March 5, 2005
One of the more unusual appurtenances of the First Temple is mentioned in the list of furnishings completed by Hiram: \”So Hiram finished all of the work that he had done for Solomon on the House of the Lord: [among them was] … the one tank (in Hebrew: \’yam\’ or sea) with the twelve oxen underneath the tank.\” (1 Kings 7:40; 44) This tank, which was known variously as the \”bronze sea\” or as the \”Yam shel Shlomo – The sea of Solomon\”, was first mentioned earlier in this chapter in the book of Kings: \”And he made the molten sea of ten cubits across from brim to brim, completely around, five cubits high, it measured thirty cubits in circumference. It stood upon twelve oxen; three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east, with the tank resting on them; their haunches facing inward. It was a handbreadth thick, and its brim was like that of a cup, like the petals of a lily. Its capacity was 2000 baths.\” (verses 23-26)
Its purpose, according to the later account of this episode from in 2 Chronicles 4:6 was for the priests (kohanim) to bathe in. The Aramaic translation of Chronicles understands this to mean that the priests used the water from the \”yam\” to sanctify or wash their feet and hands before approaching the altar to make offerings. This explanation is corroborated by the historian, Josephus, who as a priest had served in the Temple before the war against the Romans in which the Second Temple was destroyed: \”And he filled the sea with water and he fixed that it should be used by the priests, who entered the Temple, to wash their hands and their feet before they went up to serve at the altar.\” (Antiquities 8:87 Shalit ed. p. 275) Rashi disagrees with this explanation of its use, based on a reference in the Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 3:8: \”the yam was a ritual bath for the priests.\” This explanation presented two technical difficulties which, of course, the Yerushalmi resolved. For the \”yam\” to be considered a mikveh or ritual bath, it needed to have a minimum of 40 seah of water. The sages concluded that the 2000 baths referred to above were equivalent to this amount. The more difficult problem concerned the fact that the \”yam\” was supported above ground by twelve bulls making the \”yam\” a vessel. Consequently, its water would be considered drawn water. This would make the \”yam\” unacceptable as a mikvah. The Yerushalmi, however, rectified these problems by having the bulls implanted in the ground with the water flowing through them in a way that the water would not be considered drawn but naturally flowing.
Now that we have ascertained what the \”yam\” might have been used for, what qualities gave it its special name? The answer to this question might be found in its description. Besides being a very large pool, the \”yam\” was supported on all four directions of the compass by twelve bronze oxen. This made the pool somehow representative of the world. It gave people the sense that purity and sanctity were present in the world because of God\’s support. This same sense underlies our strength to face the world each day.