Searching for the Temple Site

by Rabbi Chanan Morrison

Surprisingly, but the Torah never spells out exactly where the Temple is to be built. Rather we are instructed to build the Beit HaMikdash ‘in the place that God will choose’:

“But only to the place that the Eternal your God will choose from all your tribes to set His Name there — you shall seek His dwelling place and go there.” (Deut. 12:5)

Where is ‘the place that God will choose’ for His Divine Presence? And what does it mean that we should “seek out His dwelling place”?

The Hidden Location

According to the Sifri, the Torah is commanding us to discover where to build the Beit HaMikdash, using the guidance of a prophet. The spiritual search for this holy site was a mission that King David undertook, with the help of the prophet Samuel.

Why didn’t the Torah explicitly indicate the location where to build the Temple? Moses certainly knew that the Akeidah took place on Mount Moriah, and that Abraham had prophesied that this would be the site of the Beit HaMikdash (see Gen. 22:14).

Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed III:45) suggested that Moses wisely chose not to mention Jerusalem. Had he done so, the non-Jewish nations would have realized Jerusalem’s singular importance to the Jewish people, and they would have fought fiercely to prevent it from falling into Israel’s hands.

Even worse, knowledge of Jerusalem’s spiritual importance might have led to infighting among the tribes. Each tribe would want the Beit HaMikdash to be located in its territory. The result could have been a terrible conflict, similar to Korach’s rebellion against Aaron’s selection for the priesthood. Maimonides reasoned that this is why the Torah commands to appoint a king before building the Beit HaMikdash. This way the process of determining the Temple’s location was given over to a strong central government, and not subject to tribal conflict and rivalry.

“Between His Shoulders”

In any case, David did not know where the Beit HaMikdash was to be built. According to the Talmud (Zevachim 54b), his initial choice fell on Ein Eitam, a spring located to the south of Jerusalem. Ein Eitam appeared to be an obvious choice since it is the highest point in the entire region. This corresponds to the Torah’s description that ‘You shall rise and ascend to the place that the Eternal your God will choose’ (Deut.17:8).

However, David subsequently meditated on a second verse that alludes to the Temple’s location. At the end of his life, Moses described the place of God’s Divine Presence with the words, “He dwells between his shoulders” (Deut. 33:12). What does this phrase mean, ‘between his shoulders’?

This allegory suggests that the Temple’s location was meant to be not at the highest point, but a little below it, just as the shoulders are below the head. Accordingly, David determined that Jerusalem, located at a lower altitude than Ein Eitam, was the site where the Beit HaMikdash was meant to be built.

Doeg, head of the high court, disagreed with David. He supported the original choice of Ein Eitam as the place to build the Temple. The Sages related that Doeg’s jealousy of David was due to the latter’s success in discovering the Temple’s true location.

The story of David’s search for the site of the Beit HaMikdash is intimated in one of David’s ‘Songs of Ascent,’ chapter 132 of Psalms. The psalm opens with a plea, “Remember David for all his trouble” (Ps. 132:1). What was this trouble that David felt was a unique merit, a significant life-achievement for which he wanted to be remembered? The psalm continues by recounting David’s intense efforts to uncover the place of the Temple. David vowed,

“That I will not enter the tent of my house, nor will I go up to the bed that was spread for me. I will not give sleep to my eyes nor rest to my eyelids, until I find the place of God, the dwellings of the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Ps. 132: 3-5)

David and Doeg

What was the source of the disagreement between David and Doeg? Why was Doeg of the opinion that Ein Eitam was the correct choice?

Doeg reasoned that the most suitable site for the Temple is the highest point. Such heights are only accessible to the select few, those who are able to truly grasp the purest levels of elevated enlightenment — the kohanim and the spiritual elite.

David, on the other hand, understood that the Temple and its holiness need to be the inheritance of the entire people of Israel. The kohanim are not privy to special knowledge; they are merely messengers who extend the Temple’s holiness to the people and elevate them. The entire nation of Israel is described in the Torah as a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6).

The Waters of Ein Eitam

Even though Ein Eitam was never sanctified, it still retained a special connection to the Beit HaMikdash, as its springs supplied water for the Beit HaMikdash. The Talmud relates that on Yom Kippur, the high priest would immerse himself in a mikveh on the roof of the Beit HaParvah chamber in the Temple complex. In order for the water to reach this roof, which was 23 amot higher than the ground-floor of the Temple courtyard, water was diverted from the Ein Eitam springs, which were at the same exact height.

What is the significance of this connection between Ein Eitam and the high priest’s purification on Yom Kippur? Rav Kook explained that while the Beit HaMikdash itself needs to be accessible to all people, the preparation of the high priest and his purification must emanate from the highest possible source. The purity and atonement of Yom Kippur originates in the loftiest realms, corresponding to the elevated springs of Ein Eitam.

(Adapted from Shemu’ot HaRe’iyah (Beha’alotecha), quoted in Peninei HaRe’iyah, pp. 273-274,350-351. Shemonah Kevatzim I:745)

Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

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