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Middos 4:3 uses the term תאים to refer to the 38 chambers in the Beis HaMikdash.

I was surprised to see this usage, as the term לשכה appears 29 times in Mishnayos, plus another 12 in the plural, including four usages elsewhere in Middos itself. In contrast, the term תאים does not appear elsewhere in Shas. A similar pattern appears back in Biblical Hebrew: תאים appears eleven times in Tanach, while לשכה appears 41 times in Tanach. Notably, לשכה is the general term for chamber, used in both Tanach and Mishnayos to refer to the Beis HaMikdash as well as other structures, while תאים is used exclusively in conjunction with the Beis HaMikdash.

What, precisely, is the difference between these two terms? Why is one used so much more frequently; what determines when one word is more appropriate than the other?

h/t Joel K for pointing out the singular of תאים is תא, not תאה, which led me to nine other occurences of the word in Tanach (though still nowhere else in Shas, and still exclusively in conjunction with the Beis HaMikdash).

  • I don't remember where I saw it, but תא is a shorter or smaller room that is next to a larger one, vs. לשכה which does not have that characteristic. – פרי זהב Oct 4 '19 at 18:31
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    @פריזהב The fact that it ends with an א might indicate it's Aramaic influenced (also note it doesn't appear until later Neviim). I wouldn't be surprised if that's what it means, since it's "going out" (אתא) from the bigger one. – DonielF Oct 4 '19 at 18:41
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    Rambam pirush hamishnayos that תא means הרחקה, or distancing – H. Eugene Walters Aug 13 at 4:14
  • But according to him the תאים weren't chambers. Still a source for the meaning of the word, though – H. Eugene Walters Aug 13 at 4:15
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The gemara in Bava Basra (here) defines it like this:

Rav Yosef taught: A small structure attached to a building has three names in the Bible: Gallery [yatzia], side chamber [tzela], and cell [ta].

So basically, תא is an architectural description of a small room attached to a larger structure. לשכה, I believe, has more to do with the purpose of the room than its architectural features.

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