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(Note: I am posting this more specific follow-up to a previous question based on the recommendation of Isaac Moses here.)

Aaron and his descendants were designated as priests to do the ritual service in the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1). The more menial labour of of the Tabernacle was assigned to the rest of the tribe of Levi (Numbers 1:47-53).

Did people who were not priests or Levites enter the Tabernacle or the Beth Hamikdash for ritual purposes?


Some relevant passages:

Leviticus 1 and subsequent chapters describe the procedures for making various offerings.

In general, a person offering an animal was to bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting. This seems to mean the entrance to the Holy Place, suggesting that the the person making the offering was to bring it inside the courtyard, but outside of (in front of) the curtain or screen (the מָסָךְ, Exodus 26:36) separating the Holy Place from the courtyard (see related question here).

Also, the descriptions of some of the sacrifices seem to include the person who brings the animal slaughtering it by the altar of burnt offering, which was inside the courtyard. See, for example, Leviticus 1:11.

However, after the events described in Numbers 17, the people say that anyone who comes near to the Tabernacle will die (Numbers 17:27-28). In the aftermath, Numbers 18:22-23 states:

And henceforth the children of Israel shall not come nigh the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin, and die. But the Levites alone shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations, and among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.

Did this forbid people of other tribes entry only to the Holy Place (and of course to the Holy of Holies), or did it also forbid them entrance to the courtyard? Did people who were not priests or Levites enter the courtyard of the Tabernacle to perform the rituals prescribed in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Torah, and in the Tanakh generally?

I prefer answers based on references to the Tanakh, but also welcome references to ancient or modern Jewish literature and commentary bearing on this question.

  • @isaac I want to remove levites tag and the priests tag. The question is about neither. – Double AA May 11 '15 at 20:26
  • @DoubleAA fwiw, I would have no objection to the removal of the levites and priest tags. – Lee Woofenden May 24 '15 at 20:46
  • In the Second Temple at least, there was a thin strip of area between the mizbe'ach and the wall separating the Women's Court and the Azarah in which regular Yisraelim could stand. – HaLailah HaZeh Mar 6 '17 at 5:21
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The Smag (Rav Moshe miCoucy 12th century) Mitzva Lo taaseh 309 (Also Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 390) based on the Gemora in Yoma 24b says that there were 3 "rituals" that a Zor - non Cohen was allowed to do inside the Beis Hamikdash (Temple) or the Mishkan (tabernacle) (Shavuos 16b both Mishkan and Mikadash are equivelant משכן אקרי מקדש ומקדש אקרי משכן), even though normally he would not be allowed to enter past the Ezras Yisroel the depth of the first 11 cubits of the Beis Hamikdash:

השחיטה כשרה בזרים ובנשים ובעבדים ובטמאין ואפי' בקדשי קדשים ומסיק דאפי' לכתחילה שוחטין חוץ מן הטמאים דלכתחילה לא שמא יגעו בבשר, [משמעות כל הסוגיא ביומא, דף כ"ד] הולכת עצים אינה צריכה כהונה וכן אם הטיב הכהן את הנרות והוציאן לחוץ מותר הזר להדליקן
1. Shechita(ritual slaughter) of all types of Korbanos (Sacrifices) even Kodesh Kodoshim (higher sanctity) that were Shechted on the North side of the Mizbeach (Alter) in the Temple courtyard (Kodshim Kalim-lower sanctity sacrifices could be slaughtered in the entire courtyard).
2. Carrying the Atzei Maaracha (Alter pyre wood) on to the Mizbeach (outer Alter) but not burning the wood that was forbidden other than by a Cohen
3. Lighting the Menorah inside the Heichal inner Sanctuary (not preparing the Menorah by taking out ashes and replacing the Wicks which was forbidden other than by a Cohen)

Obviously these rituals had to be done only by a Tahor (Ritually pure) person. Even though with Shechita a tamei (impure) person could technically stand outside the courtyard in the entrance using a long knife in order to slaughter the animal for the Korban that was inside the courtyard, this was forbidden Miderabanan in case he touched the meat of the Korban rendering it tamei.

  • What I meant is that (1) and (2) are in the Azara. The question seems to be asking specifically about inside the Beis Hamikdash. – Heshy Jan 27 at 14:00
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    @Heshy the azara is inside the Beis Hamikdosh – user15464 Jan 27 at 14:02
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As you've probably understood -- the Holy & Holy of Holies were only for the priests (kohanim). Commoners absolutely entered the courtyard, e.g. to bring an animal for sacrifice. Once the Tabernacle was built, the Holy/Holy+ section was referred to as the Ohel Moed ("Communion Tent"); commoners would stand "near the entrance of the Communion Tent", i.e. in the courtyard, but outside the Holy section. (That's the phrase you'll see all through early Leviticus.)

Numbers 18 could be confusing, but it's best read in context. Recall that some non-kohanim had just tried burning incense. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation:

18:21 To the descendants of Levi, I am now giving all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance. This is in exchange for their work, the service that they perform in the Communion Tent. 18:22 The [other] Israelites shall therefore no longer come forth to the Communion Tent, since they can then become guilty of sin and die. 18:23 Instead, the necessary service in the Communion Tent will be performed by the Levites, and they will expiate the sins [of the Israelites].

The point is reiterating that commoners not enter the Communion Tent itself, i.e. the Holy section; and not perform any rituals designated for the kohanim.

Here, for example, is I Kings 8:22

And Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven;

Not only is King Solomon (who is descended from Judah and thus not a Kohen) standing right next to the [larger] altar in the Temple courtyard, but so are all the people.

Similarly, try Deuteronomy 31:11

when all Israel comes to present themselves before God your Lord, in the place that He will choose, you must read [from] this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it.

The Talmud (Sotah 41a) spells out explicitly that this gathering ("hakhel") had plenty of non-kohanim standing in the Temple courtyard. Josephus writes about this phenomenon as well.

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