Talmudic rabbis distant from the original animal sacrifices as we are from the Civil War, try to piece together a layout that matches the Torah

The subject of Tractate Zevachim, whose fifth chapter Daf Yomi readers completed this week, is the exact ritual protocol for animal sacrifice in the Temple. The rabbis treat this subject with the same passion for exactitude that they bring to every area of Jewish law. They specify which sacrifices are offered in which part of the Temple courtyard, how the blood is sprinkled on the corners of the altar and poured out at the base, and when and where the meat from the slaughtered animal can be consumed. There are the usual disputes among the rabbis, but these have more to do with how a given ritual is derived from the Torah text than with the proper nature of the ritual itself

So it is strange to reflect that, by the time the Mishna was compiled around the year 200 C.E., no living person had witnessed a Temple sacrifice. Yehuda HaNasi was roughly as distant from the destruction of the Temple as we are from the American Civil War; and the amoraim, the rabbis of the Gemara, lived hundreds of years later. They were all trying to mentally reconstruct a series of long-vanished rituals that they knew about only from the Torah and from some scraps of oral tradition. Crucially, they had no diagrams, which would have helped enormously in figuring out the exact dimensions and placement of the altar, the courtyard, and the other parts of the Temple complex.

So it’s no wonder that they frequently ran into difficulties. Sacrifices were carried out on an altar, and involved two stages. First the blood of the animal would be sprinkled on the corners of the altar, each of which had a short post; then the remainder of the blood would be poured out against the base of the altar. However, the rabbis believe that the base did not extend all the way around the square altar; there was no base on the southeastern corner. This doesn’t seem to make much architectural sense, and it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Why would the altar have been built this way?

The reason, the Gemara explains, is that the land on which the Temple sat was taken from the territory of two different tribes, Judah and Benjamin. According to Jacob’s deathbed blessing, Benjamin would have the privilege of seeing the altar built on his land. That is how the rabbis interpret the verse “Benjamin is a wolf that tears apart; in the morning he devours the prey, and in the evening he divides the spoil.” In context, this might seem to be a prophecy of Benjamin’s prowess in hunting and war-making. But the rabbis, who generally dislike such rough patriarchal activities, read the passage as referring to the altar, which is where the “prey” of sacrifices is “devoured” by the sacred fire.

It follows that the Temple altar has to stand on land belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. And since the southern and eastern borders of the altar stood on the land of the tribe of Judah, the altar did not extend into that territory even to the extent of the altar’s base. (According to Rabbi Hama, the Benjaminites were permanently jealous of the Judahites for even this tiny encroachment on the sacred space: “The tribe of Benjamin the righteous would agonize over it every day.”) Of course, the idea that a tribe’s territory could be accurately demarcated down to the level of inches—or, as the rabbis say, cubits—is highly unlikely. But the rabbis adopt the notion because it allows them to harmonize the Genesis tradition about Judah and Benjamin with the Leviticus tradition about the measurement of the altar.

Still, the idea that the altar lacked a southeastern base is inherently improbable, as the Gemara suggests when it cites a mishna: “The altar was 32 cubits by 32 cubits.” This suggests that it was a perfect square, with a base running along all four sides.