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A Place for Us

The Gemara is often focused on glorifying the Temple in Jerusalem and making it central to Jewish life even after its destruction. However, the rabbis also wanted to acknowledge a pre-Temple reality where there were sacrifices in multiple places. This is what we see from the two mishnayot at the bottom of daf 9 of Megillah:

鈥渢he difference between a great altar and a small altar is only with regard to Paschal lambs . . .The difference between the Tabernacle in Shilo and the Temple in Jerusalem is only that in Shiloh one eats offerings of lesser sanctity and also the second tithe, in any place that overlooks Shiloh,鈥 (Megillah 9b)

A great altar 讘诪讛 讙讚讜诇讛 refers to places where the Tabernacle altar was housed temporarily, like Nov and Gibeon, while a small altar 讘诪讛 拽讟谞讛, refers to a home altar for an individual. Shilo was the site of the Tabernacle for almost four centuries. So we see that other places gained a holy status. Does this fact conflict with the importance of one holy place in Jerusalem?

The Torah is aware of this tension. While the book of Devarim tells us (12:5) that one day we will come to 鈥渢he place鈥 that God will choose, ‘讛诪拽讜诐 讗砖专 讬讘讞专 讛’ (interestingly no actual site is mentioned), we also get an acknowledgment that first there will be other 鈥減laces:鈥

鈥溩溨怪W 转址注植砖讉謹讜旨谉 讻旨职譅讻止譅诇 讗植砖讈侄吱专 讗植谞址支讞职谞讜旨 注止砖讉执譀讬诐 驻旨止謻讛 讛址讬旨謶讜止诐 讗执謻讬砖讈 讻旨讎诇志讛址讬旨指砖讈指芝专 讘旨职注值讬谞指纸讬讜變 讻旨执芝讬 诇止讗志讘指讗转侄謻诐 注址讚志注指謶转旨指讛 讗侄诇志讛址诪旨职谞讜旨讞指讛謾 讜职讗侄诇志讛址纸谞旨址讞植诇指謹讛 讗植砖讈侄专志讬职讛止讜指芝讛 讗直诇止讛侄謻讬讱指 谞止转值芝谉 诇指纸讱职變

You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases, because you have not yet come to the allotted haven that the LORD your God is giving you.鈥 (Devarim 12:8-9)

Before the Temple was built, there were other options of places to sacrifice. In fact, these places are all over the Bible: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are always building altars and sacrificing on them, the Israelites sacrifice in the desert in multiple places 聽(albeit in the Tabernacle) and even when they return to the land the place shifts according to where the Tabernacle was set up. Rabbi Yitzchak Levi of Yeshivat Har Etzion suggests that Jerusalem can only become 鈥淭HE place鈥 after the people of Israel go through a number of stations in their journey. Each stop along the way: Bet El, Hebron, Shilo, Shechem 鈥 adds an element to our national identity, until we are ripe for the true place in Jerusalem.

The Canaanite bamah in ancient Bet El (Wikipedia)

However, all of these holy sites are supposed to become insignificant once the Temple is built in Jerusalem. Just as there is only one God, there can be only one place. But the people did not like that and they wanted to continue worshipping at their local shrines. We see this in the admonitions of the prophets, like Amos, who tell the people to leave these false holy places:

鈥淒o not seek Bethel, Nor go to Gilgal,
Nor cross over. to Beer-sheba;

For Gilgal shall go into exile,
And Bethel shall become a delusion.鈥 (Amos 5:5)

We see it in the massive religious reforms enacted by kings Hezekiah and Josiah, where they rid the country of bamot and temples. And we see it in archaeology, most notably in the temple that was buried in Tel Arad and in the altar that was dismantled in Tel Sheva.

Tel Arad temple (Wikipedia)

Were these temples meant for idol worship? Perhaps. But it is also likely that the people just had a yearning for a local 鈥減lace鈥 to serve God. Jerusalem was far away and life was complicated. If a family member was sick, or you needed a job, or just felt a sense of spiritual need, you might not be able to trek to Jerusalem. You wanted that connection with God here and now, in your local community.

The compromise between the monotheistic ideal of one place and the people鈥檚 need for many places happened only in Second Temple times. This is when we see the flowering of both the Temple, which becomes larger and more important than ever, and many local synagogues 鈥 places where you can serve God in your own community. The reason synagogues were allowed was because they did not attempt to mimic the Temple. Only study, prayer and communal activities could happen there, no sacrifices. This seems to be a great way to satisfy all needs.

One of the two ancient synagogues discovered in Migdal in the Galilee (Wikipedia)

But what if you wanted more, especially if you lived outside of the Land of Israel and getting to the Temple was a complex and costly endeavor? Maybe you could bring the Temple to you? Later in our Gemara (Megillah 29) we hear of 聽an ancient synagogue in Nehardea in Babylonia called Shef VeYativ. We learn that when the First Temple was destroyed, God鈥檚 presence accompanied the Jewish people to this place. A Geonic source (the Letter of Rav Sherira Gaon) goes even further. Rav Sherira says that when the Judeans were exiled with King Yehoyachin in 597 BCE, they brought with them stones from the Temple. They used these stones to build their synagogue, hence its name: Shef -Moved – VeYativ 鈥撀 and Settled. What an amazing example of a 诪拽讚砖 诪注讟, a Temple in miniature!

Our Gemara goes even further. Rabbi Yitzchak talks about the Temple of Onias 讘讬转 讞讜谞讬讜, in Egypt and suggests that after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, sacrifices could be offered there. We know from other sources, both rabbinic and historical (Josephus) about this Temple. It was built in a place called Leontopolis in the Nile Delta, in the second century BCE. Remains of the Jewish community, including their graves, were discovered there by archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the early twentieth century. The Gemara in Menachot (109) goes into a detailed story about why Onias made this Temple but perhaps the most interesting point made there is that the rabbis did not consider it a temple for idolatry but rather a (misguided) place to worship God. This is still problematic since sacrifices are not to be offered outside the Temple, but it shows us that the rabbis understood the motives of Onias and those who visited his Temple. The need for a local site for Diaspora Jews to serve God was great. The Nile Delta had an enormous and prominent community of Jews in Alexandria and perhaps worshipping in their great synagogue was not sufficient for them. They needed sacrifices and Onias鈥 Temple was able to answer that need.

In a time when international travel and Israel Diaspora relations have again become fraught and complicated, Onias鈥 Temple is a sadly topical tale.

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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