The Temple Institute: A Day in the Life of the Holy Temple: Background: The First Lottery Was Introduced Later

Background: The First Lottery Was Introduced Later As A Safety Precaution

The holy duty of removing ashes from the altar was not always determined by lottery. The Mishna records an incident which illustrates the great exuberance and enthusiasm with which the priests carried out the various aspects of the Temple service. But we shall see that as the sages of the Mishna record, their zeal and desire to perform the commandments was so great, that it could have even become a liability!

Originally, this first daily task was entrusted to a particular priest. Rather, any priest from the particular family clan responsible for that day's service had the right to tend the service, if he so desired.

Why was this sacred role not designated by a lottery at first, as were all the other priestly assignments? The Talmud explains that it was not deemed necessary to conduct a lottery for this part of the service, since it is executed at dawn and those who wish to be eligible would have to rise especially early. Since the early hour meant that the priests would have to make due with far less sleep just in order to be present to participate at the drawing - which they may lose, in any event - instead, it was established that whoever wishes to officiate at this service may simply do so, with no prior arrangements. Thus the most zealous amongst them would make it their business to arrive.

Even so, at times more than one priest arrived to take up the position for removing the ashes, so that several contenders would have to vie for the privilege of fulfilling the commandment. And since there was as yet no lottery, how was the winner determined?

They would engage in a sort of contest to run up the altar's ascent ramp. The length of this ramp was 32 amot; (an a'mah is app. 1/2 a meter) whoever was first to reach the top 4 amot of the ramp closest to the altar itself was deemed to be the winner. In the event that two priests tied and came into this area at the same time, neither was the winner; rather, a lottery of the same type we have already described was then conducted amongst all the priests who were present.

Thus the service of removing the ashes continued for some time, until an incident occurred which illustrated the great love which the priests have for fulfilling this commandment - but also, the potential danger of the present system, which may inadvertently lead to bodily harm:

"Once it happened (Yoma 2,2) that two priests were eagerly running up the altar to tend the ashes, ascending at exactly the same pace. One pushed the other, and the latter fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that the situation was becoming dangerous, they established that the removal of the ashes, too, must be determined only by a drawing."

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