י״ב בטבת ה׳תשע״ד (December 15, 2013)

Yoma 37a-b: Praised changes made in the Temple

The Mishna on our daf describes the preparations for the lottery that took place during the Yom Kippur service, where the drew lots to determine which of the goats would be sacrificed on the mizbe’ah and which would be the scapegoat, who would be sent to Azazel. The Mishna records that a kohen gadol named ben Gamla exchanged the traditional wooden pieces that were used for the lottery with golden ones, an action that met with the approval of .

The kohen gadol about whom this story is told is Yehoshua ben Gamla, who served in the mikdash towards the end of the second Temple period. While he was still an ordinary kohen, he married the wealthy widow, Marta bat Baitus, who used her influence and affluence to arrange for him to be appointed kohen gadol. Although the Sages berated him for the means that he used to receive the appointment, they acknowledged his positive accomplishments in that position. Aside from the story in the Mishna, Yehoshua ben Gamla is best known for his role in establishing a public school system in which every Jewish child, rich or poor, would be able to study, commenting that were it not for his efforts, the Torah would have been forgotten.

It appears that he can be identified with the kohen gadol Yehoshua ben Gamliel, who was among the last of the kohanim gedolim, who was killed during the destruction of the Temple.

The mention of Ben Gamla’s contribution to the mikdash leads the Mishna to enumerate a number of other individuals who made other changes that were praised by the Sages.

King Munbaz would contribute the funds required to make the handles of all the Yom Kippur vessels of gold. Queen Helene, his mother, fashioned a decorative gold chandelier above the entrance of the Sanctuary. She also fashioned a golden tablet [tavla] on which the Torah portion relating to was written. The tablet could be utilized to copy this Torah portion, so that a Torah scroll need not be taken out for that purpose.

Helene was the queen of Adiabene, a small kingdom in the north of Syria on the banks of the Euphrates. In the generation prior to the destruction of the second Temple, Helene, together with her sons Munbaz and Izates, began to study Torah with Jews who traveled through their kingdom, and eventually converted to Judaism. It appears that other members of the ruling elite did so, as well. Helene visited Jerusalem a number of times and made donations both to the Temple and to the destitute people living there. Her children followed in her footsteps, and even sent troops to support the Jewish uprising during the Great Revolt.

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