Come-as-you-are approach didnt work at holy Temple


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Numbers 19:1-22

Ezekiel 36:16-38

My great-grandparents had a way of welcoming casual guests on Shabbat. They left their front door unlocked and a bowl of fruit on the table. That arrangement said, "Come in and help yourself, you do not need an invitation."

In Brooklyn, as in the old country, a polite person could make an unexpected visit part of the shpatziren, the Shabbat stroll. You can still find that relaxed attitude toward unanticipated company in some communities here and in many communities in Israel.

Other communities in America, though, have more formal rules. A polite person would not invite herself to another person's home. At best, she would hint, "I have an appointment in your neighborhood on Tuesday, and a little time off before I have to get back home." Such a hint might generate an invitation.

In much of America, unanticipated guests, by definition, are rude.

The interrelated expectations about invitations and visits also vary within a society.

You might stop in on your next-door neighbor, or your sister a few blocks away, without making any fuss in advance.

You might call first for a friend across town but make an appointment long in advance to meet your representative in Congress.

We have a ready explanation: An important person like the legislator must have a tight schedule, arranged far in advance, with serious work.

In a vibrant Jewish community, the synagogue ideally serves as something like the home of a close friend who lives nearby. You do not need an invitation or a special occasion to stop by. People come in time for prayer services and study sessions, and at other times to look at a Jewish book.

A person might go the synagogue as an afterthought while on a planned trip somewhere else, stopping at the shul for afternoon services on the way back from shopping.

But not at the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

A trip to the Beit HaMikdash took planning. An elaborate system of regulations, the rules of tumah and taharah, governed who could enter the precincts of the Temple. A person in the state of taharah had permission to enter and take part in Temple rituals, but one who had contracted tumah did not enter the Temple; and all sorts of things produce tumah.

Contact with certain dead reptiles, with certain dead animals, with semen, with menstrual blood, with people who had a specific skin condition, or with a woman who had recently given birth, or with artifacts handled by a person in a state of tumah, or with any of a host of other sources, would put a person in a low-level state of tumah.

He or she would have to schedule a kind of ritual bath in advance of his or her next visit to the Temple.

Contact with a dead human being, however, produced a more powerful level of tumah.

Someone who had carried a corpse, or touched a corpse, or been under the same roof as a corpse, had a more complex ritual to follow before gaining permission to visit the Temple. The Torah clearly outlines the procedure for this ritual, but explanations baffled the greatest rabbinic minds of history.

Once in a long while, the high priest sacrificed a red heifer, burning its body with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread. The ashes collected from this pyre provided the material for this ritual. An expert would mix the ashes with water, sprinkling them on the subject on the third and seventh day of the process. One could never complete this in less than seven days.

So a trip to the Holy Temple took planning. The custom, recorded in the Mishnah (Megillah 3:4) of reading about the ritual for returning to taharah (Numbers 19:1-22) on a Shabbat a few weeks before Pesach must go back to the days when people needed a practical reminder to prepare themselves for their annual Passover sacrifice at the Temple.