An Introduction to Masechet Tamid

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“The one sheep you shall do in the morning and the second sheep you shall do in the evening”. Cited twice in the Torah (Shemot 29:39 and Bamidbar 28:4), this verse, is, at least according to one view, its most important. Many are familiar with the view of Rabbi Akiva who, echoing Hillel, teaches that “to love your neighbour as yourself” is the most important verse of the Bible. However, in the introduction to the Ein Yaakov, the classic work on Talmudic aggadah, Rav Yaakov ibn Chaviv quotes the view of Ben Nanas that it is the above-mentioned verse that is the most important one. It is the day-in and day-out commitment to mitzvot which is the mark of greatness. All can reach momentary heights, but it takes someone special to maintain the daily consistent commitment to Torah, regardless of what life may present. To never “miss a minyan”—our davening corresponds to the daily public sacrifice; to live a life of impeccable integrity and sincerity—a korban brought without such is rendered invalid—is truly special. 

Masechet Tamid details the daily service in the Temple. This simple statement reflects a profound truth about the Jewish people. 

The Mishna was edited in the year 220 CE, long after the death of anyone who actually witnessed the Temple service. That the Mishna would so meticulously record every detail would seem to be an irrelevant waste of time. There was, to paraphrase from the Mussaf of Yom Kippur, “no altar and no ashes; no fire and no frankincense; no Levites and no libations; no priests and no purity; no sacrifices and no songs; no temple and no tabernacle”. And there was no reasonable hope of having anything of the sort in the foreseeable future. In fact, it was precisely because there was little hope of return and rebuilding that the Mishna was written in the first place. The realization had fully sunk in that the exile was not temporary, and unless extraordinary measures were taken Torah would, G-d forbid, be forgotten. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi thus made the fateful decision “to act for G-d and nullify the Torah” by writing down that which was supposed to be taught orally, thereby fundamentally changing the nature of Torah. This was the only way to preserve Torah during the period of exile.

In exile, there was little need for masechet Tamid. 

Yet our sages, fully cognizant of the needs of the hour, lived beyond the confines of time and space. Exile is but an aberration. There is a time to mourn the destruction, but there is a time to celebrate what once was and what will be once again. If there is no Temple, we will create our own miniature temples. If the people can’t come together in Jerusalem, they will form communities wherever they may be. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai, the sage who brilliantly guided the Jewish people during the destruction, ordained that we emulate the practices of the Temple: taking the lulav for seven days and taking the aravot on Hoshanah Rabba, amongst others. We relive the past in preparation for the future, even if that future is 2,000 years away. 

As one learns the intricate details of masechet Tamid, one notices a striking feature. There is almost complete unanimity and anonymity throughout the masechet. No tractate of the Mishna has fewer disputes. Over some seven chapters and 34 Mishnayot, we have a grand total of two disputes[1]. There are a total of four names that appear, two of whom, Matiah ben Shmuel[2] and Rabbi Eliezer ben Diglai, appear in this masechet only. It is as if the Jewish people spoke with one voice, b’lev echad k’ish echad, regarding the Temple. 

Debates are part and parcel of Jewish life—they are the lifeblood of Talmudic discourse. “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim, these and those are the words of the living G-d” (Eiruvin 13b). But such applies to areas where the Torah itself has little to say, i.e., many of the details of Jewish law, and the application of the law to new areas. But, as the Rambam notes regarding the identification of pri eitz hadar as an etrog, there can be no debate with traditions dating back to Sinai. 

The Temple service is described in great detail in the Torah. While we are left in the dark regarding what Yom Teruah might entail, what exactly is a sukkah, the definition of chametz and so much more, this is not the case regarding much of the Temple service. Every detail, including, or perhaps especially, those not mentioned in the Torah, was precious and no deviation was tolerated. It is for this reason the Mishna teaches that on erev Yom Kippur, the kohen gadol would be brought to Beit Avtinas and made to take an take an oath that he “will not change one thing from all that we taught you”.

Sadly, this was not an unfounded fear. Towards the end of the Second Temple period, many of the kohanim did not accept the understanding of the Sages, following instead in the ways of the Sadducees. The Mishna in Sukkah records the case of a kohen who did not accept the rabbinic teaching regarding the water libations—one of the few avodot with no direct biblical source—and instead of pouring the water on the altar, he poured it on his feet. Tolerating no dissent, the people pelted him with their etrogim

Masechet Tamid, and all of seder Kodshim, deals less with our past than with our future. 

After detailing the daily activities in the Temple, the next-to-last Mishna does something most out of the ordinary, making what we might call an editorial comment: “This was the daily order of service in the house of our Lord. May it [be His] will that it be built speedily in our time.” And to that, we can answer amen. 

 

[1] By comparison, the very first Mishna of masechet Brachot has a three-way debate. The remainder of the chapter—a mere four mishnayot—has three more debates and quotes the views of seven additional sages. And it is little different throughout most of the Mishna. 

[2] Matiah ben Shmuel does appear in masechet Yoma—but it is the same Mishna recorded in two places.