'Dig' Isn't Wrong: People Really Are Trying to Rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem

But they're not evil like the Order of Moriah in 'Dig.' Not that they're any closer to building the Third Temple than their fictional counterparts.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period at the Israel Museum.
Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period at the Israel Museum.Credit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Currently airing around the world, the television series "Dig" tells the story of a ruthless international conspiracy to build a Third Temple in Jerusalem, and bring about the end of days. The show is fictional - but there really is an organization dedicated to bringing about the Third Temple in Jerusalem. It's a non-profit called the Temple Institute and is a lot less menacing than the organization in the show.

Like its sinister fictional counterpart, the real-life Temple Institute, which was established in Israel in 1987, is doing, or trying to do, the groundwork for rebuilding the Temple. But unlike the show’s "Order of Moriah," they don't run around openly waving guns, covertly breeding future high priests and murdering red-cow breeders, Norwegian or otherwise. Their work centers on benignly researching Judaism's ancient texts in the hope of uncovering the lost secrets of the Temple, and on recreating various objects associated with Temple worship.

The question is what the "lost secrets" of the Temple really are, and how close modern man is to uncovering them.

Threads & bling

The Temple Institute has dedicated much effort to recreating the special garments to be worn by the Israelite priests in general and the high priest in particular. But the biblical descriptions of this garb are vague, and the information afforded by the Mishnah isn't much help either. So, given that we don't know what the priests in antiquity wore exactly, it is impossible to recreate these clothes.

An ancient mikveh, or ritual bath, on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Temple Institute says it has nonetheless, though the accuracy of its assumptions may be arguable. We know for instance that the priestly garb in the Temple consisted of linen robes - white in the case of the regular priests, and purple in the case of the high priest (though the Temple Institute apparently thinks the color should be light blue), and some kind of hat and belt. But that's all we know.

The most challenging task, as the institute itself admits, is to recreate the high priest’s breastplate, which according to some traditions, would magically indicate when God's wrath had been incurred against any particular tribe.

According to the ancient texts, the breastplate was embedded with 12 precious stones, onto which the names of the 12 tribes were engraved. The stones were then arranged on the breastplate in a rectangle.

One snag is that we do not know which gems they were – the meaning of their names was lost in time. The Temple Institute says it has resolved that problem “with the help of God.”

Another impossible task - one the institute seems to be avoiding for now - is reconstructing the "Urim and Thummim". These are implements used for divination that were somehow associated with the breastplate. The problem is that we have absolutely no information on what they were. (Trivia fact: Never mind that we don't know what they were - that’s what the little book on Yale University’s logo says in Hebrew).

Where's the beef?

Two thousand and more years ago, Temple-era Judaism was deeply preoccupied by laws of purity. In order to enter the Temple, one would have had to immerse oneself in special water, which was prepared by diluting water in which the ashes of a red heifer were sprinkled.

This red heifer was in reality a brown cow: Hebrew didn’t have a word for brown until the 19th century.

Be that as it may, this "red heifer" was of supreme importance, as even the laborers building the Temple had to be ritually pure.

Over the years, this water was diluted and diluted and diluted, theoretically lasting forever, rather akin to a homeopathic preparation.

Unfortunately, a few generations after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the original red heifer-ash water was lost, in effect rendering all of humanity impure.

The problem with making new purification water is finding the right cow to sacrifice. The Temple Institute has been actively seeking a "red heifer" – actually, a completely brown cow - for some time now, even announcing once in a while that an appropriate bovine has been found. But unfortunately, all have ultimately failed to meet the requirements: just three hairs of another color, white or black, are enough to disqualify a "red heifer" for use.

Good help is hard to find

If the temple was to be rebuilt, following its dedication, it would require a massive workforce of priests and Levites, who would mainly be responsible for the continuous and large-scale ritual slaughter of animals aimed at appeasing the deity.

The Mishnah goes into extremely minute details of how this was done, mostly in tractate Kodashim. The institute held a seminar teaching would-be temple priests how to perform these rites - the "Priestly Training Academy", held this Passover.

Location, location, location

The design of the Temple is actually well documented in the Mishnaic tractate Middoth.

There is some problems with determining how long exactly the "cubit" used in these descriptions is, and ironing out some of the more obscure details. But in general, the ancients have furnished us with the information we need to recreate the second Temple (i.e., as the Third). The problem then is not with the blueprints, but with its location.

The Bible tends to be vague about where the Temple should be located - "a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there" (Deuteronomy 12:11).

These days, it is unanimously accepted that the only site for the Hebrew Temple is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. One reason is that the prophets seem to agree that the Third Temple is to be built in Jerusalem, on the site of the first two temples.

Thus says Ezekiel, and both Isaiah and Micah, oddly, in the very same words: "And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2).

The snag is that this site is currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Temple Institute is not actually considering how to clear the way for the Temple by destroying these holy sites. Instead, they seem to be waiting for some kind of divine intervention or historic event to clear the path. Not everyone is as patient, or faithful. In 1984, the “Jewish Underground” - a Jewish terrorist organization - nearly succeeded in carrying out their plans of blowing up the Temple Mount, but were arrested by the Shin Bet security service in time.

Even if all these impediments were to be overcome; even if the Temple Mount were to somehow be cleared; even if the tools, vestments, and lost knowledge were to be rediscovered; even if a consensus that the Temple should be rebuilt was achieved - it is inconceivable that the Temple would be return to operation in our time, for a prosaic reason that "Dig," too, does not discuss.

An operating temple would be a death factory in an unprecedented scale, with a constant flow of cattle, goats, sheep, and fowl being killed, bled and burnt on its various altars. Do we really want Jerusalem to constantly smell of barbecue? Is this what God wants?

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