Second Temple: Court of the Priests Common Israelite men could approach God as far as the Court of Israel, but they could not enter the Court of the Priests.
The Chambers Around the Court of the Priests by Edersheim
The account which Jewish tradition gives of these gates and chambers around the Court of the Priests is somewhat conflicting, perhaps because the same chambers and gates may have borne different names. It may, however, be thus summarised. Entering the Great Court by the Nicanor Gate, there was at the right hand the Chamber of Phinehas with its 96 receptacles for priests' vestments, and at the left the place where the high-priest's daily meat-offering was prepared, and where every morning before daybreak all the ministering priests met, after their inspection of the Temple and before being told off to duty. Along the southern side of the court were the Water-gate, through which at the Feast of Tabernacles the pitcher with water was brought from the Pool of Siloam, with a chamber above it, called Abtinas, where the priests kept guard at night; then the Gate of the Firstlings, through which the firstlings fit to be offered were brought; and the Wood-gate, through which the altar-wood was carried. Alongside these gates were Gazith, the hall of square polished stones, where the Sanhedrim sat; the chamber Golah, for the water apparatus which emptied and filled the laver; and the wood-chamber. Above and beyond it were the apartments of the high-priest and the council-chamber of the 'honourable councillors,' or priestly council for affairs strictly connected with the Temple. On the northern side of the Priests' Court were the gate Nitzutz (Spark Gate), with a guard-chamber above for the priests, the Gate of Sacrifices, and the Gate of the Beth-Moked. Alongside these gates were the chamber for salting the sacrifices; that for salting the skins (named Parvah from its builder), with bathrooms for the high-priest above it; and finally the Beth-Moked with its apartments. The two largest of these buildings--the council-chamber of the Sanhedrim at the south-eastern, * and the Beth-Moked at the north-western angle of the court--were partly built into the court and partly out on 'the terrace.'
It is very strange what mistakes are made about the localisation of the rooms and courts connected with the Temple. Thus the writer of the article 'Sanhedrim' in Kitto's Encycl., vol. iii. p. 766, says that the hall of the Sanhedrim 'was situate in the centre of the south side of the Temple-court, the northern part extending to the Court of the Priests, and the southern part to the Court of the Israelites.' But the Court of Israel and that of the Priests did not lie north and south, but east and west, as a glance at the Temple plan will show! The hall of the Sanhedrim extended indeed south, though certainly not to the Court of Israel, but to the Chel or terrace. The authorities quoted in the article 'Sanhedrim' do not bear out the writer's conclusions. It ought to be remarked that about the time of Christ the Sanhedrim removed its sittings from the Hall of Square Stones to another on the east of the Temple-court.
This, because none other than a prince of the house of David might sit down within the sacred enclosure of the Priests' Court. Probably there was a similar arrangement for the high-priest's apartments and the priests' council-chamber, as well as for the guard-chambers of the priests, so that at each of the four corners of the court the apartments would abut upon 'the terrace.' *
We know that the two priestly guard-chambers above the Water-gate and Nitzutz opened also upon the terrace. This may explain how the Talmud sometimes speaks of six and sometimes of eight gates opening from the Priests' Court upon the terrace, or else gates 7 and 8 may have been those which opened from the terrace north and south into the Court of the Women.
All along the colonnades, both around the Court of the Gentiles and that of the Women, there were seats and benches for the accommodation of the worshippers.
The Court of the Priests by Edersheim
Perhaps it will be most convenient for practical purposes to regard the two Courts of Israel and of the Priests as in reality forming only one, divided into two parts by a low balustrade 1 1/2 feet high. Thus viewed, this large double court, inclusive of the Sanctuary itself, would measure 280 1/2 feet in length by 202 1/2 feet in breadth. Of this a narrow strip, 16 1/2 feet long, formed the Court of Israel. Two steps led up from it to the Court of the Priests. Here you mounted again by three low semicircular steps to a kind of pulpit or platform, where, as well as on the 'fifteen steps,' the Levites sang and played during the ordinary service. The priests, on the other hand, occupied, while pronouncing the blessing, the steps at the other end of the court which led up to the Temple porch. A similar arrangement existed in the great court as in that of the Women. Right and left of the Nicanor Gate were receptacles for the priestly vestments (one for each of the four kinds, and for the twenty-four courses of priests: 4 x 24 = 96).
Next came the chamber of the high-priest's meat-offering (Lev 6:20), where each morning before going to their duties the officiating priesthood gathered from the so-called 'Beth-ha-Moked,' or 'house of stoves.' The latter was built on arches, and contained a large dining-hall that communicated with four other chambers. One of these was a large apartment where fires were continually burning for the use of the priests who ministered barefoot. There also the heads of the ministering courses slept, and here, in a special receptacle under the pavement, the keys of the Temple were hung up at night. Of the other three chambers of the Beth-Moked, one was appropriated to the various counterfoils given as a warrant when a person had paid his due for a drink-offering. In another the shewbread was prepared, while yet a third served for the lambs (at least six in number) that were always kept ready for the regular sacrifice. Here also a passage led to the well-lit subterranean bath for the use of the priests. Besides the Beth-Moked there were, north and south of the court, rooms for storing the salt for the altar, for salting the skins of sacrifices, for washing 'their inwards,' for storing the 'clean' wood, for the machinery by which the laver was supplied with water, and finally the chamber 'Gazith,' or Hall of Hewn Stones, where the Sanhedrim was wont to meet. Above some of these chambers were other apartments, such as those in which the high-priest spent the week before the Day of Atonement in study and meditation.
The Court of the Priests in Herod's Temple
The innermost court was the Court of the Priests, which excluded all laymen. In the eastern part of this court, opposite the main gates leading from the other courts and the eastern entrance into the Temple area, so that it could be seen from a distance, stood the great altar of burnt offering. In this latter court stood the altar of burnt offering, made of unwrought stone, 30 cubits (45 feet) in length and breadth, and 15 cubits (22 feet) high. West of this was the Temple, and between the Holy Place and the altar stood the laver of cleansing.