King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem as a monument to God and as a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. Also known as Solomon’s Temple and Beit HaMikdash, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E.
What Did the First Temple Look Like?
According to the Tanach, the Holy Temple was approximately 180 feet long, 90 feet wide and 50 feet high. Massive amounts of cedar wood imported from the kingdom of Tyre were used in its construction. King Solomon also had enormous blocks of fine stone quarried and hauled to Jerusalem, where they served as the foundation of the Temple. Pure gold was used as an overlay in some parts of the Temple.
The biblical book of 1 Kings tells us that King Solomon drafted many of his subjects into service in order to build the Temple. 3,300 officials oversaw the construction project, which ultimately put King Solomon into so much debt that he had to pay for the cedar wood by giving King Hiram of Tyre twenty towns in the Galilee (1 Kings 9:11). According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, since it’s hard to imagine the relatively small size of the Temple requiring such extravagant spending, we can assume that the area surrounding the Temple was also remodeled (Telushkin, 250).
What Purpose Did the Temple Serve?
The Temple was primarily a house of worship and a monument to God’s greatness. It was the only place where Jews were allowed to sacrifice animals to God.
The most important part of the Temple was a room called the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodashim in Hebrew). Here the two tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai were kept. 1 Kings describes the Holy of Holies thus:
He prepared the inner sanctuary within the temple to set the ark of the covenant of the Lord there. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty wide and twenty high. He overlaid the inside with pure gold, and he also overlaid the altar of cedar. Solomon covered the inside of the temple with pure gold, and he extended gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary, which was overlaid with gold. (1 Kings 6:19-21)
1 Kings also tells us how Temple priests brought the Ark of the Covenant to the Holy of Holies once the Temple was completed:
The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and overshadowed the ark and its carrying poles. These poles were so long that their ends could be seen from the Holy Place in front of the inner sanctuary, but not from outside the Holy Place; and they are still there today.There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt. (1 Kings 8:6-9)
Once the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 B.C.E. the tablets were tragically lost to history. When the Second Temple was constructed in 515 B.C.E. the Holy of Holies was an empty room.
The Destruction of the First Temple
The Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 B.C.E. (about four hundred years after the Temple’s initial construction). Under the command of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian army attacked the city of Jerusalem. After an extended siege they finally succeeded in breaching the city walls and burned the Temple along with most of the city.
Today Al Aqsa – a mosque that includes the Dome of the Rock - exists on the site of the Temple.
Remembering the Temple
The destruction of the Temple was a tragic event in Jewish history that is remembered to this day during the holiday of Tisha B’Av. In addition to this fast day, Orthodox Jews pray three times a day for the restoration of the Temple.
- Telushkin, Joseph. “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History.“ William Morrow: New York, 1991.