The Division of Priestly Labor: 24 Shifts
The cohanim who were responsible for the daily service in the Holy Temple were divided into 24 separate shifts. These groups were made up of men who hailed from all parts of the land; the duration of each shift's duties was for 1 week. During that week, each respective shift would be entirely responsible to carry out all of the daily functions in the Temple. Thus, the priests took turns throughout the year in a manner that can be compared to military reserve duty - one would come to Jerusalem for his obligatory period of service in the Temple
Divisions of Family Groups
Each of these 24 groups was further divided into 6 clans, or family branches. Every day of the week was presided over by one family group, and on the Sabbath the week's entire priestly shift worked together.
Those who were entrusted with the service in the Holy Temple attended to their duties with great joy and enthusiasm. Being a descendant of Aaron was indeed a great merit and honor, and they understood full well the importance of their work for all of Israel.
The priests were exceedingly zealous in their missions, and all wanted the opportunity to conduct the Divine services. There were only a specific number of daily tasks, however, and it was impossible for everyone to attend to these at once. In order to give each priest of the shift an equal opportunity to officiate in these holy vocations, a system was devised whereby all those who desired to serve would receive a fair chance to qualify.
The Daily Lotteries
The assignment of which priests may have the privilege and honor of carrying out the important Temple services was designated by special lotteries which was held each day in the Temple. All the priests of the family clan whose were serving that day would participate in this drawing, which was conducted by an official who was entrusted with this role.
Lotteries Were Conducted Four Times Daily
Each day, four separate drawings were held. Responsibility for the most important Temple services was designated at these gatherings, and while all the tasks could have been determined at one drawing, it was preferred to reassemble all the priests four times for separate drawings. Thus the courtyard was filled with the priests a number of times throughout the day, and this is considered a greater honor for the Master who dwells in that house... in keeping with the verse (Psalms 55:15), "... and we walked to the House of G-d in company."
We will illustrate the manner in which this was done, as we describe the first lottery of the day.
Beginning the Day with Ritual Purification
All of the priests who were eligible and desirous of performing the first service would rise up early and purify themselves by immersing in the water of a mikvah, a special pool of naturally-collected water (such as natural spring water, or rainwater) containing the amount of 40 se'ah (app. 340 liters). This immersion was necessary for everyone, even for a priest who was certain that he had not become defiled. On account of the great sanctity of the Temple, "no man may enter into the Temple court to serve there (or for any other purpose) - even if he is already pure - until he purifies himself again by immersing" (Yoma 3,3).
After having purified themselves in this manner, the priests would return to their quarters and await the arrival of the lottery supervisor. The exact time he would come to the Temple varied; thus those who wanted to participate in the first lottery had to make sure and rise early to purify themselves so they would be ready. He generally came before dawn, when an announcement rang out through the Holy Temple each morning: "Priests, arise and begin your duties! Levites, to your platform! Israelites, man your stations!"
This announcement was the job of one named G'vinay, who faithfully cried out the arrival of each new morning during the era of the Second Temple. Hearing his voice, all would rise and begin their sacred tasks. The Jerusalem Talmud comments that "King Aggripa could hear his voice even up to 8 parasangs away, and he rewarded him with many gifts," (JT Shekalim 5,1).
The Overseer's Greeting
The lottery overseer arrives and announces himself by knocking on the door of the priests' chamber, the Place of the Fire, and when they open the door to greet him he bids them: "Whoever has immersed himself, let him come to draw lots!" to determine who will merit the first service of the day.
The priests make their way to the Chamber of Hewn Stone, where the lotteries took place. This was the same compartment which housed the Great Sanhedrin. Part of this chamber extended into the holy area, and part remained without. The law required that the lottery be held within the holy area, and it was in this part that it took place.
The First Lottery is Conducted
There, they stand in a wide circle, while the overseer stands in the middle. The drawing only took place in a circle, as opposed to the participants standing in straight lines or in some other fashion, lest one suspect that perhaps the official who chose the number should try in advance to quickly decide who the number should end with, so that he could favor a relative or loved one. The hat of one of those in the ranks is removed, in order to mark the starting point of the lottery. (This is another reason why the lottery was held indoors, in the chamber - since it was considered a mark of disrespect to stand in the Temple court without a hat).
A number would be picked and agreed upon, substantially higher than the number of men present. The overseer would then declare that each man present raise a finger. Then, they would count each extended finger (since the Bible forbids the counting of actual people... see Ex. 30:12; for this reason the census was conducted by the half-shekel donation), beginning with he who stands hatless and moving throughout the circle over and over again until reaching the number that had been pre-selected. The priest whom the chosen number falls upon, is he who has won the right to perform the task (some commentators even maintain that the official who chose the number and the one who removed the hat were two separate people, so that there could be absolutely no room for conniving or favoritism; i.e., no foreknowledge of where the number would land).
The Dawn Patrol
After the first lottery was concluded and a winner had been determined, the overseer unlocked the gate to the Temple court with the key he had been given by the priestly family elders. Within the gate of the Chamber of Fire, there was a smaller gate that opened into the court. He opened this smaller entrance, and went through it, out from the Place of the Fire and into the court, with all the priests following him.
The entire party enters into the court. All around the periphery of the court, there is a covered hall of columns. The priests, having exited their own chamber situated on the north side, now split into two separate columns of men. This is the dawn patrol, whose purpose is to check and see that everything in the Temple is in order; that nothing was disturbed during the night and all of the 93 sacred vessels which will be needed to perform the Divine service are accessible and in their proper place.
Each column of the priestly patrol is led by a torchbearer (for the sun has not yet risen and it is still difficult to see. On Sabbath nights, they did not carry torches; candles were burning there from before the onset of the Sabbath, to illuminate the path for them - Maimonides). One group went east, and transversed the north and east sections of the balustrade; the second group walked westward, crossing a small portion of the northern side, plus the entire western and southern sides, and a little of the east.
The two rows of priests continued their patrol until they met up with each other at the Chamber of the Meal-Offering Preparation, where the High Priest's daily meal offerings were kneaded and baked. This chamber was in the eastern sector of the court, south of the Nikanor Gates. That group which walked eastward arrived at this chamber first, and they waited there for the arrival of the second patrol (arriving from the west) whose path was longer.
"Peace! All is Peaceful!"
Reunited at this chamber, the two columns greeted each other with the words "Peace! All is peaceful!" This was the signal that all is well and nothing had been found amiss.
Before exiting the Chamber of the Meal-Offering Preparation, the priests left several of their number there to begin readying the High Priest's meal offering.
The First Lottery - Removing the Ashes at Dawn
The first lottery each day determined which priest will carry out the very first daily task in the Holy Temple service - the removal of ashes from upon the altar.