The Women’s Court


The Lower Sanhedrin

The Lower Sanhedrin was a Rabbinical Court of 23 judges located at the entrance to the Women's Court, in the area surrounding the inner courts known as the Cheil. The members of the Sanhedrin would sit in a semi-circle so that all members could see each other. The head of the Sanhedrin sat in the middle. (Source: Sanhedrin 11:2).

The chamber of the Lower Sanhedrin shared the same level of sanctity as the Women's Court.

In the Temple Mount complex there was a system of three separate Sanhedrin courts: One Lower Sanhedrin, which was a court of 23 judges located at the entrance to the Temple Mount, next to the eastern Shushan Gate. An additional Lower Sanhedrin was situated at the entrance to the Women's Court. Superior to these lower courts was the Great Sanhedrin, which was situated in the Chamber of the Hewn-Stone in the northern part of the Court of the Kohanim.

When a halachic ruling was needed in one of the cities, the people of that city would first approach the city's local Rabbinical Court. If that court was unable to reach a Halachic ruling then the question was brought to the Lower Sanhedrin on the Temple Mount. If no ruling could be reached there either - then it was raised in the other Lower Sanhedrin at the entrance to the Women's Court. From there the question was brought before the Great Sanhedrin, "from there instruction was given for all of Israel". (Source: Sanhedrin 86).


The Four Golden Lamps

The four large golden lamps situated in the Women's Court provided illumination during the Simchat Beit Hashoeva celebrations which took place during the nights of Sukkot. The Gemara relates that the light that emanated from the lamps was so strong that a woman could sift wheat by their light. It further states that all the courtyards in Jerusalem were illuminated by their light. (Sources: Succa 5:2; Succa 53)

Each golden lamp was fifty cubits high, and at the top of each lamp were four cups. Each cup contained thirty "log" (one "log"= approx.1/4 liter). Linen wicks were placed in the cups. These wicks were made out of the worn-out belts and pants of the kohanim (Temple priests).

Every night during Chol Hamoed Sukkot, the Simchat Beit Shoeva celebration took place in the Women's Court with many people in attendance. During the festivities, four young kohanim-in-training would climb the ladders to each lamp and replace the oil and wicks.


The 15 Steps

The 15 Steps lead up from the Women's Court to the Nikanor Gate, and on through to the Court of Israel. These 15 steps correspond to the 15 chapters of the Songs of Ascent in the Book of Psalms, which were said by King David at the time he dug the foundations for the Mikdash.

These 15 steps were shaped as a semicircle. Each step was half a cubit in height.

These steps led up from the Women's Court to the Court (which was higher by 7.5 cubits).

When all of Israel visited the Temple on festivals, such as during the Simchat Beit HaShoeva (Joy of the Water Libation) ceremonies, the Levites stood upon these steps as they sang and played their musical instruments. The Mishna states (Sukkah 5:4): “Levites with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets and countless other musical instruments were there upon the 15 steps leading down from the Azara to the Court of the Women, corresponding to the 15 Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 121–135); they stood upon these steps with their instruments of music and sang their songs.”

Likewise, on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would stand atop the 15 steps separating between the Women’s Courtyard and the Israel Courtyard, the Nikanor open behind him, enabling the altar and its fire to be seen. The Torah reading ceremony began after the scapegoat has been brought to the desert. The Kohen Gadol – wearing his own linen garments, if he wished, or his white priestly vestments – would then go out to the Women’s Courtyard, where a large congregation had assembled for the occasion. The Mishna (Yoma 7:1) relates that the synagogue attendant would take a Torah Scroll and give it to the head of the synagogue, who gave it to the deputy, who gave it to the Kohen Gadol, who then stood and read aloud from Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16–18). The kohen concludes his reading with a special set of Yom Kippur blessings.

The Talmud states that many in the congregation would bring their own Torah scrolls from their homes so that they could read together with the Kohen Gadol “and to show the beauty of the Torah in public” (Yoma 70a).

The bottom left picture depicts the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. The top right picture depicts the kohanim carrying the vessel of water filled in the Shiloach spring, into the Holy Temple's inner courtyard. The bottom right picture depicts the nightly Simchat Beit Hashoeva festivity during Sukkot.


The Nikanor Gate

The Nikanor Gate, the eastern gate of the Court, served as entrance and exit from the Women's Court to the Court of Israel. It was named after the man who donated the brass doors of the gate, which he brought from Alexandria, Egypt.

The Gemara relates the story of Nikanor's journey with these doors from Alexandria to the land of Israel. A storm broke out which endangered the ship, and there was no choice but to cast away one of the doors. When the people on the ship saw that the storm was not subsiding, they decided to throw the second door off as well. When Nikanor saw this, he held onto the door and said: "I am not parting with this door. You will have to throw me off with it." The sea immediately became quiet. When the ship reached the port of Acre, they were amazed to see the first door floating miraculously alongside the ship. (Source: Yoma 18).

The dimensions of this gate were twenty cubits high by ten cubits wide - identical in size to the other gates of the Mikdash. The doors of the Nikanor Gate were made of copper with a golden tint. Even after the other doors of the Mikdash were overlaid in gold, the doors of the Nikanor Gate were left as they were originally built. Some opinions express that this was because the copper was as beautiful as gold, and others say it was due to the miracle that happened regarding these doors. (Source: Yoma 3-10).

The gate's level of sanctity is identical to that of the Women's Court. Although the Nikanor Gate is the eastern gate of the inner Court and it would seem appropriate that its level be that of the Court, this is not the case. This gate was not sanctified with greater holiness, in order to enable lepers to stand in the gateway and be anointed with the blood and oil of their offerings. (Source: Pesachim 85).

The Nikanor Gate served as entrance and exit. People would also enter through the two small doorways on either side of it. Lepers would stand at the Nikanor gateway to be anointed with the blood and oil from their offerings on the day of their purification. A Sota - a suspected adulterous - was administered the Biblically - prescribed formula (Numbers: 5: 11 - 31) to drink here as well. Sources: (Midot: 2:6, Pesachim 85, Sota 1:5).


Chambers in the Wall of the Women's Court

At the western wall of the Women's Court there were three chambers: The Chamber of the Musical Instruments, The Chamber of Pinchas the Outfitter and the Chamber of the Griddle-Cake Makers.

There were two entrances to the Chamber of the Musical Instruments, one on either side of the fifteen steps leading up from the Women's Court to the Court of Israel. The open space of the chamber was created beneath the Court. Its ceiling was 7.5 cubits high. The Chambers of Pinchas the Outfitter and the Griddle-Cake Makers were situated on either side of the Nikanor Gate. Pinchas the Outfitter to the right - north of the gate and the Griddle-Cake Makers to the left - south of the gate. These chambers were constructed in the width of the wall that separated the Court of Israel from The Women's Court.

The Chamber of Musical Instruments had the level of sanctity of the Women's Court. In contrast, the sanctity of the other chambers - that of Pinchas the Outfitter and the Griddle-Cake makers - was on the level of the Court of Israel (inner court), because their entrances faced the Court.

In the Chamber of the Musical Instruments, the Levites stored their various instruments. The Chamber of Pinchas the Outfitter, served as storage place for the priestly garments (In addition, it was used by the person in charge of the garments). In the Chamber of the Griddle-Cake Makers, the griddle cake meal offerings were prepared on behalf of the Kohen Gadol each day.