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5766

Nikanor, His Doors, and the Sea Creature


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Revital Bat Lea


1. Nikanor as a Symbolic Figure
2. The Wash Basin and the "Water Below the Sky"
3. The Door Nikanor Threw into the Sea
4. "Briyat Yam" - The Sea Creature
5. Why Nikanor's Gate Was Coated with Bronze

In the Holy Temple, between the women's courtyard and the Israelites' courtyard, there was a gate called the Gate of Nikanor. The sages of the Mishnah relate, "Nikanor experienced miracles with his gates, and they were spoken of favorably," and the Talmud gives an account of these miracles (Yoma 38a):

"What miracles happened to his doors? It was reported that when Nikanor had gone to fetch doors from Alexandria of Egypt, on his return a gale arose in the sea to drown him. Thereupon they took one of his doors and cast it into the sea, and yet the sea would not stop its rage. When, thereupon, they prepared to cast the other into the sea, he rose and clung to it, saying: ‘Cast me in with it!’ The sea immediately stopped its raging. He was deeply grieved about the other [door].
"As he arrived at the harbor of Akko, it broke through and came up from under the sides of the boat. Others say: A sea creature swallowed it and spat it out on the dry land, and in this regard Solomon said: 'The beams of our houses are cedars, and our panels are berotim [cypresses].' Do not read 'berotim' but 'briyat yam [a sea creature].

"Therefore, all the gates in the Sanctuary were changed for golden ones with the exception of the Nikanor gates because of the miracles wrought with them. But some say: Because the bronze of which they were made had a golden hue. R. Eliezer ben Jacob said: It was Corinthian bronze, which shone like gold."

On the one hand, this story evokes a sense of esteem for the the valor and determination of Nikanor. On the other hand, it is puzzling. The weight of the doors nearly causes the boat and all of its passengers to sink, and the Sages teach us that when faced with a real threat a person should not rely upon miracles (Kidushin 39b). If so, why were they "spoken of favorably"?

In addition, how can King Solomon takes pride in the fact that part of his Temple was built with the help of a sea creature when it appears that the actual fulfillment of his words did not come about until later, by Nikanor, in the days of the Second Temple?

Finally, according to those who hold that the Gate of Nikanor was not replaced by a gold-plated gate because it was of a special, high quality bronze - not because of the miracle - why were the other gates in the Temple plated with gold? Why of all gates was Nikanor's allowed a special bronze coating?

Nikanor as a Symbolic Figure

These questions lead us to understand Nikanor as a figure who exists in every generation. He is mentioned in the context of the Second Temple, but he in fact exists in the days of King Solomon as well. He appears for the first time in the Tabernacle constructed by Moses. Yet, in this case, it is not Nikanor per-se, but Nikanor-like women that we are dealing with. The unique bronze of Nikanor's gate here appears as part of the commandment to build a wash basin for the Sanctuary (Exodus 38:8): "And he made the basin of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the assembling women, who assembled at the door of the tent of meeting."

The familiar Tent of Meeting had not yet been erected, and these women gathered near a different kind of meeting tent, regarding which it is written, "And Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far away from the camp, and called it the 'tent of meeting.' And it came to pass, that every one who sought the Lord went out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp" (ibid. 33:7).

These women came to despise their previous way of life and sought a spirituality which took the form of studying Torah from Moses. In an expression of disgust with their previous lives they threw away their bronze mirrors. Moses was commanded to gather these mirrors and to create from them the wash basin.

The women donated their jewelery to the Sanctuary, "bracelets, and earrings, and rings, and body ornaments, all jewels of gold" (ibid. 35:22), and the verse does not tell us what was done with them. So why here does Scripture go out of its way to tell us what happened with these "mirrors"?

The Wash Basin and the "Water Below the Sky"
On the second day of creation, God separated "between the water below the sky and the water above the sky" (Genesis 1:7). The events described in the act of creation are spiritual events, and the Sages teach us that the "upper waters" represent the Torah, while the "lower waters" represent concrete worldly matters.

The women who assembled at the door of the tent of meeting wanted to immerse themselves in the upper waters - in the Torah. Their discarding the "bronze mirrors" is an expression of disgust with the physical world, the "lower waters." God specified that Moses make the bronze water basin "from the mirrors of the assembling women" in order to grant added importance to that period and to the matters of the lower waters. The Nikanor Gate which stood between the women's courtyard and the Israelites' courtyard were plated with special bronze in order to recall Moses' act and to lend added importance to the lower waters.

The Door Nikanor Threw into the Sea
Nikanor's act of throwing the bronze door into the sea and its subsequent reemergence constitute a reflection of, and return to, the women's disgust of the bronze mirrors and the added importance given them by Moses. The sea represents materialism (see Ramak's "Pardes Rimonim" 23:10). The Sages of the Midrash tells us that Nikanor set sail in order to bring doors for the Temple, and what they wish to teach us is that Nikanor's life goal was to develop the Holy Temple. Developing the Temple symbolizes bringing the redemption to the world, when all of the nations will come to Jerusalem and "the Torah will go forth from Zion to the entire world."

Defining the Torah as "upper waters" implies that preference should be given to ushering in the redemption through the study of Torah and through other spiritual pursuits, not through engaging in worldly matters. Nikanor therefore sets to the sea, which symbolizes material, worldly matters, and the doors that are with him symbolize the years of his life. He plans to dedicate the years of his life to the construction of the Temple via the Torah.

But the sea begins to rage, and the "sailors" (who symbolize Nikanor's inner meditations) tell him that he cannot continue in his present state. If he throws one door into the sea he will save the second door, and he will reach the Holy Temple. In his present state, throwing one "door" into the "sea" is the path to bringing the redemption. Nikanor acquiesces and tosses a portion of his time (the first door) into the sea. In other words, he dedicates part of his time to worldly matters and part of his time to the study of Torah and spiritual pursuits.

However, material callings continue to rock Nikanor's "ship," and once again the sailors (his thoughts) accost him with the demand to toss the remaining door (his time) into the sea (material concerns). This door represents the portion of time he continues to dedicate to Torah and spiritual matters.

The sailors would like to see him reach the port bereft of both "doors," and this causes him great anguish. True, it will save his physical existence, and if he saves his physical self it is possible that the future will offer him new opportunities to bring doors to the Holy Temple, i.e., to engage in the spiritual aspects of life. If he insists on studying Torah in the portion of time which remains, the ship will sink, and with it both he and his door. To the contrary, the good of the Holy Temple calls for throwing out the remaining door.

Nikanor's battle over his remaining spiritual portion of time is his own personal battle. He is not commanded to dedicate this portion of time to Torah. Neither has he been promised an economic miracle like the one promised those who observe the Sabbatical rest-year. Yet Nikanor insists on continuing to wage this personal battle of his, and he does not give in to the "sailors." He does not toss overboard the remaining "door." At this point the unpromised miracle takes place and the storm abates.

"Briyat Yam" - The Sea Creature
However, now Nikanor is inwardly pained over the "first door." Maybe he should have insisted on keeping it aboard too, and perhaps had he done so the storm would have calmed as it did with the second door. At this stage in life he is already trapped in a situation which forces him to spend a sizable portion of his time dealing in worldly matters. Perhaps had he taken a stand earlier the storm would have calmed and he would have been able to study Torah and spiritual matters all his days.

Nikanor grieves at his present plight. In the time when he is forced to deal with worldly matters, he feels as if a portion of his inner being is trapped inside a "briyat yam" (sea creature), a kind of large fish which thrives in the "lower waters."

Yalkut Shimoni (Shir HaShirim 985) describes Nikanor's return to land thus: "When he reached the port, he began thinking ("natan daato"), [and the door] broke through and came up [out of the water]."

The port constitutes the point of exit from the sea, from the storms of life which want to swallow up Nikanor's time. And the words "natan daato," which mean a deep inner reflection on things, indicate the manner through which the door emerged.

Nikanor began reflecting his previous way of life, internalizing it and making peace with it. He understood that he had indeed labored over Torah and spiritual matters all the years of his life. Hidden away amidst the "lower waters" there is Torah, a precious sapphire stone from God's Throne of Glory, and this too constitutes a "door" to the Temple.

King Solomon himself discovered that in the Holy Temple there would be a portion built with the aid of a "briyat yam," sea creature, and Nikanor was fortunate that a significant amount of his time was trapped within this "briyat yam." Nikanor also brings to the Temple the door (the years of his life) which he built in the time when he would labor within this sea creature.

Why Nikanor's Gate Was Coated with Bronze
Now, having surveyed the question of Nikanor's gate, the different explanations for the coating of its doors in bronze are resolved. The Israelites' courtyard is on a parallel with the Tent of Meeting, and the women's courtyard parallels the place where the women gathered by the Tent of Meeting. The coating of the gates which separate the women's and the Israelites' courtyard with a special kind of bronze is intended to recall the women's repudiation of the bronze mirrors and the importance which Moses gave to these mirrors when he utilized them in making a special vessel.

The opinions brought at the end of our narrative which praise the beauty of this bronze and compare it to the beauty of gold are intended to show that involvement in mundane worldly activities with the correct intention is equivalent to being involved in spiritual pursuits. On the other hand, the story of Nikanor at sea is intended to bring to life the symbolism in this matter and to show that such a phenomenon exists in all generations.

In all generations there are men and women who want to dedicate themselves to the study of Torah, the upper waters, and they repudiate the material part of their life which is related to the "sea," the lower waters. But the wash basin in the Desert Generation, and the "Sea of Solomon" in the First Temple, and the Nikanor's bronze gate in the Second Temple were made precisely of bronze in order to underscore and give added importance to this area of life, to show that it too constitutes a door through which the redemption will arrive.

In his prophecies, Ezekiel describes how God's divine presence will return to the Holy Temple through the eastern gate. By means of the different situations in his life (the doors), Nikanor opens the gate through which the redemption will come, and together the two doors open the way - neither is lacking!

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Some of the translated biblical and Talmudic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).


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