Jerusalem 3000
Lecture 7 - The Destruction of the Second Temple

By: Alick Isaacs

We considered last time the period of instability which Jerusalem suffered in the wake of King Herod's death. Lack of political stability lead to a passionate internal conflict in which Jewish society in Jerusalem was bitterly divided over Jewish law, ritual, and politics. Naturally, the Temple played a significant role in the struggle. It was the symbol of God's presence amongst the Jewish people and so a monopoly on the Temple was tantamount to a monopoly on the word of God. The tension between the factions reached a peak in the period after the death of Herod in 4 CE. Eventually, in 66 CE the passion and the tension exploded into an all out rebellion against Rome. The Great Revolt which lasted from 66 73 CE had disastrous consequences. It brought about the destruction of the Second Temple in the month of Av 70 CE and the total destruction of the upper city of Jerusalem which burned for over a month. Thousands of Jews were killed in the Revolt and thousands more were taken into Roman captivity. After the destruction of the city the Zealots continued their struggle against Rome from fortresses all around the country. Yodphath, Gamla and Masada all fell one after the other to the Roman legions. From each one came more and more fantastic and dramatic stories of the martyrdom, heroism and self sacrifice of the proud Jewish warriors.

1. The Impact of the Destruction
Along with the destruction of the Temple the entire city of Jerusalem was left in ruins. The city was overrun and converted into a garrison town for the Tenth legion which was stationed there. A Roman "Cardo" was built dividing the city into four quarters. This was a busy market road which ran through the "heart" of every Roman city, and was thus called "cardo" meaning heart. The pile of rubble which stood on the Temple mount was pushed aside and in its place a temple to the goddess Aphrodite was built. The glorious city of Herod was all but completely destroyed. Only the three towers which Herod built around his Royal palace were left standing as a scornful testimony to the greatness of the city that they once protected. They were again used for the defences of the city by the Romans who no doubt appreciated their strategic significance. The vessels of the Temple were carried away in triumph to Rome where an arch, "Titus's Arch", was erected to celebrate the victory. The arch portrays the scenes of conquest showing Roman soldiers carrying the famous Menorah and other Temple vessels from Jerusalem to Rome.

The destruction of Jerusalem had a profound impact on the Jewish people and brought about a dramatic change in Judaism itself. The people were once again separated from their contact with God. But this time there were no prophets to comfort and reassure them of their future reinstatement in the holy city. After The destruction of the Temple shock, bitterness and pessimism pervaded the Jewish world. The sense of finality and irreversibility which this exile left on the Jewish people is reflected in the subsequent association made between the anticipation of the rebuilding of the Temple and the apocalyptic vision of the end of days. The dream of being reinstated in Jerusalem was now pushed off into the distant future and into an era where the natural world will cease to exist as we know it. The power of Edom (Rome) seemed invincible. The city was now irreversibly taken from Jewish hands.

2. Memory of the Temple as a Key to Survival
The Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots soon paled away. There was nothing left to fight for, no one left to fight with. The Temple ritual was the exclusive focus of their concept of Judaism. Without the Temple more than half of the laws of Judaism were no longer applicable. For them the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Judaism.

Of all the sects only two, the Pharisees and the Christians, managed to survive. Of course they are very different since the Christians broke away from Judaism and established a new faith. However, in my opinion each of these two sects survived for the same reason. Despite the radical differences between the two, they both managed to incorporate the memory of the Temple as an integral part of religious life even after its physical destruction. Let us consider first the survival of the Pharisees:

3. Yohanan Ben Zakkai
The survival of Pharisaic or Rabbinic Judaism is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the founder of the Yeshiva in Yavne. Though his message was perhaps an unpopular one in his time, it was his approach which ensured the continued survival of the Jewish faith after the destruction of the Temple and which provided the foundations for Rabbinic Judaism which still thrives today. The Talmud tells the following story about Yohanan Ben Zakkai:

    "Abba Sikra, the head of the bandits of Jerusalem, was the son of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai's sister. Rabban Yohanan said to him saying, "Come to me secretly". He came. Rabban Yohanan asked him, "How long are you going to carry on this way and kill all the people with starvation?" He said to him "What can I do? If I say a word to them they will kill me." Rabban Yohanan said to him, "Devise some plan for me to get out of the city for perhaps I can save a little." He said to him, "Pretend to be ill and let everyone come to inquire about you, and let them say that you are dead...Then let your disciples attend on you, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse.

    Rabban Yohanan did all this...When they reached the gate the [Jewish] bandits wanted to stab him [to ensure that he was dead]. Abba Sikra said to them "Shall the Romans say they have stabbed their master." They opened the gate.

    When Rabbi Yohanan came to Vespasian he said, "Peace to you O king." Vespasian said to him, "you have been condemned to death on two counts, firstly because I am not a king...and secondly if I am a king why did you not come to me until now?" Rabbi Yohanan said to him, "In truth you are a king for Jerusalem can only be destroyed by a king....

    At this point the messenger arrived saying, "Arise for the emperor is dead and the notables of Rome have decided to make you head of the state." Vespasian was overjoyed and he said to Rabban Yohanan...You may make a request of me and I will grant it." Rabban Yohanan said give me Yavne and its wise men...He ought to have said to him, "Let Jerusalem alone." But Rabban Yohanan though that Vespasian would not grant so much.." [Talmud Gittin 56a b].

This famous story has frequently been erroneously taken for a word for word historical account of the events which lead to the establishment of the Yeshiva in Yavne. I prefer to treat this account as having symbolic historical meaning. Through the symbols in the story, in my opinion an accurate image of the "history" concealed in the story may be constructed. The characters and the events portrayed in the story are symbolic of the events which lead to the abandonment of Jerusalem and the establishment of Yavne.

It is clear that Rabbi Yohanan who is the hero of the story is responsible for establishing the yeshiva at Yavne. Through the encounter with Vespasian the texts suggests that he was endowed with the qualities and powers of a prophet. In other words his message, "rebuild Jewish life outside Jerusalem" becomes parallel to the message of the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This justification is essential as the story makes it clear that Yohanan faced bitter opposition in his own time by those bandits who were prepared even to defile his coffin in order to prevent his leaving the city alive. These are the Zealots who preferred dying in conflict to surrendering Jerusalem voluntarily to the Romans. Yohanan realises that Jerusalem may not be held against the Romans and the only way out of the city is in a coffin! This incident is symbolic of his coming to terms with the inevitability of the destruction. Those who insist on dying in a hopeless battle over the city are portrayed as fanatical bandits. They in fact simply have nothing to live for as Jews without Jerusalem. Yohanan's prophecy that Jerusalem may only be conquered by a king indicates that he has reconciled himself with the idea that it is God's will that the city should be destroyed. In this situation it was inconceivable that the city would not be destroyed and so the simple justification at the end of the story states the implausibility of such a request. In its place Yohanan asks for "Yavne and its wise men".

The essence of the Pharasaic philosophy in the period after the destruction is condensed into this story. First, the Pharisaic Rabbi is elevated to the status of a prophet. And second the Rabbi is able to reconcile himself with Roman rule because of his conviction that life even without the Temple is preferable to death. In other words there is Judaism without the Temple. But, at the same time the Rabbis of Yavne insisted that Judaism was very altered by the destruction. The message of the generation of Yavne was that Jewish ritual, study and prayer must now become vehicles for keeping the memory of the Temple alive. The Temple and Jerusalem remain the focus of Jewish life even while they are not accessible.

Much of today's Judaism is based on this principle. For example, the Rabbis of Yavne ruled that the daily prayers which were recited informally and sometimes spontaneously while the Temple stood ought now to be regulated. The prayers were now considered "Temple ritual performed in the heart" (Avodah she ba Lev). Prayers which were generally recited thrice daily were to be named after the daily sacrifices in the Temple and the times allotted to them were to correspond to the times allotted to the sacrifices. In other words the formalistic laws associated with the Temple ritual were not to be forgotten or passed aside, but were to be preserved through their superimposition onto other and still existing realms of Jewish ritual.

The study of the Biblical injunctions concerning sacrifices was to continue even though these laws were no longer of practical consequence. Studying them meant fending off the threat of ignorance on the day when the laws would be reinstated and preserving the symbolic practice of the sacrifices through symbolic study. This study was soon incorporated into the festival prayer ritual which to this day contains references to the sacrifices which would have been offered on this day were it not for our sins which lead to the destruction of the Temple.

Similarly, mourning for the destroyed Temple now became an important motif in Rabbinic Judaism. Many Jews "over mourned" the destruction entering upon a life of asceticism and self denial. In a desperate attempt to exclude from their lives all worldly pleasures which would remind them of the Temple they refrained from eating meat and drinking wine. The Rabbis of Yavne insisted that life must go on even without the Temple. But this did not mean that life was to continue unaffected. They steered away from extreme reactions but they also avoided callousness. The Rabbis suggested facing Jerusalem in prayer as a reminder of the destroyed Temple. Mourning the destruction was ritualised by altering the practice of existing rituals e.g. breaking a glass after the wedding ceremony. This practice implies that, even at the happiest moment of a man's life he is commanded to remember the destruction.

4. The Survival of Christianity
In the early period after the destruction, the Judeo Christians were a small and persecuted Jewish sect. Like the Pharisees, they adopted the policy of preserving the memory of the Temple ritual as a central motif in their religious practice. This was, in my opinion, the key to their survival. The physical Temple of Jerusalem was replaced by early Christians with the spiritual Temple of the "Upper" or spiritual Jerusalem. This Temple remained a place of sacrifice, but a sacrifice which was offered in the heart. The ultimate sacrifice which atoned for all sin was the sacrifice which Christ made on the cross. The Cross became the new alter and Jesus was the last physical sacrifice. The faithful Christian shares in Christ's suffering on the cross and partakes of the festive sacrificial meal which consists of his blood and flesh. This inner spiritual act of faith has the power to atone for sin.

Of course, the history of this sect as one of the Jewish factions to survive the destruction is a short one. Christianity soon took its leave of Judaism and became a separate faith. Its recognition as the official religion of the Byzantines in the fourth century was a product of extensive missionary activity amongst the Pagans of the Roman Empire. This marks the self conscious departure of the Judeo Christians from the Jewish world.

5. The Bar Kochba Revolt
Yohanan Ben Zakkai's reconciliation with Roman Rule was not easily borne by all his followers. The concept of preserving the memory of the Temple as a motif in Jewish life was seen by many as giving up. Approximately 70 years after the Roman Conquest of Jerusalem Jews began to anticipate the Messianic redemption. They believed that the master of history who rebuilt the second Temple 70 years after the destruction of the the first would now build the third.

The optimistic spirit of hopeful anticipation which was typical of this period is expressed most effectively by the leading Pharisee of the time Rabbi Akiva. This is the Rabbi Akiva who laughed at the sight of the destroyed city, seeing in the fulfillment of the prophecy that the city would one day be destroyed an assurance of the prophecy that it would one day be rebuilt. He was the outstanding scholar of his generation and he gave his many followers hope that the promised redemption was imminent. Rabbi Akiva hailed the charismatic military leader Simon Bar Koziva Messiah. He changed his name to Bar Kochba, meaning,"son of the star" and appointed him leader of the Revolt which was to overthrow Rome, reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem and culminate in the rebuilding of the Temple.

The Revolt, which lasted from 132 135 CE won mass support among the Jews. They fled to the caves of Judea and to the hills of the Galilee filled with enthusiasm and messianic fervour. There they planned and for a while successfully executed the terrorisation of the Roman legions stationed in Judea. Triumphantly, they made coins bearing on one side the calendar dates of their "new kingdom": 132 CE = '1' 133 = '2' and so on. On the other side they stamped pictures of the Temple in Jerusalem and of Bar Kochba's profile. They fought with fury, using the underground mazes of the caves of Judea to their strategic advantage. Roman sources describe Bar Kochba's warriors as men who disappeared into thin air when they sought to give chase.

The early successes of the revolt not only augmented its popularity but they also provoked a more fierce Roman counter attack. Roman reinforcements which were brought in to crush the Revolt killed over 600,000 men women and children. Warriors died of starvation besieged and stranded in their underground hiding places. Rabbi Akiva himself was publicly tortured to death by the Emperor Hadrian. The "Jewish" name of the city of Jerusalem was replaced by the Latin "Aelia Capitolina" and the Jewish people along with their hopes of rebuilding the city were once again left in ruins.



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23 Aug 2005 / 18 Av 5765 0